Watershed Festival to celebrate music theatre in Kingston this May

A crucial turning point in history is often referred to as a “watershed” moment. With this in mind, the Dan School of Music and Drama at Queen’s University, in partnership with the City of Kingston, presents the first ever Watershed Festival, May 25 to 28, 2021.

The Watershed Festival is one of the first of its kind, explains Dean Burry, Watershed Festival Artistic Director.

“It’s a celebration of opera, and musical theater, everything in between and everything beyond,” he said. “We very specifically use the term ‘music theater’ as opposed to musical theater because anything that includes storytelling using drama, dance, song and design, whether it’s opera or musicals or anything else, it all fits into this category.”

There is a perception, he explains, that opera and musical theatre exist in separate cultural and socioeconomic spheres that do not interact. “Not only that, both art forms, like so many things now are burdened with a lot of Eurocentric baggage, as well. You know, when we think of opera, we think very, very much white European culture. And that’s the perception that the larger public has of both art forms. As well, there are a lot of stereotypes about those things.”

Watershed Festival Artistic Director, Dean Burry. Submitted photo

But in reality, says Burry, “Storytelling using every single art form is a pretty universal thing.”

“This is something that we wanted to do, especially now. We started working on this festival a couple years ago, but then, when you think of like the pandemic you think of the Black Lives Matter movement and everything, it kind of even put into a greater spotlight that we can move forward differently, that the future of music theater can be different than the past.”

“The drama and music school at Queen’s, The Dan School, is not a huge school in terms of numbers of students that are there, but we have the ability to reach out and shine a light on the work that’s being done all across the country and in the world. In fact,” he observes, “that’s the silver lining of COVID right? We’re all online.”

So, he continues, with the first festival taking place online, “We can bring it into the room, to anyone anywhere in the world.”

According to Burry, “There’s a real desire at Queen’s at the Dan School of Music for people to make their own path in the arts. And so that, again — in the same way that we don’t want to just look at stereotypical boxes of what opera and musical theater are — we don’t want to look at boxes as to what a career in music theater means. The school is very much about that exploration, and a celebration of the great work that’s being done here in Kingston, and around the country, as well.”

Over the four days, participants are invited to attend online: a gala book launch, panel discussions, workshops in music theatre, and the premier of a new play.

You don’t need to be an arts scholar to participate in the festival, says Burry, “There are a lot of different events; there are Broadway style workshops and presentations of music. Some of them are more experimental opera, a lot of things which I think would be very interesting to people who are not just interested in academia.”

He points out that, “A lot of times scholars who work in the arts like this also have a real connection to the art itself. So, if a general audience has an interest in musicals or opera, then there are going to be a lot of discussions and presentations that will deepen people’s understanding, not only of the music that they know, but the music but they don’t know, what else is out there, and what are the trends coming for the future.”

Burry says there is something for everyone who loves music and theatre. For example, “Dylan Robinson who is a Kingston resident wrote the book Hungry Listening, which is a real exploration of Indigenous listening to Western music through an Indigenous perspective. And he’s going to be talking about his work from the lens of music theatre.”

Further, he says, “Leslie Arden is our writer in residence at the Dan School and she’s writing a major new musical that we were supposed to premiere this year at the Grand, because we’re working in partnership with the City of Kingston. We’re hoping that that’s what’s going to happen next year. So, The Dan School has commissioned Leslie to write a new piece which is about the suffragette movement, the women’s right to vote in England in the 20s called The Lancashire Lass. So we’re going to be giving a sneak peek at some of the selections from The Lancashire Lass on the Friday night.”

Leslie Arden working with Queen’s Faculty. Photo by Tim Fort

The festival also includes a TikTok challenge he explains, “Leslie has also written two short Tik Tok songs, where people can go on to the Watershed Music Theater TikTok site, and write the lyrics for the song and sing along the duet.

“And we have a newer showcase, as well, Thursday night, which is a number of projects that we’ve basically given seed money to let people get creating again,” he explains, “So many things have been canceled and so many of our colleagues in the arts have been out of work.”

And so, “Since last year, when we first started making plans for this to happen, we made sure that we made sure that the D plan was going to be fantastic. We could go back to the A plan [B plan, or C plan], if possible, but we always knew that the fully remote version was going to be a fantastic experience for a great Watershed Festival. And so we’ve got artists from all over the country who are providing little glimpses into the work that they’re doing — To shine a light on the great work that’s happening out there.”

Kevin Skelton appears in the New Works Showcase. Submitted photo.

Burry is fairly new to the area, but has found the local arts scene exciting.

“I just moved to Kingston from Toronto almost three years ago now, and I’m kind of blown away by the arts community in Kingston, the interest in new work and exciting arts projects. It just feels so natural to be doing something like this in Kingston,” he said.

He has great hopes for the festival going forward, with plans to involve local breweries and eateries, “ And when we’re able to get back to in-person, this is gonna be a real celebration of Kingston… To bring the music theater community to Kingston and show off what we’ve got to offer here, as well. I want people to immerse themselves in this place for the week of the festival and live music theater and love music theater and be part of the dynamic art scene that we have here in Kingston.”

You can register for the festival this year completely free of charge. To find a schedule and registration form visit https://www.watershedmusictheatre.com/.  You can also follow them on Twitter @Watershed_MT, on Facebook at @watershedmusictheatre and on TikTok.

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