Ellen Chorley glances up to do some imaginary math, calculating the years she's been involved with Nextfest. Her first was in 2001, while she was a high school student. Fast forward the time spent performing at the legendary Nextfest Niteclubs, seeing her plays produced as a playwright, then as curator of high school programming in 2012, and finally, taking the helm as festival director in 2016 — it adds up to a 20-year stint with Edmonton's emerging artist machine.
Each year Nextfest churns out works by hundreds of young artists in its programming, the proof being the city's vast array of professional artists who confess they got their start (and, often, their first paycheque for creative work) at the annual fest since its inception in 1996.
"You grow with the festival," Chorley told Taproot. "I'm so privileged to have had that. And I would say that the learning doesn't stop; I have learned how to be an artistic director and what that means in a very meaningful way. Really, it's made me a better artist and administrator."
This year's event is its second virtual edition, running June 3-13, also with on-the-ground visual art displays in spaces throughout the city, including the Lowlands Project Space and window displays at the Whyte Avenue Army & Navy. Nightly streams of performance sets hosted by Dill Prusko will go live at 6pm MT through the run, and an on-demand channel is also available for those who can't get in front of their computer for live viewings.
"There will be theatre, workshop readings, music, dance, film, spoken word poetry, comedy, all sorts of different types of art forms. Everything is pretty much represented. The whole night is sort of like a cabaret. It feels like you're going to a variety show," Chorley says. There's also a six-episode nature podcast, Would You Wander, which encourages listeners to go on safe strolls through different areas of the city.
Nextfest returns to virtual presentation for its second year, June 3-13. (Mat Simpson)
Keeping with its long-standing mandate of mentorship, workshops and individual opportunities are available for young creatives during the festival as well.
"If you're an artist looking for some direction or some help or guidance, you can apply to our one-on-one mentorship program and we'll pay a mentor to talk to you for an hour over Zoom or over the phone."
"I love the learning opportunities and the connection opportunities that we offer through the workshops and one-on-ones just as much as the art presentation part of the festival," Chorley adds, taking a breath. She admits to getting excited while listing the festival rundown. "It's such a great way to meet new people, to connect with like minded people, to meet new artists, to learn something."
Chorley attests that Nextfest is unlike other theatre or presenting festivals, especially where it comes to the process for artists getting their start.
"Nextfest is special because often the artist is getting paid to do their work for the first time in a professional capacity, and the festival guides them through that process. It's not like we say to the artists, 'you're in the festival, we'll see you on opening night.' We don't do that. We guide them through every step of what they need to create: how to make a budget, how to create an invoice, how to create contracts for your other artists, how to schedule rehearsal, where to go to find rehearsal space."
"The thing I love about Nextfest, especially because I did high school first and now I moved into sort of the main festival in the artistic director role, is that we try our very best to support the artists in that way," she says. "I know that I've learned a lot from the festival." Amid plans for Nextfest, Chorley is also currently awaiting announcement of the 2021 Alberta Literary Awards on June 9, where her play Everybody Loves Robbie is shortlisted for the Gwen Pharis Ringwood Prize for Drama.
Nextfest runs online (and elsewhere) June 3-13.