Friday, September 22, 2023

Near and Now: Winter Events to Keep You Hot

After a brutal holiday storm, the weather’s not so frightful but the winter chill is still in the air. Not to worry, though. In the coming weeks, Hamilton will see a host of live arts and culture events that you’ll want to make time for to warm up your bones and put some spring in your step.

First off, Theatre Aquarius is premiering a new play by one of Canada’s foremost playwrights. The Extinction Therapist is the newest play by Alberta playwright Clem Martini. A theatre professor at the University of Calgary, Clem has written numerous plays along with several books on the craft of playwriting including the landmark The Blunt Playwright. I’ve known Clem for years but this will be the first time I have a chance to see his work onstage as this premiere marks his first time working in Hamilton. In an exchange with Clem, he told me The Extinction Therapist was born out of his fears about “climate change, mass extinctions and the inability of international governments to coordinate any meaningful change”.

Theatre Aquarius’ production of The Extinction Therapist in rehearsal. Photos by Clem Martini.

“I was spurred to channel my anxiety into my writing,” he says, “and craft a dark comedy that positions animals on the verge of extinction attending group therapy”.

Although the piece is receiving its premiere at Aquarius, it has been in development for some time with a workshop in 2019 at the Last Frontier Festival in Valdez, Alaska. Asked about his first time experience in Hamilton, Clem’s enthusiasm is palpable. “Working at Theatre Aquarius is a delight. The staff and creative team have been so supportive. It’s also been a great discovery for me to have talented local actors Karen Ancheta and Christopher Stanton involved in the ensemble.  They’ve been fantastic! It’s early days,” he continues, “and we’ve only just commenced rehearsals. But already I’m finding the creative choices that the cast and design team have made exciting –  it’s going to be a very visual, very theatrical offering.” The Extinction Therapist runs January 25 – February 11.

Opening at the beginning of February, Winterfest is an annual arts and cultural festival and a co-production between The City of Hamilton, local arts non-profit Cobalt Connects, and a long list of community partners. This year’s festival looks to be bigger than ever with over 60 community-led events featuring everything from classical concerts to art exhibitions, to workshops and classes alongside signature events like Hamilton Women Rock Night (Feb 17), Hamilton Fashion Week (Feb. 12 – 17) and Worldwide Salsa with Luis Franco (Feb. 10). Festival organizer Jeremy Freiburger is really excited about this year’s festival. “We’ve had stellar investments from all levels of government which has allowed us to commission more artists. It’s also great to see the community level events come back. Everything from the HPO and Bulldogs, to pancake breakfasts and story times.”

Freiburger is particularly proud of the Winterfest Hub. “We’re taking a very different approach [and] the rooftop of Jackson Square has never looked so amazing.” Of the arts installations at the site, Freiburger says, “we’ve helped fabricate about half of them – helping take artists’ ideas and make them real.” Freiburger and COBALT took on Winterfest in partnership with the City five years ago. In his view, “this year will be as close to the vision as we’ve gotten. Having serious investment from the federal and provincial government has allowed us to really show what artists can do when given the resources.” The Winterfest promotion magazine, which can be downloaded here, represents a high profile guide to the festival. “We’ve made room for every event,” says Frieburger, “and we’re distributing 50,000 copies throughout the GTA. Unicorn Rebellion did an amazing design job. It’s a model I want to explore for the arts community outside of Winterfest too.”

One of the signature events of Winterfest is the Hamilton Fringe’s Frost Bites. According to Festival Director, Claire Calnan, this year’s programming features “curated performances, live music, and community discussions led by local changemakers, as well as participatory storytelling sessions, skating instruction and demonstrations, a DJ dance party on the ice, and a handmade lantern-led procession of light in Ward 3”. 

Artist Jordan Carrier is one of the artists featured at the 2023 FrostBites Festival. Photo by Alex Jacobs-Blum

Featuring both low-cost and no-cost activities, Calnan says this year’s Frost Bites “was developed in the community and for the community.” Historically, the festival was largely focused on annual site-specific presentations but Claire tells me that this has since shifted with the festival now presented biannually while incorporating creation and development within the community during the first year.”

“In 2022,” says Calnan, “we hosted storytelling workshops with a small group and filmed interviews with a larger population of changemakers in Hamilton. The festival was curated to reflect some of the themes that emerged from these sessions – with an interest in social justice movements and empowering people to recognize themselves as storytellers.” Alongside workshops, the festival will feature live performances at the Bernie Morelli Community Centre and the new Theatre Aquarius Arts Centre (across from Theatre Aquarius). In addition, there are two digital sound pieces designed for audiences to hear as they ride the HSR between venues. This can be a self-guided experience, or enjoyed as part of a touring experience with other audience members. Among the artists involved in this year’s festival are notable local artists Kitoko Mai, Carlyn Rhamey, Carly Billings, Tommy Taylor, Karen Ancheta, Kelly Wolf, and Claud Spadafora.

This trio of events is just the first of many taking stage in Hamilton as the New Year revs up. So, grab your winter parka with a good set of mittens, and head outside to see some of the best that Hamilton has to offer in the coming weeks.

Stephen Near
Stephen Near
Stephen Near is a freelance writer and educator living in Hamilton. He is a graduate of York University (BFA), the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (B. Ed) and the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Guelph. He works at Mohawk and Humber College and is a member of the Playwright’s Guild of Canada and an alumnus of both the Sage Hill Writing Experience and the Banff Centre. Stephen's plays have been produced at the Hamilton Fringe Festival and Theatre Aquarius and he is completing his first fiction novel.

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