Nextfest – 20 years in the Making: An Interview with Ellen Chorley | By Yuetong Li

Summer has knocked on our doors.  It’s the best time of the year in Edmonton and my journey in the city’s festival extravaganza has taken action. I still remember that one cold winter morning, a news article sweeping the press: “Roxy Theatre gutted by ‘tough old fire.'” What was left was only the grasp of walls and ashes. I myself had never been physically present at the theatre; nevertheless, I mourned the city’s loss. Where would Nextfest go? It emerged from the Roxy Theatre 20 years ago.

Nextfest is still alive today, all around the city. Dancefest moved to Campus St. Jean; the high school program remains in its traditional venue in Mercury Theatre; the film series is in the EPL Makerspace; and other venues include 124th Street, Westmount Mall and more. It was a great move to incorporate the whole city this year. I got to explore Edmonton more than usual and converse with many people, artists, and staff. For me, it was a pity that I couldn’t catch all of the shows and projects since there were way too many (trust me, I tried).

The high school program, NEXTNextfest, was one of my favourite projects throughout the Nextfest experience. Seeing a younger generation do great things while doing what they love is always a pleasure, and learning from youngsters makes me reflect and motivate myself. NEXTNextfest is a platform for students in Edmonton to showcase their vision. Under the direction of local professionals, they transform their scenes onto the Mercury Theatre stage. To learn more behind the scenes, I sat down with NEXTNextfest Curator, Ellen Chorley, to have a conversation about these magnificent students and the program as a whole.

Back in high school, I was more of a bookworm, burying my head into books and nothing else. I’ve always felt there must have been some experiences I missed during my teenage years: playing music in Dad’s garage, travelling in the summer or after graduation, dance, theatre – all of those. But that was a few years ago. The world always changes quickly, faster than we realize. “It’s definitely different to be a high school student today than it was before,” reflects Ms. Chorley. “There’s more social media, more technology and kids are more exposed to information now than before. Everything is at a higher speed and it’s an interesting time to be a student. High school days are in a person’s late teens; it’s a time about forming value of the world, of other people and of oneself. It’s definitely a good time to explore and experiment in your life. I started my first theatre play when I was 16, still in high school, and now I’m 30, directing our next generation. It’s a subtle feeling to me; it’s like a circle fulfilled now.”

ELEVATE

I was sitting in the dark as part of the audience prepared to see the play Out of the Shadows. The student artists ran into us and sat down by our side, still in their roles, spitting out the lines. In that moment, they broke the fourth wall. They were sharing stories of people with mental disorders, how they feel, what they must put up with. The names of psychiatric drugs were read in the background, and plastic cards used to convey mental health related stories while words were being projected onto the wall. This story is strong and thrilling; the maturity displayed is beyond my expectation. “Abby Shushnoff, who wrote and directed the play, put so much effort into this piece,” says Ms. Chorley. “She went to interview a lot of people who identify themselves as suffering from mental conditions and wrote their stories into the script. Their movement into the audience is unexpected.”

The play The Jar is also a pleasure to watch. I assume the name, The Jar, must mean something. I think of the heroine’s life as a pressure jar; she adds broken bits of pressure factors to this jar and the pressure keeps going up. “Ah, The Jar. It’s actually inspired by Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar,” explains Ms. Chorley. “The main idea is if we look through a glass jar, the reality you see in your eyes will get twisted. The play personalizes Olivia’s mental stress and names her Sky. Sky works against reality and makes Olivia look at everything negatively, even if it is actually something good happening.  Taylor Paskar, the writer and director, did a lot of work too. She started this project over a year ago and read through The Bell Jar. For me, The Jar is a story presenting to us and Out of the Shadows is a personal experience, leading us into it.”

This makes me wonder: what factors matter to our society? The future is surely one of them. We invest into the next generation, educate our teenagers, teach kids to read and also protect them, wishing for the best to happen. And then we give them opportunities to express themselves. Age is nothing but a number when you have great things in mind. Sometimes we forget how thoughtful and talented our younger generation is. “Working with kids has always been my passion,” says Ms. Chorley. “We give them a lot of direction with their ideas and it is a huge investment. Nextfest gave me the platform in high school and now I can pass it on.”

It wasn’t just this one program – Nextfest gave me one of the best experiences of this summer so far. I’ve seen dancers express different feelings on stage, telling stories with body language. I’ve seen improv comedy and clown cabaret cracking up the crowd. Twenty years have passed and their game is still so strong, bringing all of our city together to share love for the future and artistry. That one old fire can’t beat these passionate artists down, thanks to continued support from Edmontonians. This gives me genuine joy.

 

Photography courtesy of Nextfest Festival.

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