Ambitious performance festival makes an impact

Featured Story: Progress Festival

January 2016

The Progress Festival, produced by SummerWorks Performance Festival in partnership with the Theatre Centre, is currently in the middle of its second season. Launched in 2015, this international festival of performance and ideas was incredibly successful in its inaugural year, playing to almost 90% capacity. This year, the festival has expanded its programming from 12 days to 24.

What’s different about Progress, is that programming is developed from within the performing arts community. Select Toronto-based small-scale companies are invited to curate the festival*; these companies are given the opportunity to showcase their own work, and invite their contacts from around the world to participate as well. With different companies and artists working together as part of a community, what results is a festival that is extremely ambitious, experimental and diverse. Indeed, Progress is leading the way in the collaborative approach, which is often raised as a potential solution for the theatre community.

Festival Director Michael Rubenfeld explains, “We all understand that sharing resources is a good idea, but with most small companies already capacity-poor, it’s an idea easier desired than implemented. Progress acts as a membrane organization to understand how to practically make this possible.” Rubenfeld goes on to say that “It’s very difficult for smaller companies to get attention for small-scale or more experimental work - so Progress creates an opportunity for companies to take larger risks with the support of the festival behind them to attract audiences and take on a lot of the admin.”

And with support and collaboration, comes innovative programming. Rubenfeld notes that “There's something about this model that inspires companies to build incredibly ambitious programs. Aluna has decided to produce TWO shows. FADO has curated 5 different performances, and we're putting on a festival within the festival. It all seems nuts on paper, but it’s really inspiring to see how wild people are letting themselves be. I'm a really big fan of ambitious programming - it excites the hell out of me - and in Progress this year everyone is saying "yeah, we're small, but so what - let's do something remarkable."

Century Song, performed by Neema Bickersteth. A production of Volcano Theatre in association with Moveable Beast Collective and Crooked Figure Dances

And remarkable it is! Work shown at Progress is exploratory in nature - both artistically and intellectually. Volcano Theatre’s Century Song offers just one example of this. Created by Neema Bickersteth, Kate Alton and Ross Manson in association with Moveable Beast Collective and Crooked Figure Dances, it’s described as a “live-performance hybrid.” The work is a wordless chronicle of the past 100 years, told through the movements of Bickersteth who performs to sound and projections. An understanding of the meticulously researched audio and visual references rests entirely with the individual viewer, making it both personal and universal at the same time.

Other works in the festival explore themes of memory, trauma, ancestry, paranoia and more, all enlisting the use of unique tools including found footage, video art, audio recordings and spoken word to tell their story. In addition to performances, the festival hosts curated events and conversations, such as a discussion led by Aluna Theatre about their experiments with creating new approaches to dramatic translation, and a ‘trans-lingual theatre.’ With everything it does, Progress encourages openness and innovation.

Michael Rubenfeld created Progress to satisfy a desire amongst audiences to see more international work. His foresight to merge this idea with a collaborative approach has produced a festival that supports original and diverse programming from Toronto’s own small, and innovative companies. At the beginning of this year, Michael revealed that he’s stepping down from his role as Artistic Director of SummerWorks, and has yet to determine what his role will be at Progress. Regardless of his future, it is clear that Michael’s role to date in Toronto’s performing arts community has been ground-breaking. The opportunities he’s created, and the support he’s offered to Toronto’s artists and companies have made a real impact. “I'm so damn proud of the whole thing” Michael says when reflecting on the success of Progress.

*The curators for the 2016 festival are Aluna Theatre, Dancemakers, FADO Performance Art Centre, SummerWorks Performance Festival, The Theatre Centre, and Volcano Theatre.

Progress Festival runs from January 14 - February 7, 2016. For details, visit:


Progress Festival, through SummerWorks Festival, receives Operating funding from Toronto Arts Council