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An amorous king, a devoted emperor, a girl with a history of falling down rabbit holes...and Malcolm Gladwell are alighting in Toronto next week.
The city's annual Luminato Festival kicks off on June 10th and will include headliners like Ten Thousand and One Nights, TAJ, Alice's Adventure in Wonderland and a series of talks featuring New Yorker writers.
The festival, which will incorporate theatre, music, literature, art, and dance, in a whirlwind 10-day window is no small affair. Many hands worked behind the scenes to bring it all together - but one in particular had a special role in bringing Luminato to life. Chris Lorway, Luminato's artistic director, is tasked with the gargantuan job of sourcing out world-class artistic works and performances while weaving ensuring that they stay true to a thematic narrative. This year's festival, with its Eastern influences, is as sexy as it is fiery and provocative as it is thoughtful. When Lorway started laying the groundwork for Thousand and One Nights - an Arabic tale told through the eyes of King Shahrayar - with director Tim Supple three years ago, neither knew that that the Middle East would be in tumult by the time the show would premier.
"As that whole world has started to wake up, I think for the first time, it has allowed that idea of a homogeneous Middle East to break down a little bit because you learn through circumstance about the people of Egypt, about the people of Morocco, about the people of Syria, in ways we never thought about individual countries and cultures before," Lorway said.
Recently, Lorway sat down with OurFaves for an inside look at what happens behind-the-scenes at Luminato and why this year will mark the artistic director's last with the festival.
So what exactly does an artistic director do?
I’m responsible for looking at the overall picture of how the festival fits together. So it’s a combination of both having a very hands-on roll with certain elements to the program. In the case of the festival, it’s mostly for me around the theatre program, the dance program and some of the more popular music program, and then managing a team of people who flesh out the rest of the program. I have a literary curator, I have someone who looks after the visual arts, and somebody who looks after our education and outreach program. It’s my role to keep that constant dialogue going with that team, help them think even between one another how there might be different ways to play their program off of one another and then have that ultimate picture view as to how those pieces fit together.
Is this a year-long undertaking for you?
I am pretty close to having a pretty good chunk of the 2012 festival already done, so it’s usually an 18-month process because we actually commission about five or six, on average, pieces each year which means we’re approaching an artist. And they either have an idea that we’re supporting or we’re coming to them with an idea that we want them to make something about. That whole process, depending on the art form can take anywhere from four years to six to eight months.
One of the bigger acts this year is the One Thousand and One Nights. Why are you so excited about the production?
I first met the director, Tim Supple, in 2006 as he was in the midst of the project, getting ready to premiere it India and then bring it to the Complete Works Festival in England at the Royal Shakespeare Company. I saw a piece and invited it to be part of our 2008 festival, and when he was here in 2008, we had lunch and just said to Tim, what’s your next big idea that you have floating around? One of the things he’d always been very curious about was having done some research and reading around One Thousand and One Nights, he realized that the stories we all knew were in fact not the real stories. So he really wanted to break down that idea of what the knights were and in some ways re-introduce them to a whole new generation. We know them through children stories and Ali Babba and Disney’s Aladdin, and a lot of those characters don’t even exist in the original books. The stories are much more about life in the big cities like Damascus and Baghdad and there is some level of magic, but not to the extent we think of like the flying carpets and opening seas. So the notion was to go back to the source materials and Tim worked very closely with Hanan al-Shaykh, the Lebanese author who always had this curiousity around the Nights because for her, she had this curious and intriguing relationship with the stories because they were often the book that was locked in the cupboard when she would go and visit her friends. The men would always say it was dangerous and I think the line is, “Whoever reads them all the way through dies.” They thought they were protecting people, but they loved to read the stories which were very sexy and handle taboo issues and deal with class, so all these things that certainly in the last 100 years, might have been more sensitive in the Muslim world. Even though the men might have enjoyed reading them, they tried to protect everybody else from those stories.
As that whole world has started to wake up, I think for the first time, it has allowed that idea of a homogeneous Middle East to break down a little bit because you learn through circumstance about the people of Egypt, about the people of Morocco, about the people of Syria, in ways we never thought about individual countries and cultures before.
Since you started five years ago, how has your Luminato changed?
The point at which I entered the festival was very intense in that it was only seven weeks away when I started my job here. And so the first festival was one that had been programmed by others and not me specifically. That first year experience was about getting up to speed on everything that was happening. In 2008, the second festival, because everything was happening so quickly, nobody had really thought about what to do next. So that festival, I call the “Shopping Festival” in that we didn’t really had time at that point to create a lot of new work because we had a six month window before we were rolling out next year’s program. So that became almost about finding projects already in progress. The 2009 festival was probably the first one where we started to get into the model where we’re in now in that as soon as the 2007 festival finished, I not only started planning for the 2008 festival, but I also started planning for 2009 and 2010 at the same time.
You’ve said in the past year that you’re resigning from this position. Is it true?
I am. This is going to be my last festival.
Why is it time to go?
