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SkirtsAfire – an all woman festival

Why artists and audiences need more than the status quo


SkirtsAfire Festival

Feb. 27 to March 8

Alberta Avenue, Old Strathcona, Station on Jasper

Tickets: Events range from a donation at the door to $30. Festival pass is $38. Call 780-409-1910 or at


Back in 2011, actor-director Annette Loiselle read some Canadian statistics that infuriated her. In a review of the national theatre scene, she discovered that women were underrepresented in positions of power.

The study revealed there was a 70/30 split on the division of men and women in positions of power – that of artistic director, director and playwright.

In addition, while women embody 50 per cent of the Playwrights Guild of Canada membership, they form less than 25 per cent of the nation’s produced playwrights. Those figures were consistent for the past 30 years.

The statistics revealed opportunities for women were at a standstill. Instead of simply ranting, Loiselle defied the established norms.

A forceful advocate of gender parity, she founded SkirtsAfire Festival, a platform that showcases more than female-focused artistic visions. It also provides necessary training and experience to hone skill sets needed to break the cycle and go after key roles.

Currently in its eighth year, the festival is part of a groundswell across Canada redressing gender balance. Predictably it has faced numerous challenges. However, the more than 3,000 patrons that attended last year and 100 artists on the 2020 bill are clearly supportive of the gender parity conversation.

The festival’s two-week run from Feb. 24 to March 8 boasts a game-changing lineup. The cross-pollinated disciplines feature a fully mounted theatrical production, plays-in-progress, art installations, a skirt design competition, variety shows, concerts, dance performances, cabarets, spoken word and choral repertoire.

Although SkirtsAfire was launched as a small festival on Alberta Avenue, it has grown and expanded across Edmonton. This year, Loiselle has incorporated Station on Jasper in downtown Edmonton as well as The Westbury Theatre in Old Strathcona.

Of the spread of venues, Loiselle said, “My feeling is that women should take over the city (Edmonton). We’re not stuck in one corner. We are all over the city. This is our start.”

Anchoring the festival is Michele Vance Hehir’s The Blue Hour enjoying an 11-day run at the Westbury Theatre. Winner of the 2017 Alberta Playwright’s Network Competition, it takes place in 1947 in a small, fictional Alberta town.

It explores the lives of Jonah, 14-year-old boy who allows anger to overtake reason, Bonnie, an older sister desperate to escape her limited environment and Christina, their overworked single mother.

“I first heard it at a script salon and invited Michelle to send it to me. I immediately fell in love with it. I put it in the Peep Show competition last year and it was one of the runners-up. At the same time, I was filling out grant applications because I felt it was epic storytelling,” said Loiselle.

In this seven-character play, the trio is destitute, living a hardscrabble life.

“The mother does laundry and sews for the other women in the town. Her daughter has a beautiful singing voice and they are hoping it will help get them out of town. The pastor is a Pentecostal revivalist and agrees to work with her, but they develop an inappropriate relationship,” Loiselle explains.

The seven-character production stars Isaac Andrew (Jonah), Helen Belay (Bonnie), Nicole St. Martin (Christina), Ian Leung (John), Elinor Holt (Margaret), Robert Benz (Hank) and Bonnie Ings (Hanna).

“It’s a human story. It’s written around people and relationships. It’s a group of people that have challenges. They try to live the best life they can, but it breaks down along the way. Some characters do horrible things, but they are not monsters. It’s not black and white, good and evil.”

The Westbury lobby will be filled with a floor-to-ceiling installation and former St. Albert folk singer Beth Portman will sing prior to performances.

“Beth is a perfect fit for this. Many of the songs she does are from this period. I’m thrilled to have her.”

Since The Blue Hour offers a great deal to digest, Loiselle hosts an informal discussion with guests from the John Howard Society, YWCA, Sexual Assault Centre as well as Child, Adolescent and Family Mental Health Services (CASA) on Sunday, March 1.

Throughout the festival, the Westbury lobby will also showcase the five finalists of the signature Skirt Design competition including St. Albert actor/designer Emma Kluttig.

