Interview – Laura Nanni, artistic and managing director of SummerWorks Performance Festival

Photo by Tanja Tiziana


Laura Nanni, 38, is a mover and shaker in the arts. She is a curator, artist and producer, who since 2016, has been the artistic and managing director of the prestigious SummerWorks Performance Festival, Toronto’s annual curated showcase for contemporary new work in theatre, dance, music, live art and multidisciplinary productions. She has also been on the staff of some of the city’s most experimental forums such Nuit Blanche, the Rhubarb Festival and HATCH. Nanni’s wide background also includes front of house, stage management and programming experience with important arts organization such as the Stratford Festival, the Luminato Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. Her career also includes mentoring emerging producers and curators, most notably for the Banff Centre’s Leadership Development Program. Her own creative endeavours include performance and installation work, often site-specific, that has been presented across North America, the UK and Europe. Both artistically and administratively, the prime focus of Nanni’s career has been on experimentation, community building, and interdisciplinary collaboration.

As SummerWorks heads into its 28th season (Aug. 9 to 19), Nanni gave a wide-ranging interview about her relationship with the festival, and the festival’s relationship with the cultural scene in general.


Where did you study, and what was the wellspring of your career focus on arts experimentation?

I did my degree in theatre and visual studies at the University of Toronto. The epiphany for me was bluemouth inc.’s 2003 production of What the Thunder Said. We were blindfolded and taken on a bus to a warehouse. This site-specific work, a mix of dance, visuals and theatre, showed me the possibilities of what performance could be. I’ve been a passionate supporter of innovation ever since.

(Note: The devised work, What the Thunder Said, is the third part of the trilogy, Something About a River. It used the metaphor of the family to examine the political and emotional contradictions that face society today.)

How does SummerWorks contribute to experimentation?

 We help artists to realize new ideas, to take creative risks. We nurture innovation by creating spaces where they can experiment and find solutions. At the same time, artists can find something new about a piece that they didn’t know that they were looking for. Experimentation can often mean learning something new about yourself that can be unexpected or exciting.

What have you seen as key factors in your job?

Evolving a structure that can be sustainable for artists – not growing in size, but developing the artistic environment. And discovering who we are engaging with, and playing too. The ecology of SummerWorks has always been a platform that artists aspire to, and we must maintain that. The productions are multidisciplinary – we cover dance, music and hybrid works. We also have a very adventurous audience, and both are part of the mix. The festival is highly regarded nationally and internationally. We attract 30 to 50 presenters a year. These curators come to discover work to be shown elsewhere. I inherited an artistically strong entity. My job is to discover how we can improve on that strength by determining our platform needs.

You mention that you don’t want the festival to necessarily grow larger.

Because of increased volume, larger festivals can tend to embrace cookie cutter formats. In SummerWorks, we can address questions like, how can we be more nimble in addressing artist-specific needs? For example, does an artist want their work to evolve during the festival? Does a work need rehearsal time between shows? What spaces can support new technology? I believe we can keep reimagining our relationship with artists and be responsive to individual demands, while not forgetting that we are a place where artists, audiences and presenters want to come. We can be a resource for artists. We want to get better, not bigger by finding the right essence of evolution.

Part of the thrust of this year’s festival is reframing? What do you mean by that?

We have formalized practices that have been ongoing at the festival for some time by naming three official streams. This way the audience absolutely knows what they are getting. Presentations is the showcase of contemporary performances that have had extensive previous development or are touring productions. Lab is a place for work being shown at a crucial stage of development that needs to be performed before an audience. These artists are experimenting with form or new technology, and have feedback sessions with the audience. Exchange is for the industry and arts professionals, and includes such things as open studios, the presenting of early works, workshops, and meet the artists.

How do you choose the SummerWorks programming?

I read every application myself, and there is also a different multidisciplinary artistic advisory committee each year to help formulate the short list. There are even follow-up conversations with some applicants about their goals. The Lab is a special call project because of the special nature of these shows. Applicants identify the multi-genres that apply to their productions by checking discipline boxes. The emphasis overall is on new work, but obviously, the curating of what proposals rise to the top is more complex than that. How much dance and music should there be? You have to think about balance. What about the range of artistic forms? What conversations can develop between works? What can we learn from them? What connections can happen? Are we targeting specific audiences, and if so, how do we create an overlap? All these considerations play a part.

