Calgary, like most Canadian cities, has always called summer its “festival season.” But for the last 34 years, theatre lovers have trekked through the January cold to take in the High Performance Rodeo. Running from January 8 to 26, 2020 at venues throughout downtown Calgary, the annual festival features dozens of different shows performed by artists from around the world. Perhaps a little unfairly, Calgary is known as a fairly conservative city (artistically and otherwise), but for these three weeks, walk into a local theatre and you’ll find weird and wonderful drama, dance, comedy and musical performances designed to amaze, amuse and even blow a few minds.
The Rodeo (or HPR, as locals like to call it) was founded in 1987 by the late Michael Green as a vehicle for his then fairly underground One Yellow Rabbit theatre troupe. The first rodeo was a predictably scrappy affair (legend tells of a number audiences had to call a posted phone number that would reveal the location of a mystery venue), but it’s since grown into a renowned festival that attracts dozens of respected performers from around the world. The Rodeo turns into a community arts party, with something to appeal to almost any ticket buyer’s fancy, with many shows exploring LGBTQ, Indigenous, and racialized perspectives.
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The Rodeo can feel a little chummy to outsiders — a lot of attendees are theatre insiders and do know each other — but organizers do take great pains to make the shows as welcoming and accessible as possible to everyone. The ProArts@Noon performances on the Wednesdays offer free admission and there are also evening performances available on Wednesdays for only $15 a ticket.
This year’s heavy hitters
With 27 productions being held at 13 different venues, catching everything at the Rodeo is a near impossible task, so it’s wise to get a handle on the must-see shows. This year, the biggest buzz-worthy show (and probably best bet for more conventional audiences) is probably Belong, a one-man show/reading by famed Olympic swimmer, social justice advocate and hometown hero Mark Tewksbury.
One Yellow Rabbit itself always offers a Rodeo highlight or two: this year the troupe is presenting The Land, The Animals. Written and Directed by OYR’s Blake Brooker and starring company mainstays Denise Clarke and Andy Curtis, the show was originally staged in 1991, but, seeing as it revolves around themes of ecology, it remains completely relevant almost 30 years later. Other hot festival tickets include superstar writer (and Polaris Prize nominee) Vivek Shraya’s How to Fail as a Popstar, beloved improv artist Rebecca Northan’s Queer Blind Date, and Canadian theatre veteran (and longtime Rodeo favourite) Daniel MacIvor’s Let’s Run Away.
Slightly off the beaten path
While the above suggestions all promise to deliver, part of the magic of the High Performance Rodeo is going into lesser-hyped shows with no expectations and then being completely wowed. Festival producer Laurel Green has carefully curated the line-up, so buying a ticket to an unfamiliar show is usually a fairly safe risk.
What should you gamble on with your Rodeo dollars this year? Defiance Theatre’s Gemini is a bar-based comedy that makes the most out of its venue, the gorgeously retro Canadian Legion #1. Also try out musician/storyteller Cliff Cardinal’s CBC special — which isn’t actually affiliated with CBC, but is meant to recreate the feeling of listening to Canadian-centric music and words coming out of a kitchen radio. Lee Papa’s It’s the End of the World As We Know It is also bound to be a sleeper hit. Papa is best known as Twitter’s The Rude Pundit and this comedic show touches on the current chaos in American politics.
Theatre is fun, but if you’re going to get dressed up and go downtown, sometimes a 90-minute performance just isn’t enough. There is an official Rodeo Bar, aka the Laycraft Lounge, which is located on the mezzanine level of the Arts Commons building, conveniently just outside of the Big Secret Theatre, one of the Rodeo’s key venues. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 6 pm until last call, the bar is the place to hob nob with other arts lovers while enjoying a glass of wine, a local beer, or a house cocktail.
But, theatre types love to perform well into the night, so the Laycraft will also host a number of free after-show shows throughout the Rodeo. Expect drag shows, dance parties, and, on January 25, a closing night karaoke party hosted by Calgary musician Kenna Burima.
For a tickets and more information about the High Performance Rodeo, visit hprodeo.com.
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