“From the five, we will choose the top three. We’re very excited about this because they’re all using upcycled material. It forces the artist to be super creative,” explained Loiselle.

One returning event that has created a fervent fan base is the A-Line Variety Show opening the festival on Thursday, Feb. 27 at Station on Jasper.

Performances explode on stage and there’s a little bit of everything. Jump on board with various femme artists: bagpipers, flamenco performers, clowns, burlesque dancers, musicians, drummers and comedians.

“It’s a sneak peak at everything we have to offer. It’s a mixed bag and it’s awesome.”

The Derina Harvey Band, a Celtic rock crossover group that regularly performs at local pubs, fills the top slot at the festival's closing dance party on Saturday, March 5 at Station on Jasper.

Fronted by Harvey, the fivesome delivers a new twist on traditional folk songs as well as introducing original material. The band has a rocky, rhythmic bedrock layered with guitars and fiddle.

“Derina tops the music with powerful vocals and she gets people up and dancing. We were very lucky to get her since she was on a tour in the United States just before the festival,” Loiselle said.

The opening act is Jemma & the Good Thing, a folk-pop quartet composed of MacEwan University music students. Fronted by Jemma Hicken, it features Gareth Gilliland (guitarist), Ryan Payne (drummer) and St. Albert bassist Kelsey Wood.”

Another St. Albert folk singer-songwriter, Amanda Penner, is slated to sing her melancholy melodies and thought-provoking lyrics at the Key of She on Sunday, March 1 at Alberta Avenue’s Otto Food and Drink.

A hippie at heart and an old soul at 18, the Paul Kane High student recently released Honey and Heartache, a five-song CD focused on romance and relationships.

However, in the last year her emotional experiences have veered into social commentary.

“My newer stuff has more to do with climate change, mental illness and a family member that was murdered. I’m trying to focus on writing about issues that are important to me and the world,” Penner said.

In addition to her older material, Penner will sing three new songs: Unhappy Earth Day, a cry to respect our planet; Ego Shopping, a nod to self-confidence, and Marie-Louise, a tribute to a relative found murdered in a ditch.

“I never knew her personally, but it was important to remember her and so many others like her,” Penner said.

As part of a visual art exhibit, the Nina Haggerty Gallery showcases a collaborative installation inspired by Suspension, a Fringe play St. Albert playwright/actor Hayley Moorhouse wrote.

Opening Feb. 24 and running throughout the festival, visitors can wander through the gallery studying the installation while listening to the recorded play through a sound system or their own device.

“Suspension is written in a surrealist style,” said Moorhouse. “It’s a surreal, dark comedy. Two people meet in a suburban back yard. A plane flies over them and a disaster takes place. Time stops. As their relationship develops, it goes back to their childhood and we see how people deal with tragic events beyond their control.”

In the festival's focus on dance disciplines, Loiselle organized She moves, a sampling of classical ballet, traditional Lebanese, Columbian, Haitian and Kenyan dance are also held at the Nina Haggerty Gallery on Sunday, March 1.

Shaktiflow Studios introduces The Lioness, a poetic exploration of the ferocity of women told through dance, music and spoken word on Wednesday, March 4 at the Nina Haggerty Gallery.

Two days later on Friday at St. Faith’s Church, the Beat of Her Drum puts a boom into the festival with three acts that showcase drumming from around the world.

Sangea, a mixed group of up to eight performers, draws heavily from the traditions of West Africa. Warrior Women, a mother-daughter duo composed of Matricia Brown and Mackenzie Brown sing in both English and their native Cree tongue.

Lastly, KoRock & Jeon’s TKD Demonstration Team jump into the fray with a mashup of Korean Rock sung in English and traditional taekwondo kicks and moves to drumming beats.

Loiselle notes, “This is an awesome festival. It’s unique. When we get to March it’s not quite winter and not quite spring. People are ready to get away from Netflix. And these are all great shows. No matter what you see, the audience will come away with a new experience in the arts, and it will stay with you.”

A complete schedule of all shows is available at



Anna Borowiecki

About the Author: Anna Borowiecki

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