Your heart is thumping before you even get there. You squint to read a hand drawn map in the fading light as you drive a long gravel backroad outside Whitehorse. Filing in behind a long row of parked cars, you stash your flask in your jacket pocket, fix your wooly toque over your head and step out into the chilly autumn dusk. There are no houses in sight, just a sea of shadowy pine trees, so you follow the figures converging ahead then turn down a shady lane.
A man takes your ticket and hands you a pinecone. You’ve been assigned to one of five groups: pinecone, berry, stick, leaf or rock. Strings of twinkling lights and a distant fiddle melody lead you towards a blazing fire, where more than one hundred people are gathered. Here, the 25 members of each group will find each other by waving and shouting. A guide takes you and your fellow pinecones through the dark on a circuit of eight outdoor “venues” where local creatives dazzle and bewitch in 10-minute multi-media performances and installations.
The wind, trees and moon are integral elements of each show. You’ll spectate at a dry-land synchronized-swimming routine, strum perfectly-tuned giant piano strings strung between trees, boogie on a three-story light- and sound-show dance structure, and then devour candied spruce tip halloumi by a campfire. Every year the acts change. The only thing you can count on is feeling your arm hairs tingle, your face stretch from grinning and the dark pressing down in the forest.
This is Theatre in the Bush: equal parts variety show, bush party, summer camp relay race, and artistic pilgrimage. It’s held every fall (with occasional spring and summer shows as it grows in popularity) on the rolling, wooded property of renowned puppeteer and theatre director Brian Fidler and his wife, the potter Emily Woodruffe. Although Yukon bush theatre-goers can expect surprises and thrills year-after-year, the show is too fabulous to remain a hushed secret. Already, Fidler’s begun experimenting with expansion, including a sold-out three-night show in Ottawa’s Gatineau Park sponsored by the National Arts Centre.
This fall’s show marks the 10th session of Theatre in the Bush—including the Ottawa performance—and Fidler’s reflecting on how far it’s come. “It started with trying to get baby Jacob to sleep,” he says. “I’d walk him around and around the property and I noticed how many different features there are on this property.” Preoccupied that year with raising his two young sons, he realized he had missed deadlines for arts grants. “I had to work,” he says grinning, eyes squinty behind vintage-style glasses. “So I asked around to see if any friends were interested in this idea. I told them they could do anything they wanted. Just as long as it was 10 minutes and engaged the audience.”
Fidler staked out the eight venues on his property and named them after their features: Wind-Blown Trees, The Rise, Bowl, Cutline, Fire, The Edge, Studio and Installations. Then, following fox trails and natural ridges, he roughed out the 1.5-kilometre clockwise path that would be the production’s circuit. Thousands of pairs of feet have since patted an established trail into the ground.
Despite a conscious absence of marketing, that first show sold out. (It’s still strictly word-of-mouth.) The audience enjoyed shows like a classical mask play, a refereed underwear fight between audience members, and a mossy, twinkling, ballroom set where participants were instructed to waltz arm-in-arm to That’s Amore. “It wasn’t even supposed to be an annual event,” says Fidler. “But the response was so fantastic we decided to do it again and again.”
“It’s a Yukon institution now,” says John Streicker, MLA for Yukon’s Mount Lorne-Southern Lakes district. Don’t be tricked by his official title: Streicker is a creative mad scientist who engineers zany kinetic sculptures that usually involve gears, spokes and motors but always require participant involvement. “Whether or not you are in theatre, Brian makes you feel free to explore and play and not feel judged,” he says. “He really doesn’t try to apply a lot of control to it. He has this notion that it should have a life of its own.”
Streicker, who is increasingly busy with politics, always makes time for the show. “Theatre in the Bush is like candy for me,” he says. “It’s a huge creative outlet. As soon as I hear the show is on, I start working on things. For this fall, I was thinking about Coke bottles all filled with various water levels and I imagine ping pong balls falling on them with a crank like a music box to make a song.”
Jon Gelinas is another bush theatre alumnus. A graphic designer, electronic music DJ and instructor at Yukon College’s media and communications program, he’s been integral to Theatre in the Bush since the beginning, including designing its “big hairy triangle” of a logo. “It’s not really about a polished final piece, it’s about experimenting,” says Gelinas, who has created interactive sound installations and a chilling, suitcase-based light-music performance. “It’s a reflection of Brian in many ways,” says Gelinas. “It’s very much his property, his home, where he wants to give people an opportunity to create something.”
One of the unique features of the show is that artists select their venue by drawing paper slips from a hat just one week in advance of the show. If you’re a dancer, a clown or a poet, being perched on a windy ridge or crammed inside a wall-tent will often lead to last-minute changes to the performance. “I’m a creative person who can’t make things unless I feel the pressure,” says artist Tara Kolla-Hale. “When you have to rejig your plans at the last minute, it makes you more creative.”
Kolla-Hale has constructed candle-lit paper ghost towns, staged group waltzes and, more recently, she partnered with renowned Boreal Gourmet chef Miche Genest to perform on a show called “Forage!” Participants build themselves either a sweet or savoury hors d’oeuvre by selecting only four ingredients from a vast table of wild-harvested and delicately prepared toppings to balance on either a cracker or cookie.
This summer, Theatre in the Bush moved out of Fidler’s forest for the big lights of Ottawa. A selection of bush theatre artists followed him to the nation’s capital at the invitation of the National Arts Centre for a three-night show on the Mackenzie King estate in Gatineau Park. This opportunity stemmed from exposure the bush theatre received after Canada’s Magnetic North Festival chose Whitehorse as its 2016 location and included Theatre in the Bush in its program. Despite being held on a sunny June Yukon evening, the show was a hit with the festival organizers from Ottawa. They couldn’t shake it. They’d had a taste of Theatre in the Bush and they wanted more.
The capital city presented challenges. The crowd was, in Kolla-Hale’s words, “older, richer and stiffer,” and no fires or tree alterations were permitted within the park. Still, the show was a smashing success with Ottawa theatre reviewers. “You’re pushing the audience, getting people outside their comfort zone,” says Fidler. “It enhances their experience. It makes people feel like it matters that they’re there.”
Yukoners, unconventional by nature, respond to this unorthodox theatre with aroused self-affirmation. Ottawans, on the other hand, are moved—even discomposed. “It’s always been entertaining. It’s always been magical. It’s always been Yukon,” says Streicker. “[Brian] hit on it right away. And that’s why it works so well with audiences both at home and away.”