The Magnetic North Theatre Festival announced the cancellation of its 2017 season last week, blaming the dissolution of the festival on financial reasons. The festival was scheduled to take place in Ottawa this year, June 16- 24.
A press release from Mike Hawkes, the Chair of the Canadian Theatre Festival Society, stated that, “While the accumulated deficit has been reduced by half over the past five years, the magnitude of the financial challenges and the continued pressure of an accumulated deficit make the festival untenable.”
Magnetic North billed itself as “Canada’s only national theatre festival,” according to its website. The event was unique in that it traveled on a rotating basis, performing in Ottawa one year and then in a different Canadian city the next, creating connections between the disparate Canadian theatre scenes and bringing both national and international performances to new audiences. The festival began in 2003, traveling to Edmonton in 2004, St. Johns in 2006, Vancouver in 2008, Kitchener in 2010, Calgary in 2012 and Halifax in 2014. Last year’s event – which would turn out to be the festival’s final tour – took Magnetic North to Whitehorse, Yukon.
“The amazing thing was that Magnetic North came to the North – that was a fabulous thing. It gave Yukon artists a unique opportunity to be seen nationally and internationally,” said Al Cushing, Chief Executive Officer for the Yukon Arts Centre.
“A lot of people got exposure they wouldn’t have had otherwise…to (markets) and people they wouldn’t have met otherwise from national and international stages. The opportunity to get your play out there, that’s a hole Magnetic North will be leaving in the Northern arts community.”
“The loss of the Magnetic North Festival is devastating to the Canadian theatre community…It was the only festival dedicated specifically to the idea of touring theatre. It looked for programming that was tour ready,” Cushing said. “All of the organizations and government organizations did their damnedest to try to help it survive, but it just reached a point to which it was impossible. I would go further to say that those dollars were never wasted, as the festival did tremendous work in the Canadian theatre scene.”
Yukoner Selene Vakharia worked with the Magnetic North Theatre Festival last year as their Marketing and Communications Manager in Whitehorse, and says the experience was not only positive, but productive and important for the local theatre community.
“Everyone I worked with was very dedicated to the festival and to the artistic community. They really believed in supporting the community. There was a lot of belief in your expertise and your abilities and they allowed you to be creative. One of the events I did to promote the festival was a scavenger hunt in downtown Whitehorse…That was one one of the funnest things I’ve ever been paid to do,” Vakharia said.
The festival shone a light on theatre companies, both locally and nationally, especially small companies that wouldn’t have normally been in the national spotlight, she said.
“A lot of people got exposure they wouldn’t have had otherwise…to (markets) and people they wouldn’t have met otherwise from national and international stages. The opportunity to get your play out there, that’s a hole Magnetic North will be leaving in the Northern arts community,” she says.
Vakharia added that the loss is not just to theatre companies themselves, but to audiences.
“It allowed people to see these plays…It was amazing to see people at the (local) cafe watching plays and see that space full of professional artists from all across the country,” she said.
Alex McLean of Halifax-based Zuppa Theatre Co – who brought their show, Pop-Up Love to the Magnetic North Festival in Whitehorse last year – said that the real loss is for younger and less established companies that won’t get a chance to be part of the festival.
“I think Magnetic North was the first place Zuppa Theatre could showcase its work to a broader audience…It really helped us over the last decade to show our work both nationally and internationally. It’s a big loss for younger companies… and it was a great way to bring attention to English theatre across Canada,” he said.
The real strength of Magnetic North, McLean said, was building connections between Canada’s broad theatre communities.
“It seems to me that we are in a unique position in Canada because we are so large and our scenes so diverse and spread out. Magnetic North was a way to respond to that and increase the depth of conversation in the theatre community across the country. This was especially important for communities such as Halifax, which feel more separated from the rest of the country. Places develop their own theatre language, their own bubble, and Magnetic North countered that,” McLean says.
Magnetic North’s accumulated deficit was reduced to $224,000 through surpluses over the majority of past years, but a forecasted cash deficit of $150,000 for the 2017 season would have required them to make $250,000 to not only break even but provide continuity for next year’s festival. The annual budget for the festival was around $1 million.
The lineup had already been decided for this year’s festival in Ottawa before the announcement of the festival’s termination. The National Arts Centre has picked up most of the programming Magnetic North dropped, Cushing said, but with the demise of the festival, there is really nothing to replace it at this time.
“People came from around the world to see what we (Canadians) were doing and sometimes bought what we were doing for the international market…Hopefully within the next couple years, something will replace it, but I have no idea what that will be; that will be for the future,” Cushing said. “Things change, something may come along to replace it, but it won’t be Magnetic North, not as we have seen it incarnated.”
Photo: Yellowknife-based actor Tiffany Ayalik performs in Café Daughter. The play will take the stage at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa June 16-18, 2017 despite the cancellation of Magnetic North. Credit: Ed Ellis/Courtesy of Magnetic North Theatre Festival.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated that Whitehorse-based Ramshackle Theatre had been signed for Magnetic North 2017, which was incorrect. NPA apologizes for the error.