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An Interview with Tina Rasmussen, Artistic Director of World Stage

Tina Rasmussen wears a lot of hats. When I first met her, she was bartending at the #artlive Vogue Ball, the opening party of World Stage 2014. She was shilling drinks like a champion while also working the room and greeting everyone that came her way. When not taking on multiple roles at her own parties, she is the Artistic Director at World Stage, a contemporary performance festival based at the Harbourfront Centre that has existed for 27 years.

I chatted with Tina about the festival, what it’s like being an artistic director in Toronto, feminism, and Icelandic ponies. She is an impressive, thoughtful artistic programmer and person. It will be very exciting to see where she takes World Stage (and Toronto) next.

Before you announced the lineup for World Stage 2014, you created this very smart and unique unbranded social media campaign that ran with the tagline “you are, so are we” (take a look by searching #artlive on twitter). Why market the festival this way?
Tina Rasmussen: In the ecology, there’s a lot of other competitors in the community where there weren’t 10 years ago. I really try to do what other people aren’t doing, ultimately. Being in an arts centre, people think you have money and power and space, when really we need the community and artists as much as they might need us. I wanted it to be about reciprocity and equality. [That’s] the idea of “you are, so are we”—I never want to underestimate an audience. There are people that are searching for proposals of how to be together, how to be good citizens, how to live in this complicated world and ask questions. Can we be gender fluid? What is gender? Love is messy and these are things that push us and challenge us and art can frame how beautifully complex we all are. [It was] very intentional, meant to provoke a response that was incredibly emotional.

Reading over the artistic director statement, something stuck with me. “We’re going to start by trying to have the courage to face the conditions we’re in.” How do you feel as an artistic programmer in a city like Toronto? How does Toronto treat you and how does it accept you?
TR: I find, as a relatively young woman, there aren’t a lot of female artistic directors. I don’t really have a profile in the city, not like other cities. It’s not about me. I find programming the season is like building a fragrance—one show is like the patchouli or a citrus top note or the bergamot base. If you want to wear one scent that’s fine, but if you want to blend them it’s unique on you.

I think Toronto is a relatively conservative market when you’ve got more contemporary work. It’s not about what I want, it’s how I can put those things together. What is it like to let go, to feel like it’s all allowed in some way? Like UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW, what is it that’s happening where we need to reclaim this word? It’s thoughtful.

We don’t just buy and sell work now. I always think of the performing arts industry like the sex industry—it’s a multi-billion dollar industry and there are so many kinks or whatever people like. Contemporary performance isn’t like missionary sex. When you try it, you’re probably going to like it, because it’s sex. There’s a whole balance about retaining the audience vs. acquisition.

The kickoff party (the #artlive Vogue Ball)—why the choice to take this direction? Why House of Nuance and why a ball?
TR: The amount of money spent on a party is like an ad—you get 400 people in a room and it’s trending on Twitter—that value is more. But going back to the equal status thing—I’m very emotional about art and gentrifying it. Let me bring the world to you and let it influence your work and ideas. Teach me about what concerns you’re facing.

There are random acts of performance around us all the time. My dashboard is a proscenium arch and if I put the things I see onstage, no one would believe them. When the crack whore is crossing the street with the Vietnamese mother and her child in Regent Park, or that guy walking around last night; who we are when we dress up. I want to get people to feel comfortable around performance and witnessing performance and to have fun. To be generous of spirit.

I partnered with the House of Nuance because if you’re going to do something like this, you need to bring people to the table who know how to do this. If I threw a ball, nobody would come. They were probably skeptical, but the ball community really responded to showing off the artistry. So many people have never experienced a ball, and it’s really fun. You don’t have to participate, but viewership is active. You participate by watching.

I’m curious to learn about your reasoning behind programming the UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW and the story you told of the woman on the plane. The term feminism can feel so loaded. What does it mean to you?
TR: I’m an immigrant daughter of a blue-collar worker. I have a bachelor of Fine Art, I’m not [an] über educated, highly-learned person. I was raised by a single mother do things for myself. I worked hard and I am where I am. I didn’t have a lot of opposition. But after programming this show, more and more, I believe that theatre is a political space and it needs to be. I got to the point where I felt very responsible and ashamed of my own non-appropriation of an ideal.

I’m a newly-baptized, a born-again, refreshed Feminist.

Even in the context of women as artistic directors or cultural impresarios, it’s still a man’s world. I hate that. What I love about UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW is that it makes you feel that despite the fact that you’re overweight or have bad teeth, you’re still beautiful and you’re still fierce. The nudity is a blank canvas and it’s the one time where you could rip off all your clothes and jump around with these women because they’ve got the audience to such a place. Can we come together in such a place where we can live with fluidity of gender and ideas that are more about questioning rather than stylizing or judging?

Where do you see the World Stage festival in five years? Ten years?
TR: Maybe it’ll be dead. I think it’s already struggling for its survival and you’re competing for money and audiences that are small already. Luminato takes a lot of money and that’s a tough situation because we’ve been doing this for 27 years. What would be really nice is if a fairy godmother came and put a bunch of money behind it. If there was more distribution and access, people would be thinking about it. I think that there’s a space for the scale of work—not too small and not too big—to make it just right. I would love to see it would be alive and thriving.

Let’s say money was no option, nor was time or space. What would you program?
TR: One of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen in my life was in Iceland and I was there for an industry series to meet Icelandic artists. Our first day at 8am, we went to our first event, in an open-air pool. This event was already so different. Then we got on a bus and we went out into a volcano crater and as the sun was rising, all these men on Icelandic ponies came trotting over the ridge and they were a choir that sang. As they were singing, naked dancers came out from the rocks and danced. What I got from that was that Icelandic artists really understand the landscape. That’s what’s missing in Canadian artists. We’re so hindered by our geography (and money), everything is muted or smaller… this was an example of these artists feeling the land in their bodies.

I would love to do something with the lake (Lake Ontario). It’s one of the natural wonders of the world — we don’t really visit it and we don’t really worship it. I would like to celebrate our epic landscape, if we could. Whether that’s a promenade or working with artists. Getting people to understand where we’re from. This land is our land — what does that mean? A collision of theatre and landscape, and our own emotional landscape and how are those things connected.

To keep up to date with the goings-on at World Stage, check out their website and find them on all the social media. Be sure to find Tina Rasmussen on Twitter and keep tabs on what’s happening down on the Waterfront (#artlive). 

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