SummerWorks has waved the $700 participation fee. Is that not a big drain on your budget?

True, the fee did help defray infrastructure and production costs. We have certainly had to readjust the budget and the calibration of expenditures, and we are actively looking for a core sponsor or infrastructure donor. On the other hand, one of my key priorities is accessibility. Waiving the fee has encouraged a growth in the number of applicants, which shows that we are moving in the right direction by taking away that barrier. This year we had 300 applications, 50 more than last year. We want artists to take creative risks, not financial ones.

How else is accessibility manifesting itself?

This year we have an accessibility coordinator, Victoria Lacey, to oversee this aspect. All venues will have ASL interpretation and relaxed performances. We also have Tangled Art + Disability doing an audit. This is an organizations that presents the work of and enhances performing opportunities for artists with disabilities. They also provide consultancy services and examine cultural shifts concerning the disabled. How we can support artists, audiences and staff members identified as disabled, is part of our long-term discussions with Tangled Art. Accessibility is a multi-year commitment for us.

Can we talk about nuts and bolts, so to speak? How many shows, out of town productions, number of performances for each show, box office split, venues, ?

This year there are 32 productions equally split between Presentations and Lab. It happened that way organically. Five projects are from outside Toronto or international. Six shows are collaborations between Toronto-based artists with either Canadian or international artists. The average performance number for Lab productions is three, while Presentations have five showings. The artists get 70% of the box office, the festival 30%. There are two venues – three spaces at the Theatre Centre, and six spaces at the Toronto Media Arts Centre. The latter is a new cultural hub that is two floors under a condo on Lisgar, so, on the same street as the Theatre Centre. It is a home for media arts and new technology. We really wanted to centralize the festival footprint this year so people can get easily from one building to another.

It seems to me that being both artistic director and managing director is a huge job.

The structure is changing. Originally the board amalgamated the two jobs to make it a more fulsome fulltime position, with me as the only permanent employee. The rest of the staff is on contract. This year there will be a festival producer, Rosanna Lowton, who will stay on beyond the actual festival, and who will be my collaborator. Her responsibility will include management and operations. I will be in charge of artistic and strategic planning. The main point is, our jobs will be evolving together.

In summary, how would you define SummerWorks?

How we represent ourselves is important. My hope is that we will always remain responsive to the needs of the community, and that all change will happen with that in mind. At our heart, our core, is the possibility of performance – how performance is presented, created and experienced.

(SummerWorks Performance Festival runs Aug. 9 to 11 at the Theatre Centre and the Toronto Media Arts Centre.)












Luminato 2018 Theatre Review – Burning Doors/Belarus Free Theatre

Belarus Free Theatre is an ironic name, because the renown company is anything but free in their own country where they are banned. In fact, when they do manage to perform there, they have to go underground. To inform their audience, they put up fliers in university washrooms. Belarus, apparently, is the last dictatorship left in Europe. The exiled company, founded in Minsk in 2005, now calls London home.

Clearly BFT is a company of dissent, and their production Burning Doors is like a bludgeon. Their modus operandi is to weave their plays around personal stories, the more harrowing, the better. Burning Doors has been inspired by Crimean-born, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who is in a Russian jail for 20 years on apparently trumped-up charges of terrorism; Russian performance artist and political activist Petr Pavlensky, infamous for sewing his mouth shut and nailing his scrotum to the pavement in Red Square in protest; and Maria Alyokhina, a member of the Russian feminist, anti-Putin, punk rock group Pussy Riot, who performs guerrilla concerts guaranteed to irritate the establishment. (The latter is actually a member of the cast). There is also a strong intellectual component with reference to the writings of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault, and French poet and surrealist Paul Eluard. BFT also cites Austrian expressionist painter Egon Schiele as an influence. In other words, pretty heady stuff as BFT delves into questions about art and dissent, freedom and oppression, and risk-taking and punishment.

