The One Yellow Rabbit theatre company may have turned 25-years-old recently but they've had some wild times creating and introducing some of the most important and eclectic theatre Calgary has seen. Michael Green, one of the Rabbit's founding ensemble members and artistic director for the High Performance Rodeo, discusses the history and the current status of the performance art festival that has become Canada's premiere destination for experimental theatre, dance and music performance.
The beginning in the elevator
The humble beginnings of the High Performance Rodeo were at a time when the Alberta economy was going through a downturn.
"About 23 years ago, when One Yellow Rabbit was considerably younger, we were getting kicked out of yet another theatre," says Green. "The economy was coming out of a boom and had started to bust. We didn't have a space. So we decided to do a project that was completely out there."
The group brainstormed and figured out a way to improvise a stage, realizing that they had everything they needed to put on a show in their workspace.
"I got a few friends from across the country that were willing to come to Calgary, plus a couple of locals, and turned our office into a theatre," says Green. "It was in the old Soma building next to the Uptown. We turned it into a theatre with 25 seats."
Calling their own little festival the Secret Elevator Experimental Performance Festival, the Rabbits created their own DIY theatre equipment.
"Previously, we had been working out of garages and art galleries, so we had already made a number of [stage] lights out of juice cans," says Green. "We knew where to steal plywood, so we made a number of four-by-eight risers."
The group did face a single problem in the entire hubbub: the festival wasn't exactly legal. Green explains the Rabbits' non-traditional marketing strategy to get people into their office-theatre's seats.
"We knew what we were doing around the city was illegal because it was a squat," he says. "So we put up posters around the city with a phone number. Answering machines were just being invented around the time. We would listen next to the answering machine and wait until the caller left a message."
Green explained the highly scientific and rigorous system the group used to identify potential customers and ferry them to the secretive show location.
"If they didn't sound like the fire marshal, we would call them back and tell them to meet us at a certain address a half a block away," he says. "We would get them to follow us down this alley back to the SOMA building and usher them through the loading dock into this elevator. The floor indicators were blacked out so they wouldn't know what floor we were taking them to."
The first HPR and beyond
The Rabbits soon found themselves moving up in the world, relocating out of the small office near the Uptown and into a brand new space, one where they could build a fire marshal-approved theatre. With their new theatre came a new purpose: creating a performance art festival that didn't require subterfuge, spy-like marketing and lights made from juice cans.
Green says the group felt increased responsibility in their new space, working within the community to promote experimental art theatre.
"A few months [after the Elevator festival] we got our first little theatre in the Epcor Centre-- then called the Calgary Centre for Performing Arts. We moved into that space and built a theatre there. After our first year in the centre, we realized that if we were to build and occupy this facility, we had a responsibility to the city. Plus, we had to pay the rent as well."
One Yellow Rabbit chose to pay back Stampede City by putting on a rodeo with a slight twist to the proud Cowtown tradition.
"We thought back to the crazy festival we did on one occasion and thought it could be renamed as the High Performance Rodeo and fly as an annual event," says Green.
While working to establish the festival, they didn't always have the best monetary motivation for artists to get involved with the group, but the Rabbits did have one carrot that they could dangle in front of the artists to motivate them.
"It's fair to say that I didn't always have something to offer artists," says Green. "I didn't have much sway in getting established artists to do things. I would have to fall back on the old Tom Sawyer example, where I'd say, 'Wow, isn't this fun. Wouldn't you like to join us too?' "
For the next couple years, the group spent their Januaries entertaining local audiences with their fun little festival. The next step for the group was getting nationally and internationally recognized. Soon enough, unknown artists came calling to Green's door.
Now that the Rodeo has moved up and become one of the premiere destinations for experimental theatre, dance and music performance troupes, OYR is entering into a new method of programming the rodeo.
"At this point we've graduated to a new level," says Green. "With it comes this whole notion of [having] an artist-in-residence. It's a new idea, but I really like it because it means that it's possible for us to find new ways to giving back to the community that has supported us for all these years."
With famous artists including Laurie Anderson and the Rheostatics as High Performance Rodeo artist-in-residence emeriti, they are blessed with famous film composer Philip Glass at this year's instalment. Events featuring Glass's works include the Low symphony, based off three songs from the classic Brian Eno-produced David Bowie album of the same name. Glass also leads a tour through the Cantos Music Foundation's keyboard collection, playing these instruments and discussing his craft with 40 very lucky individuals.
Now that the High Performance Rodeo is established in the theatre community, Green utilizes multiple processes to cultivate the numerous artists coming through Calgary. In his role of artistic director, he's both farmer and huntsman.
Green spends his days at the rodeo ploughing the field and building relationships with already-famous artists. He also allocates his hours stalking the plains of the art world looking for some of the most interesting acts imaginable.
"It's a cross between an agrarian and a hunter-gatherer process," says Green. "An agrarian situation is when you learn how when and where you need to plant crops and when to harvest that. That's very important for us to learn how to do properly, otherwise we're constantly chasing opportunity. That's the hunter-gatherer side. In the early days, OYR was very much a hunter-gatherer culture. We learned how to complement that way of working with a more studied agrarian style which is much more long-term focused. If you can successfully make an evolution to the agrarian way of survival, then it's possible to flourish in a different way."