08/10/2012 01:51 EDT | Updated 10/10/2012 05:12 EDT

Toronto's SummerWorks stays provocative

SummerWorks may have temporarily lost its federal funding over a play about homegrown terrorism — but if its new lineup is any indication, the Toronto theatre and performance festival has not shied away from freshly controversial content this year.

The eclectic event, which bills itself as the largest juried festival in Canada, began Thursday and runs until Aug. 19. Several performances on its 2012 schedule are not for the faint of heart, including an endurance piece by Luka Rocco Magnotta’s candid ex-lover Nina Arsenault and an “unstageable” play by Alice Tuan that even the writer expects will drive viewers from their seats. “

"The whole mandate of the festival is to program provocative work; it’s challenging, contemporary systems of thinking,” artistic producer Michael Rubenfeld told CBC News, adding that organizers were not tempted to shy away from provocative plays after last year’s cut.

"I think that art has value when it’s actually asking complicated questions. So polite dinner conversation is for polite dinner conversation. I think when you come to the theatre, you’re here because you're looking for someone to ask questions that are unpopular or to explore avenues of humanity that are harder places to go."

This year’s program tackles everything from prostitution laws to consensual cannibalism. Two plays, Breathe in Between and Big Plans, are about homicidal men looking for willing victims on the internet.

Los Angeles playwright Tuan's Ajax, referring to both the cleanser and the Greek tragedy, is a picture of modern hedonism written 11 years ago, but never before staged.

Issues of race

Other performances are racially charged. In Facts, A pair of detectives — one Israeli, one Palestinian — investigate a murder in the West Bank. And inDutchman, a white woman seduces and yet scorns a black man on the back of a bus in the 1960s.

“It’s a tough play,” said Sascha Cole, who plays the abrasive white woman in Dutchman. “I have to admit, when I first read it … I put the script down on the table and was like, wow.”

The intimate show takes place on an old bus, with actors seated among the audience members-turned-passengers.

“It’s amazing that SummerWorks has given us the opportunity to go on this venture,” she said. “The audience is so close, sitting right next to you.”

Interaction between the audience and the performers is another clear theme in this year’s festival. The organizers are aiming to make the live art movement more familiar to Canadians, meaning members of the public will have more opportunities to be part of the creative process.

Involving the audience

"The audience is much more a part of the thinking,” said Rubenfeld, adding that theatre is not complete without the spontaneous input of those viewing the work.

Tania El Khoury’s relational piece Maybe If You Choreograph Me, You Will Feel Better, for example, depends entirely on the instructions of strangers. The artist, who wears a pair of wireless headphones, obeys the commands of one audience member who watches her through a nearby window. In past versions of the well-travelled piece, El Khoury only took instructions from men — but this time, she will be doing the bidding of female voyeurs, as well.

Another artist reaching out to her audience is Nina Arsenault, a noted transgender artist who will be channeling boundary-pushing performance artist Marina Abramovic by living inside her installation for the duration of the festival. Arsenault’s piece 40 Days and 40 Nights, warns audience members of graphic surgical imagery, nudity and sadomasochism. She said she has been experimenting with food, sleep and light deprivation in a quest to have a spiritual experience.

Rubenfeld says the SummerWorks festival is intended as a place where artists can come and take risks. That leads to the creation of interesting work, which goes on to stages around the world, he said.