How does Burning Doors play out? Well may you ask. The production is made up of a barrage of graphic scenes that depict arrest and detention, none of it very pretty, mixed in with quoted passages from the writers. Comic relief comes in the form of conversations between two Putin apparatchiks. It is rather amusing to hear them talk about how to deal with dissidents, such as Sentsov, Pavlensky and Alyokhina, interspersed with chats about what is better, a yacht or a private jet, and the relative merits of Picasso. The set contains a steel scaffold and a back wall with three cell doors, perhaps for each of the three activists. There are also livecam projections and news videos. The thundering drumbeat score has been composed by Alexander Lyulyakin, drummer with the Ukrainian band Boombox. The play is performed in Russian with excellent surtitles on the back wall.

BFT’s artistic directorship – Natalia Kaliada, Nicolai Khalezin and Vladimir Shcherban – prefers a gritty, realistic style of delivery enhanced by imaginative details. For example, the insidiousness of incessant police questioning is conveyed in a round-robin. Each of the four women portrays a seated prisoner being verbally hounded, and then stands up and becomes the relentless interrogator of the next woman, and so it continues around the circle. Burning Doors is not for the faint of heart. The scene where a naked prisoner is humiliated by being body searched is horribly uncomfortable to watch. At various times, the cast is beaten, tortured, kicked, choked, smothered, drowned, hoisted up by their arms, or have their stomachs stood on. There is long passage, seemingly endless, where a captor flings a prisoner around like a doll by repeatedly grabbing his neck and throwing him to the ground. The eight-member cast, who helped devise the play, are clearly supermen and women. The physicality required on the part of the performers is monumental, not to mention aerial skills for those strung up.

Every time I see a performance like Burning Doors, I realize, that despite all the injustices we have in Canada, we really are living in La La Land. “Pampered” is what an acquaintance called Canadians after the show. I’m sure very few people attending Burning Doors voted for Doug Ford. Who else is going to attend a hard-hitting, brutal, explicit production like this except lefties, or conservatives with a conscious? The tragedy of Burning Doors is that it is preaching to the converted, while the human rights of a huge swath of the world’s population are being eroded away.

As an after note, Burning Doors has a couple of interesting turns. Two-thirds of the way through the production, there is an impromptu Q&A with Alyokhina, who spent two years in prison for hooliganism, for a guerrilla rock concert that Pussy Riot staged in a Moscow cathedral to protest the Orthodox church’s support for Putin. And then, at the very end of the performance, the audience was given protest banners by the cast, and we were filmed by BFT shouting “Free Sentsov!” three times. And thus, life imitates art. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Luminato Festival 2018, Burning Doors, Belarus Free Theatre, devised and performed by the company, directed by Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada, Belarus Free Theatre, Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre, Jun. 20 to 24.

Luminato 2018 Theatre Review: RIOT (THISISPOPBABY)

The Irish theme at this year’s Luminato Festival continues with RIOT. The production is the brainchild of THISISPOPBABY (aka Jennifer Jennings & Phillip McMahon), a company that bills itself as having one foot in high art and the other in trash culture. Their mandate is to produce high-octane shows that blur the lines between circus, comedy, burlesque, dance and nightclub. Clearly Luminato programmed RIOT to attract the younger demographic, and the audience was filled with twenty and thirtysomethings out to have a good time. (The bar was kept open throughout the performance.)

So where does an old broad like me fit in with the ethos of RIOT? Not too well, I’m afraid. The format features acts that are on a loop as the 11 performers keep recycling themselves. The MC – Panti – one of Ireland’s foremost drag queens, garbled her words to an irritating degree. I’m sure there were things I could have laughed at if I could make out what she was saying. The language that I did take in, however, made me feel she wasn’t naughty enough. In other words, a pretty flat performance.

The street poetry segments performed by Kate Brennan were too long, and her three sets were way too many because she slowed down the show. Both Panti and Brennan were given rants designed to warm the cockles of liberal hearts and piss on corporate culture, while encouraging the audience to forge their own path and fuck destiny. Admittedly, I did like Brennen’s warning that the purpose of RIOT was to be a “theatre grenade“ (a phrase I plan to steal). Nonetheless, by the end of the show, these socio/political tirades had become so strident that I felt I had been hit over the head with a politically correct sledgehammer. As a mellow filler throughout the show, four singers appeared from time to time performing innocuous original pop songs composed by Alma Kelliher.

