SkirtsAfire festival lights up Whyte Ave's arts district
By Cory Schachtel | March 2, 2023
When Annette Loiselle co-founded the SkirtsAfire Festival in 2012, it was to help close the gender gap between theatre performers and the audience that paid to see them. “When I started looking at the statistics, they were brutal. The best statistics said there was less than 35 per cent representation of women working in theatre, in spite of the fact that our audiences are made up of 60 per cent women. At that point in my career, I was like, we have to do something about this.”
Today, Loiselle and her team have done plenty, turning the original four-day fest on Alberta Ave into a 10-day event in venues all around Whyte Avenue, featuring over 130 performers, visual artists, singer-songwriters, poets and comedians.
It all starts the way it’s always started, with the A-Line Variety Show that gives audiences a taste of what’s to come. “It’s really an explosive kickoff to the festival. It’s all five-minute performances from a bunch of different artists all in one night, and it gives you a real feel for the festival because you see little snippets of shows that you can see later in the week,” Loiselle says.
This year’s mainstage play is The Space Between Stars by Christine Lesiak, who wrote and performs in it as well. It’s an “uncommon, adult-oriented adaptation of The Little Prince that was first workshopped in 2018 in the festival’s play development program which, like the festival itself, “aims to get more women’s work on our stages.”
The play tells the story of an astronomer who’s giving a lecture on the sky and the stars, “and during the lecture, this precocious little boy keeps bugging her, and she eventually has to address him. We see a woman, a mother, a scientist, who’s not a religious person, but has found a way to connect to the universe and the stars. It has so many layers of truths and philosophies around life and death and living in the moment. It’s very hopeful, and funny and charming.”
From there, the festival takes off with late night comedy and music shows, including Nikâwiy, curated by Cindy Paul, a singer-songwriter and visual atist who works with Indigenous communities and youth empowerment. “The title means ‘my mother’ in Cree, and it’s this idea of not just my own mother, but Mother Earth, and the reciprocal relationship between the Earth and animals and the humans taking care of each other. It’s mostly music, but there is some traditional Indigenous dance as well, and storytelling.”
SkirtsAfire also inherited a show from Workshop West’s Artistic Director Heather Inglis, who saw a version of The Shoe Project, a national show started in Toronto that works with women who recently arrived in Canada and gives them opportunities to work with writers to share their stories in a performative way. “They’re from Afghanistan, Turkey, Syria, China, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, and each of them has a different, incredible story, told through the lens of a of a pair of shoes. It helps them transition to their new country, and we get the benefit of hearing their stories.”
Now over a decade old, Loiselle says it’s satisfying to see the festival that started to help local female and non-binary artists get stage time now include women from around the world. “When these projects come along that are just such a good fit for the festival, it’s such a good feeling.”
Set your skirt ablaze now until March 12. Venues are wheelchair accessible. Click on events to see which have closed captioning and pay-what-you-can options.