THE COOKING FIRE THEATRE FESTIVAL A fest of outdoor performances. Opens tonight (Thursday, June 24) and runs to Sunday (June 27), program 1 at 6:30 pm, program 2 at 8 pm. Pwyc ($10 suggested). Dufferin Grove Park (south of Bloor on Dufferin). 416-531-1208. Rating: NNNNN
Kate Cayley's mantra these days is, "No rain, please, no rain for four days." She's artistic director of the Cooking Fire Theatre Festival, a new project that brings six outdoor productions to Dufferin Grove Park beginning tonight (June 24).
We have our outdoor Shakespeare - including the about-to-be-launched ShakespeareWorks at Ashbridges Bay Park - but few groups regularly combine a venue whose ceiling is the sky with works that appeal to a wide audience.
Cayley and Lea Ambros of Stranger Theatre came up with the festival idea when they worked in Dufferin Grove as artists and as staff.
"An ongoing project that uses public space in a new way and makes good food available cheaply to people - the park has two outdoor bake ovens - defined the politics of the space," recalls Cayley.
"We realized that we'd come into contact with other artists who worked in different ways than we did but had similar interests. Some people use movement, some use puppets, and still others focus on music.
"None of the pieces we're presenting can be called modern realism."
But what about the outdoor venue, which is the key uniting element of the shows?
"If we worked in a traditional venue, we'd have gotten an audience, but it would be made up of people who already go to the theatre," Cayley says.
"I love the black box of a theatre, but it's also insular. Working outdoors means you have the possibility of reaching people who've never encountered theatre. Passersby and kids playing in a park are a whole new audience."
Cayley knows this from having presented Stranger's festival show, East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon, around town; it also ran in a different form at SummerWorks in 2001.
Number 11 Theatre's Ker Wells, also a participant in Cooking Fire, shares Cayley's views on accessibility in a park.
"You can have people coming through your area with a stroller or walking their dog, sometimes with unexpected results.
"There's a dog puppet in our show, Peter Schlemihl, based on a tale about a man who sells his shadow for a bag of gold, and the other day during rehearsal, a real dog saw the puppet and ran into the scene for a faceoff with this other canine."
Clearly, Wells likes that kind of encounter, on the human or the animal level.
"Accessibility is important to us as we tour pieces like Icaria and The Prague Visitor across Canada," he notes. "We often pay lip service to the fact that theatre should be an encounter for both parties, but that happens less frequently for the artist when you're on your own turf, working in a traditional space.
"Here in the park, or on the reserves we've toured to, the situation is alive and full of potential for both artist and audience."
Cooking Fire brings together shows from Toronto, Halifax and New York, with a 6:30 pm program of three shows aimed at families and an 8 pm trio of works that older viewers will appreciate.
The early group includes King George And The Devil, by Great Small Works, which uses picture-frame performance and rod puppets to satirize our neighbours to the south. Stranger's East Of The Sun, based on a folktale about a woman who marries a bear, follows, and Cardboard Heart's piece is The Trees Of Memory, set in and around a tree in the park.
The Faustian-themed Peter Schlemihl leads off the second bill, followed by Halifax's Zuppa Circus production of Uncle Oscar's Experiment, inspired by 19th-century melodrama and early sci-fi. Great Small Works finishes the evening with Three Books In The Garden, set in medieval Andalusian Spain, when Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together harmoniously.
At 6 pm the bake ovens will provide soup and bread, and on Friday and Saturday there'll be a salsa band at 5:30 pm.
"When you do a show indoors, the audience become guests in your house," smiles Cayley. "The same is true here, where the serving of food highlights the aspect of community and being friendly with guests."