RIOT is not without its charms, however. Two acrobats (Cian Kinsella and Cormac Mohally) who call themselves Lords of Strut are hilarious. Their act is built upon one guy balancing in various poses upon the other. My absolutely favourite laugh-out-loud moment was when one of the Struts handed out swimming noodles to audience members, and invited them to come up on the stage and whip his cohort who was dressed as Jesus. I was surprised by the intensity of the noodle-holders as they really laid into the poor guy with gusto.

Ronan Brady who bills himself as a physical artist is a prime example of Irish beefcake. He performed his eye-catching aerial routines on a giant hoop and hanging leather straps, throwing in a clever striptease in the bargain. As each jockstrap was removed, it revealed an even skimpier one beneath, and just as it came to show-all time, Panti whistled him off the stage. Also entertaining were movement artists Up and Over It (aka Peter Harding and Suzanne Cleary) who did an eye-catching, lightning-fast, rhythmic hand-dance on a table while adding in Irish step dance with their feet below.

Even though I complain about Kate Brennan above, her middle set was an earnest rendering of street poet Emmet Kirwan’s poignant Heartache, a feminist tale about an Irish teenager who has to bring up her baby on her own. Apparently it’s quite famous and has a wide viewership on YouTube as performed by Kirwan. And finally, a very odd sequence of the show should be mentioned. As Brady performed calm and quiet manoeuvres in his giant hoop, the voiceover of an elderly man talked about problems with his iPod and Apple customer support in Bangalore. This phone call, anchored in the reality of today, leads the man to remember more innocent times when there were no dreams of iPods. It was an affecting moment even though completely out of place given the bumptious nature of RIOT.

For this show the Tanenbaum Opera Centre has been transformed into what Luminato calls the Festival Cabaret Room. Surrounding the stage are nightclub tables, with bleacher seating behind. The atmosphere is a sound and light show with pulsing music, flashing lights and colourful costumes. In fairness, I should say that the crowd gave RIOT a sort-of standing ovation, a lot of the crowd that is, but not all. I have been to spiegel tent shows such as RIOT and loved every minute of them. Unfortunately, RIOT is too much of a mixed bag to be totally successful.

 Luminato 2018, RIOT (THISISPOPBABY), created and directed by Jennifer Jennings & Phillip McMahon, Festival Cabaret Room, Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre, Jun. 5 to 16.




Concert Preview: Unsound Toronto Does Halloween

Introduction to Unsound Toronto Does Halloween

Two extraordinary concerts are taking place at the Bluma Appel Theatre on Fri. Oct. 27 and Fri. Nov. 3, which marks the third incarnation of Unsound Toronto, the brainchild of Unsound Festival artistic director Mat Schulz and executive director Malgorzata (Gosia) Plysa, based in Krakow, Poland.

Those first two ground-breaking manifestations took place at the derelict Hearn Generating Station in 2015 and 2016 as part of the Luminato Festival. They created a sensation with their unique sound and light show that included experimental music and innovative visuals. The 2017 edition continues with the same sort of brilliant programming.

Halloween High (Oct. 27) features live music with dance and film. The program opens with a screening of Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 sci-fi thriller and cult film, Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson, based on Michel Faber’s unsettling futuristic 2000 novel. Academy Award-nominated composer Mica Levi’s original soundtrack is played live by the Unsound Toronto Ensemble led by rising star Canadian conductor Evan Mitchell. The second part features revered American electronica musician Jlin playing her original score for Autobiography Edits, a new dance piece by acclaimed British choreographer Wayne McGregor, associate artist at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre. The movement is inspired by McGregor’s DNA and the sequencing of his own genome.

Halloween Hangover (Nov. 3) is all about international, cutting edge new music and mind-blowing visual technology. Poland’s legendary Ksiezyc (which means “Moon”) kick-starts the evening. The five-member experimental group performs a mysterious and haunting combination of ancient Slavic music, minimalism and psychedelia soundscapes using a bizarre mix of instruments and vocals. American Emmy Award-winning composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (from the Austin, Texas-based band SURVIVE) perform their eerie, original, synthesized music written for the hit Netflix TV series, Stranger Things. This sequence includes a specially commissioned lighting installation /stage design/video projection environment created by acclaimed German visual artists MFO (a.k.a. Marcel Weber) and Theresa Baumgartner. Influential German minimalist techno artist, Wolfgang Voigt, closes the concert with GAS, his unique ambient symphonic score inspired by the dark forests of his homeland.

