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Saved from bankruptcy, Magnetic North gets a second chance

Heather Redfern, executive director of The Cultch in Vancouver, is one of the newly appointed executive board members of the Magnetic North theatre festival.

Wendy D

In March, Magnetic North, an annual national theatre festival of touring productions that itself moved around between Canadian cities each year, announced that it was cancelling its 2017 edition – and planned to declare bankruptcy because of an accumulated deficit of $224,000.

Over the summer, however, a group of artists and administrators came together to try to save Magnetic North from shutting down permanently – and, on Monday, they will announce they plan to settle the festival's debts and relaunch it anew in 2019.

Heather Redfern, executive director of The Cultch in Vancouver; Ken Gass, founder of Toronto's Factory Theatre and artistic director of Canadian Rep Theatre; Amy Lynn Strilchuk, a Vancouver-based promoter and programmer; and Tammy Fox, executive director of the Burlington Performing Arts Centre, are the driving force behind a new board of directors that will be holding consultations on the future of Magnetic North in Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto this fall. Redfern spoke to The Globe and Mail ahead of their announcement.

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Why have you four stepped in to revive the Magnetic North Theatre Festival?

I had a lot of very informal conversations over the summer – really just talked to people who knew the festival – and asked, "Do you think there are things about the festival that we still need in the community?" The overwhelming majority of the people I spoke with thought that there was. My thought about it – and that of my colleagues – is that the festival has to change, but there's still a place for it.

Magnetic North was based in Ottawa every second year and moved to a different city such as St. John's or Whitehorse every other year – and so I'm not sure there's a regular audience that necessarily understands that need. What does it do that other festivals don't?

For one thing, it goes to small places other than Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver in the country, where people are underserved in terms of having access to the work of Canadian artists. It is also a gathering place where everyone from students to audiences to artists can come together to meet and talk; and it is also a showcase for Canadian artists who don't have a lot of platforms for their work. There are more now – but an opportunity for presenters to see a lot of Canadian work in one place in a short period of time is very important.

I've heard from some touring agents that the format, the fact it switched cities every year, made it difficult for them to attend – or plan to attend.

My feeling now is that there's nothing set in stone about the format that it used to have – and the format it will have going forward. We want to be open and we want to listen. The one thing that I don't want to lose in all of this is that Magnetic North is in some way addressing the needs of smaller communities. That has to stay.

What theatre companies or shows have had their signal boosted by Magnetic North in the past?

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2b Theatre [in Halifax] have basically said to me they wouldn't be who and where they are without Magnetic North. Artistic Fraud, the company that Jill Keiley was artistic director of from Newfoundland [before running the National Arts Centre's English Theatre], benefited greatly from the festival. [Vancouver's] Theatre Replacement, Neworld Theatre, Catalyst Theatre in Edmonton …

In March, former board chair Mike Hawkes said, "We have looked at all the options to be able to proceed in some capacity, but regrettably none is viable." Was he wrong – or did something change?

In terms of a board that had been fighting cash-flow issues for several years and were tired, I think, in the circumstance, they made the best decision that they could. That doesn't necessarily mean that it's the only way forward – and so our job right now is to make sure that there's some healing and wholeness with the people who felt that they were hurt by the festival not taking place this year. Magnetic North had an accumulated deficit of $224,000. That's what we're still looking at. That has not changed.

So, why did you decide to try and save this festival instead of start a new one – especially since you're considering changes in how it's run?

There's some practical reasons – the first one is that festival has a history with the funders. And that's important because you're able to access a greater funding pool if you have several years of grants under your belt. It's difficult to start a new society from scratch, get charitable status – all of those things also cost money, as does establishing a new brand. If you look at it that way, the value outweighs the debt that needs to be dealt with.

The announcement in March came as a surprise – because Magnetic had just announced that Brendan Healy was the new artistic director six months earlier. He's now running performing arts programming for the city of Brampton, Ont. Will you be hiring a new artistic director?

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Again, we want to hear from as many people as we possibly can. Everything's on the table. The fact that Canadian theatre actually tours internationally and throughout the country that is not from Quebec is remarkable in that it's normal now, people expect that it happens. When we started Magnetic North, that did not happen and that's why we started it. The people who have taken up this challenge – Amy, Tammy, Ken and myself – we love a challenge.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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