The Little Winter Festival That Could

It’s hard to believe the Next Stage Theatre Festival is turning ten. Way back in 2007, Chuck McEwen, then Executive Director of Toronto Fringe, noticed that successful Fringe productions didn’t have anywhere to go after the festival. There needed to be a step in between the Fringe and professional gigs. With that in mind, NSTF was born. The little-winter-festival-that-could has been carving out a space for indie theatre every January for a decade now. We’re a bit nostalgic and wanted to look back at some of the zaniest, most memorable moments from this cozy, community-spirited festival. Here is a list of eight highlights, in no particular order.

1. A couple of clowns accidentally launch the Antechamber (2012)

In 2012, two well-known Fringe clowns Morro & Jasp (Amy Lee and Heather Marie Annis) pitched an idea to former Fringe Executive Director, Gideon Arthurs: what if we turned the Factory Theatre bar into a site specific playing space during the festival? Gideon loved the idea, and a new NSTF tradition was born. The industry loved the idea so much it awarded Morro & Jasp a Dora Award for their performance. The Antechamber has been a part of the festival ever since, because we love that it offers both artists and audiences an intimate, 37-seat venue at the heart of one of our most historic theatres.

2. Snowmageddon nearly topples the NSTF tent (2015)

In 2015, audiences were challenged by Snowmageddon: how to get to the theatre through waist-high snow banks, thirty-kilometre-per-hour arctic winds, and temperatures so low that the heaters in our beer tent could hardly keep up? But NSTF die-hards made it out, and the cozy circles of audience members in our tent, sipping cups of mulled wine, proved to us that this festival has been built to last.

3. Brandon Walsh makes an appearance at NSTF (2016)

Jason Priestly himself graced us with his celebrity presence at Next Stage in 2016. Did the tent go crazy? Was there a mob rush for autographs? No. He was wearing a parka just like everyone else so no one really noticed.

4. Sick! opens our minds and hearts (2011)

In 2011, Judith Thompson premiered Sick!, a show that featured young actors with chronic conditions. Thompson was so inspired by the NSTF audience’s response that she went on to collaborate with Krystal Nausbaum, a young actress with Down syndrome, to create a show with nine performers with Down syndrome. This show became RARE, which went on to win the Best of Fringe and then was invited by Soulpepper to be part of Winter at the Young, where it sold out and was extended three times.

5. The year of the epic cast size (2014)

There was something in the air in 2014 that motivated our artists to go big or go home. Not one but four of the shows in the festival featured casts of eight or more artists, which is an incredibly rare occurrence in indie theatre. One play had fourteen cast members (On the Other Side of the World), another had eleven (Scheherazade), one had ten (Killer Business – The Musical), and another had eight (Jack Your Body). Artists were experimenting with scale and using the more affordable Next Stage producing platform to build their dream show without breaking the bank.

6. A couple of dames infiltrate the Antechamber (2013)

In 2013, the Next Stage Theatre Festival was graced by the presence of both Judy Holliday and Liza Minelli. These dames (played by Laura Ann Harris and Jennifer Walls) regaled us with stories of their lives, and Liza even belted some show tunes in our intimate Antechamber space. It was a real treat for audiences, but the NSTF staff got the best POV: watching both of these dames huddle in the Factory Theatre paint shop—their greenroom—before the show. Oh, the glamour of indie theatre!

 7. All the years Pea Green Theatre has been involved (2008, 2016, 2017)

Pea Green Theatre holds the record for the company who has been in the festival most times, with Conservatives in Love (2008), Three Men in a Boat (2016), and Clique Claque in this year’s festival. They were also in the first-ever Toronto Fringe Festival as producers of the show High Sticking. (Fun side note: Lisa Merchant from this year’s Date Me was also in a show in the first-ever Toronto Fringe in 1989, called So Where Does Bobby Live Anyways?)

 8. The year where one show got five Dora Nominations (2008)

In the first year of NSTF, A Quiet Place by Brendan Gall was nominated for five Dora Awards. What a way to launch a festival!

Next Stage Theatre Festival is on at Factory Theatre from January 4 to 15.

Click here for tickets or more information
Written By

Claire is the co-artistic director of Litmus Theatre and the communications manager for the Toronto Fringe. She is a producer, dramaturg, administrator, actor, and writer.


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