Sunny Drake knows how important it is to support young theatre professionals as they grow into their craft – particularly those who identify as queer.
Program director of the Emerging Creators Unit at Buddies in Bad Times, Drake voices his encouragement early on in the program in order to ease the pressure some might feel to positively represent themselves and anyone who shares similar life experiences.
The Emerging Creators Unit launched in 2007 with a mission to provide four young, queer-identifying artists with an intensive four-month opportunity where they have Buddies’ full support to discover or deepen their creative vision. Participants also receive an honourarium to help manage economic barriers.
Once the group is formed, each artist is paired with a director and begins the process of creating a 25-minute piece to be performed at the annual Rhubarb Festival. Participants collaborate in a workshop-style setting led by Drake and supported by the company’s dramaturge, Mel Hague.
This year’s Emerging Creators are Kwaku Okyere, Heath V. Salazar, Rhiannon Collett and Erum Khan. Members of the Emerging Creators Unit will present their work at the Rhubarb Festival between February 14 and 25.
Khan first learned about the Emerging Creators Unit after a friend of hers, Bilal Baig, participated in it 2017.
“I saw that it was an interesting opportunity to engage other people who are artists and who happened to identify as queer to create work together,” she says.
The fact that Buddies is a queer space was a big plus for Khan. “I always find I have to constantly be identifying as a woman here or as a Muslim here or as a South Asian there – and then like, oh here, I’m queer. Like, how do I incorporate the entire intersectional notions of my identity?”
Before the Emerging Creators Unit, she had never worked as an artist in a space like this, and it seems to have been a creatively fruitful period. Along with the premiere of Becoming, in which Khan writes and performs, she also serves as a playwright on another production featured at this year’s festival: Noor.
Drake explains that the creative process within each year’s unit can vary based on the needs of the group. Generally, there are weekly workshops where each creator presents their work. “We also run a bunch of activities that can range from general skills development to specific content development,” he says.
Sometimes the most lasting impact can be made in a participant’s personal development. Katie Sly joined the program in 2013. Previous to their experience with Buddies, they used “she/her” pronouns.
“I was in my 20s, unhappy in my relationship, in the closet and didn’t know any other queer people,” they say. After researching playwriting opportunities, Sly found Buddies and made contact.
“I deeply craved to know other queer people … I just needed community.”
Sly reflects on the weekly group sessions like they were “Monday night family dinner.” The actual theatre productions that are performed for Rhubarb Festival audiences are often secondary to the growth of the artist behind them.
For each participant, Sly says the primary interest over this four-month period is whatever “really big question” that is gnawing at them. “For me, that question was as a person who is not seeing any reflections of myself in popular culture and literature.” They add that this program at Buddies was the “foundation of my career.”
Sly is not alone in recognizing the importance and growing legacy of this Buddies’ initiative. The Emerging Creators Unit has helped support such artists as Tawiah M’Carthy, Jordan Tannahill, Waawaate Fobister and many more.
To those who might feel overwhelmed by such a high-profile opportunity for growth and exposure, Drake encourages them to think of their voices as one thread in an overall tapestry. “Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking we personally must make the entire tapestry,” he says. “One: we can’t. And two: we shouldn’t.”
This message helps creators to think less of about the interpretation of the production they develop through the Emerging Creators Unit and more on their creative growth as artists. For those still in the early years of their careers, the support couldn’t come at a better time.
Find out more about the 2018 Rhubarb Festival and Buddies in Bad Times.