Five Questions for: Erika Hennebury

Rhubarb Festival opens this weekend in Toronto, presented by Buddies in Bad Times – Toronto’s oldest queer theater. I did a quick 5-questions with Rhubarb’s delicious Festival Director Erika Hennebury.

JH: Rhubarb is turning 30 this year. All the thirty-year-olds I know are pissed at baby-boomers and terrified by millenials. How does Rhubarb festival locate itself between these generations?

EH: Rhubarb is in bed with both generations, as I see it. As a child of baby-boomers, Rhubarb has that whole Oedipus thing going on. I think sex and destruction best define the aesthetic of the festival. We want to destroy our parents’ generation and all its complacency but we still have a big thing for Mommy (in this case, Sky Gilbert). As for me – I am Gen Xer and so, unlike the millenials (as cute as they are), my love of flannel plaid shirts is in no way retro-ironic and I can’t type worth shit.

JH: Why is it called the Rhubarb festival?

EH: According to Franco Boni’s book Rhubarb-o-rama, the name can be derived from Sky Gilbert, Jerry Ciccoritti, Matt Walsh, Fabian Boutillier and some other co-founding artists. They were sitting around trying to come up with a name for the festival. Sky suggested New Faces of ’79, which was pretty much instantly shot down. They were all really into surrealism at the time so they started naming random fruits and vegetables and Rhubarb seemed to stick. The festival was then named Rhubarb! Rhubarb!, later shortened to Rhubarb!. A few years ago we decided to nix the exclamation mark and here we are. Rhubarb. It’s like how in big crowd scenes in the movies they instruct the extras to just keep saying ‘rhubarb’ over and over again if they can’t think of anything else to say. So you have this underpaid crowd of random people, who aren’t good looking enough to be movie stars, saying ‘rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb’ over and over again as background for the ‘beautiful people’. What a totally surreal and horrifying metaphor for real life. But to me, those extras seem much more interesting to me than Brangelina, you know? I suppose that is my interpretation

JH: Your festival has some fab national and international programming. Who should we be watching in 2009 from Toronto?

EH: This year we are presenting a few touring pieces I am very excited about. Taylor Mac is here from New York for 4 nights only on his way across Canada. As a company that aims to present contemporary queer work that is pro-sexual, political and challenging, I can’t think of a better fit than Taylor. We are also extremely lucky to have Ame Henderson’s company, Public Recordings, showing /Dance/Songs/ for all of Week Three of Rhubarb, plus a special one night presentation of Matija Ferlin’s Sad Sam (revisited), which is one of my favourite pieces I’ve seen in the past year. I’m also excited about Amos Latteier’s new lecture performance A History of the Cage and Sweet Ecstasy, by Don Simmons who usually works in performance art. They are both artists to watch who are working in new hybrids of performance theatre and public lecture.

JH: Buddies in Bad Times has been producing queer work for 30 years. Do you see this role shifting away from topics based in identity-politics?

EH: Buddies redefinition of ‘queer’ was expanded in our revised mandate to include both ‘LGBT’ and ‘outside the mainstream’. So, on the one hand, yes, we are moving away from producing topical text-based narrative plays about the lives of LGBT people. On the other hand I feel that queers will never get away from identity-politics in performance. Transgression, performance and identity are a part of our every day lives. The solo literary tradition of playwriting is a marginal aspect of queer performance-making. Because playwriting is perceived as a more ‘legitimate’ and because it is currently a more rewarded artistic pursuit it can result in a system which alienates queer identities, censors sexuality and imposes a binary interpretation of gender. Queers often perform in bars, in galleries, in basements, in cabarets and in public spaces. It’s crucial that Buddies continues to defend a space where these artists are encouraged and granted access to the means of artistic production and development.

JH: Do you have any delicious rhubarb recipes you’d like to share?

EH: My mom used to grow it in the backyard. The best is when you dip the raw stalk in sugar. A little sweet, a little tart and right out of the ground with the dirt still on it, eh?

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