The Interview

Unsound executive director Gosia Plysa was reached in Krakow, Poland via Skype.

What’s the background of the Unsound Festival?

It began as a small annual new music festival in Krakow founded by Australian writer Mat Schulz and a friend in 2003. The emphasis was on electronic music, a keen interest of Mat’s, which was virtually unknown in Poland. It sort of had a DIY ethos. I came on board as a volunteer in 2006. At that time everyone was a volunteer. In 2008 we got extra funding which meant we could grow the festival to include smaller touring versions we call Dislocations. We also were able to establish cultural exchanges, co-presentations, and satellite festivals all over the world. Our big international breakthrough was the incredible success of Unsound New York in 2010. Besides the yearly flagship festival in Krakow, this year Unsound is taking place in Toronto, Adelaide and London.

Where did the name “Unsound” come from? I think it’s really clever given what the festival entails.

I’m not sure. I think it was suggested by Mat’s brother in Australia.

How did Unsound move beyond being just an avant-garde, electronica music festival?

The heart of Unsound has always been artistic risk-taking and experimentation, so it was a natural outgrowth to connect new music with other art forms. We began by setting up collaborative projects, even putting people together from diverse geo-political backgrounds. We see Unsound as facilitating creative collaboration. We love pushing artists into new formats, and doing things for the first time. For example, musician Jlin had never composed music for dance before working with choreographer Wayne McGregor.

The piece that McGregor recently premiered at Sadler’s Wells is called Autobiography. What is Autobiography Edits that’s being performed in Toronto?

It’s a condensed touring version of the piece using less dancers, but it still captures the intense essence of the original. Jlin’s driving rhythms underscore the restless movement that represents the continual evolution of the human body.

Unsound is now also known for an eclectic range of new music, as well as state of the art visual technology – in other words, eye and ear grabbing light and sound shows.

That’s true. We are very conscious of the development of contemporary music and what new sounds are coming from the latest technology. Unsound concerts can feature electronica, acoustic instruments, improv jazz, club music.

One of your earlier concerts took place in a Polish salt mine. Your first two events here in Toronto transformed the Hearn Generating Station into a mind-boggling audio/visual palace. Now you’re performing in the traditional seated Bluma Appel Theatre. Does a traditional venue cramp Unsound’s style?

 We certainly love adapting challenging spaces and creating new environments in abandoned post-industrial venues. By the same token, we also like to play with putting unexpected sounds in traditional theatres. Each context has validity, and our aim for both is to attract new and different audiences.

How important is the home crowd to an Unsound concert?

 Very. For each satellite festival, we connect with the local scene, like the musicians making up the Unsound Toronto Ensemble accompanying the film Under the Skin. Everywhere we go, we are building networks.

I know that each Unsound festival you present, whether at home or abroad, is built around a theme. This Unsound Toronto is clearly inspired by Halloween.

 Both line-ups convey Halloween in different ways. They’re both dark or even spooky, but sit together in unexpected combinations. Halloween High includes Under The Skin, a sci-fi/horror film which has an utterly mesmerizing score by Mica Levi. The double bill also features a show by Jlin – one of the most hyped electronic musicians of the year – with dancers from Company Wayne McGregor. Together they perform Autobiography Edits – a work that tonally, I think, will intersect with Under The Skin in an interesting way, but will leave the audience on a high.

Halloween Hangover features synth musicians Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein playing live music from the hit horror TV series Stranger Things, which very clearly fits the Halloween vibe. The second season will even be launched on Netflix for Halloween! Alongside this is an A/V show from legendary German electronic composer GAS who plays ambient music, often with a deeply submerged techno beat, while the visuals take the audience through dark, almost hallucinatory forests. It’s a very intense experience. Also on the line-up is the Polish band Ksiezyc, channelling ancient Slavic music to create a show that is very otherworldly, even mystical. This is a powerful trio of shows that I think will leave audiences with a mix of contrasting and vivid impressions.

Finally, how would you compare the two concerts?

The second evening is darker – more mellow and mystical. The sounds reflect horror and witching.

Unsound Toronto is presented by Unsound, Civic Theatres Toronto, and the Luminato Festival.

(For tickets to Unsound Toronto: Call 1-855-872-7669 or visit