By Michael Wheeler
In an attempt to prove I am bi-hyperbolic (my hyperbole goes both ways), I return from my anti-Luminato crusade on a positive note. If you are against some things you should be for other things.
Man do I love Dufferin Grove Park in the west end of Toronto. It’s The Greatest. It reaches its zenith with the Cooking Fire Theatre Festival, which opens tomorrow and runs through Sunday. I really do think there is a convincing argument to make it the pinnacle of Western progress in terms of exemplifying the values, principals, and aspirations we have arrived at thus far. (With a particular bias towards my own values, principals and aspirations.)
It was not always thus. There was a while back in the 90s where it was not much a public space. Just a kind of mundane shortcut on your way to the many dollar stores housed inside the Dufferin Mall. Not dangerous, but maybe dodgy. In any case, it was underused and a little forlorn. But miraculously, for once, the forces of gentrification have abandoned the dark side and pulled off something truly miraculous.
The place has transcended into some sort of actual, non-theoretical, social democratic utopia. Sometimes the biggest miracles are the ones staring you right in the face. There have been the usual basics added that make a public space somewhere you want to be: Safe, clean, well maintained, a sports field, a leafy area with benches, fire pits, a massive kids’ area with multiple playgrounds and a wading pool. It’s all first rate.
It’s the extra things that the staff of the park have worked very hard to integrate that really sets it apart though:
Food: Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday afternoons you can make your own pizza in the park ovens for just $2.50 – Principal toppings: The vegetables that grow right there in the park garden. Friday nights, chefs prepare incredible dishes exclusively from the ingredients bought at the organic market. Soup is $2; a full meal is $6!
Organic market: The weekly Thursday organic farmers’ market has become an institution in Western downtown Toronto. It’s HUGE. If it’s organic, or grain-fed, or generally best solution for sustainable existence on this planet, they’ve got it. Some items are still pricey, but that has to do more with economy of scale and will work itself out over time.
Community programming: Just right now, in June, there are community drop-in games of cricket, soccer, ultimate frisbee, youth ball hockey, and a gardening clinic! The park also plays home to a myriad of community-based festivals throughout the temperate months. Also if you and your friends, team, family, etc. want to have a bonfire in one of the two fire pits, they’ll give you some training and hook you up no problem.
Most impressive to me though as a theatre guy is the Cooking Fire Theatre Festival. Now in its fifth year, the festival pulls off for one week what no other theatre festival does: A presentation of really great plays by the people for the people. What do I mean by this?
Although there is an international element to how Artistic Director Kate Cayley curates the festival, the majority of the works are created and presented by local artists. These are plays that attempt to be accessible to everyone who frequents the park without sacrificing artistic integrity. Kids, hippies, theatre buffs, parents, random folks who just happened to be walking through the park: all the regular folks we have such a hard time pulling to the theatre. Most Artistic Directors would salivate at the diverse audience base the festival has attracted with this focus. There is none of the elitist, moneyed; culture is for those 60+ with $50+ for a ticket notion that’s killing us right now.
True to its name, each evening begins with a park-created dinner similar to the weekly Friday night meal. Productions take place throughout the park and the audience is led through the various performance sites by volunteers. Halfway through, naturally, there is a park-catered coffee and desert break. The final show almost always starts as darkness falls. The younger kids get packed off to bed, the generators get fired up, and what started with a sunny outdoor folk festival kind of feel, finishes as something full of shadows and mystery. Then, if you’re really good, you go help the kitchen folk who are struggling with a mountain of dishes, ’cause this is not a disposable cutlery kind of place. And you leave feeling great about yourself, your community and the place you live.
Saturday June 21st and Sunday June 22nd, the Festival starts early at 5pm in order to present a Theatrurtle pre-dinner production of Alphonse, by Wajdi Mouawad, performed by Alon Nashman. These are legitimately two of Canada's top talents in the theatre world. All things being the same, it is probably not a bad idea to hit the festival on the weekend and catch this one too
Because this is a virtual utopia and not an actual one, there are small problems in Dufferin Grove. The guys that hang around the basketball courts and the moms pushing SUV-sized strollers to the organic market have their beefs with one another, and there has been a ridiculous debate amongst residents about installing an environmentally friendly toilet. This is small (likely organic) potatoes compared with what a united community and some dedicated staff have accomplished here though.
Everyone is welcome in this public space and these many disparate groups have found a way to co-exist and really thrive. Because of its location in a downtown neighborhood in the world’s most multicultural city – people from almost every class, income level, and ethnicity uses this public space on a given day. It feels like home to everyone. Where else in the world can you say that about? I’m calling it the pinnacle of Western Civilization until someone proves me otherwise.
This is the second in a series of four blog posts on theatre by Praxis Theatre Co-Artistic Director Michael Wheeler.