I’ve done five festivals now and some of my colleagues out there have bi-annual festivals and I’m very envious because there’s a certain amount of breathing space in between each one. But with a festival like this, as soon as a festival ends – 2012 is already well under way – it immediately kicks into the biggest festival season in Europe in July, August and September, so you’re immediately running out after a festival ends. It’s a bit of a hamster wheel and I think for me, I just needed a little bit of a reprieve just to reset and to recharge myself.
Also, there was a certain phase in Luminato that was all about getting something built and I’ve worked on a number of those types of initiatives and for me, I get a lot of energy from that. And at a certain point, once the thing is in place and it seems to be having its own life, I think there’s a different part of the lifecycle that’s good to turn over to somebody.
Do you think it will be hard to let go of something you’ve been working so hard on?
I’ve been doing this quite a few years now, for 20 years, where I’ve been involved in these sort of very big projects and it’s kind of like being a mother bird and at some point, you need to just let the project fly. And then you get to do something else, create something else. For me, that’s where the excitement and interest lies.
What are you doing after this?
I’ll be staying in Toronto, using it as home base, doing a series of projects from here. But I think there’ll be something else soon.
Where are you from?
Cape Breton Island.
How did you end up in Toronto?
I grew up in Sydney and I left to go to university. I went to Dalhousie and then Western and then I went to eastern Canada and helped start a Celtic festival there in 1996. I did that for two years and did my masters at Columbia University. I worked at the Lincoln Centre festival there for a couple of years and then did seven years of capital project planning for major cultural institutions internationally. So I worked on building projects – the World Trade Center site, the cultural strategy for rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I did the 20-year strategy for the Edinburgh Festival, worked on the West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong – more policy, big picture-type projects.
Going back to Luminato, why are events like this so important for a city like Toronto?
We’re framing this year a little bit about storytelling. And I think storytelling is something that every culture has and is something that every culture does and we’re hoping that by using the festival as a platform to tell stories, whether it’s from songwriters or people who are writing books or performing on stage, you get insight into those worlds and cultures. I think in particular, in the city we live in, because so many people are choosing to make Toronto their home, what I loved about coming here was when I was in New York at the Lincoln Centre Festival, we would do international work and it was often for the curious New Yorker. Whereas when you do work in Toronto, you have the curious Torontonia, but you also have people who are seeing their hometown heroes in some sense. In some ways, it’s this pride of cultural-sharing and that’s what the unique context for creating this type of festival and this type of work in Toronto is.
You’re very well-traveled. How would you compare our cultural vitality to other world-class cities?
I think Toronto’s a fairly young city in a lot of ways and I think over the last five years, there’s been some major investments in trying to provide this sort of infrastructure that will be required. I think the two big things for me that will be the next phase to creating a really livable city are major investments in public transportation and major investments in public space that are more user-friendly and allow people to congregate more.
I think if things are lined up correctly, we could very easily become a world leader but we just need to think creatively about how we’re going to do that and not fall into traps.
And the fact that you’re going to stay in Toronto says you’re pretty confident that the city will grow.
Absolutely. I just Bixi-ed to work this morning. I’m very excited about that.
You’ve worked on notable festivals. Were there any challenges you came up against that were specific to Toronto?
I just think that because resources are sometime scarce in the arts and culture, there’s a bit of a sense of everybody having to feel like they’re isolated and that they have to be protective of things. And I think with all the other things happening in the world that are competing for people’s interests right now, the only way the arts is going to thrive is if we actually band together and really work together to make things happen. And I think that’s key to your last question about the success of the city. It’s about achieving that cultural fabric and I think there’s still some ways to go in building people’s expectations and confidence around how to make those types of partnerships work, but I think the key to both a thriving cultural scene, and to some extent, the survival is that feeling as though you’re a community. And I think that’s going to be critical in the coming years.
What is the best part of working on Luminato?
Weeks like this when we see all the things we’ve crafted…all those things start to literally leap off the page and spring to life and you see, especially with new work, you have this squishy idea of what it might be or what it might look like. Even with the best architectural drawings, when you actually see it taking up physical space in a true, natural relationship with the environment, it creates a different feeling inside.
What are you favourite cultural things to do in Toronto?
That’s a really good question because I’ve never really thought about that per se because my whole life is out seeing stuff constantly. I find myself being drawn to spaces that have that overlap between cultural and public space. And a place where I’ve actually been spending a lot of time in the last probably six months since it opened is the Bell Lightbox. My partner and I are very interested in film and it just has that great feeling of whether it’s the cafeteria downstairs or you can walk into Tim Burton or you can go upstairs and have a drink with friends and then go to the cinema. That to me is the type of building that I think more cultural buildings need to be more like in Toronto. It’s always open and it’s always welcoming.
When I have downtime, it’s weird for me because my work time is actually going out to see shows. So when I actually have downtime, I’m usually sitting in front of the TV or playing with my dog or playing tennis or swimming – doing stuff that takes me out of that world because it is my world all the time. Lots of restaurants and hanging out with friends and seeing a film.
Any favourite restaurants you can name off?
Le Select Bistro is kind of a neighbourhood hangout for me. And we like Gio Rana’s over in Leslieville.
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