Setting Skirts Ablaze

SkirtsAfire celebrates its 10th anniversary with a larger-than-life lineup

What started as a spark of an idea grew to become Edmonton’s first festival featuring women in the arts.

SkirtsAfire began as the brainchild of Annette Loiselle and two other co- founders who saw a gap in Edmonton’s boisterous festival lineup. While there were many arts and theatre festivals, women’s voices were underrepresented, and SkirtsAfire was going to change that.

“Statistics show that the majority of people in our audiences are women, but to this day, the majority of stories being told on stages are men’s stories,” says Loiselle, artistic director of SkirtsAfire. “There’s this weird sense that women are always happy to go see men’s stories, because they’re universal. Well, women’s stories are universal, too. But, for some reason, as soon as people hear it’s a woman’s story, they think it’s only for women.”

The Blue Hour by Michele Vance Hehir (Photo by BB Collective)

SkirtsAfire is a theatre and multidisciplinary arts organization that uplifts and brings to life the stories of women and non-binary artists. The first festival, in 2012, was put on with the board of seven members not knowing how the arts community would react to a women’s festival. It was a success, and SkirtsAfire has grown to a 10-day extravaganza sprawling across multiple venues in Old Strathcona.

“That first year, we were really just doing it on a wing and a prayer,” says Loiselle. “We had so little money and we were just kind of working our butts off, having no idea if people would even come out.”

Words Unzipped (Photo by April MacDonald Killins)

The 2020 program, just before the pandemic, was the festival’s most successful year, but SkirtsAfire has plans to make the 10th anniversary festival even bigger. It all revolves around the mainstage show, Ayita, by Teneil Whiskeyjack.

Loiselle saw Whiskeyjack do a reading of Ayita at Nextfest three years ago and knew it was exactly the kind of show that should headline SkirtsAfire. Ayita is a fusion of theatre and Indigenous contemporary dance following three Cree women, each in a different cycle of her womanhood. The three stories are interconnected as each woman navigates sovereignty, pain, healing and liberation.

“It’s the biggest show we’ve ever taken on in terms of scope, how long we’ve been working on it and the number of artists involved,” says Loiselle. “It’s kind of huge and absolutely rich.”

Ayita is produced with the help of Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF), which has provided five grants to SkirtsAfire since the festival’s conception. ECF is also the Main Stage Sponsor of the 2022 SkirtsAfire Festival and provided funding that will allow SkirtsAfire to professionally record Ayita for anyone who doesn’t feel safe attending the theatre in person or who can’t attend due to various barriers.

“Having ECF’s support gives us that much more reason to keep pushing and keep looking for more underrepresented stories and voices to uplift,” says Loiselle. “It’s a very big way to show support for the arts in the community, that it’s important, that it matters and that artists are respected because they give meaning and vibrancy to our city.”

Ayita is supplemented by an interactive art installation by Adrianne Beauregarde, and a multimedia installation created by young Indigenous women through the VIDEA Canada Corps program and the Braided Journeys Program. The installation will be on display in the Westbury Theatre lobby for patrons to enjoy before the show.

Coeur de pirate (Photo by April MacDonald Killins)

Another big part of the festival is the annual Skirt Design Challenge, which managing director Brianne Jang took on and grew when she joined the organization in 2016. The Skirt Design Challenge selects local designers to put their talents to the test to create out-of-the-box skirts made from up-cycled materials.

The Skirt Design Challenge originated in the first year of the festival, inspired by its name. SkirtsAfire is a play on words that stems from the slang of referring to women as “skirts.” Whether or not they wear skirts, women make things happen because they are passionate, fiery go-getters. “Skirts” are celebrated at SkirtsAfire.

The Shape of Me by Jane Kline (Photo by Keanna Hiebert)

Last year, SkirtsAfire partnered with the Old Strathcona Business Association to showcase the skirt designs in retail windows, and the retail partnership continues in 2022. This year, nine local designers have been split into four teams and tasked with creating full-window displays for C’est Sera, The Paint Spot, The QUILTBAG and gravitypope Tailored Goods.

“The theme is four directions, which was inspired by Ayita, so, there’s east, south, west and north, and also a colour to match,” says Jang. “And we’ve asked those retail locations to give upcycled materials that would normally go into the landfill towards these designs.”

The skirts are on display until the end of the festival, which runs from March 3 to 13. The festival lineup also includes Iskwêwiwin: A Short Film by Indigenous Youth, emBODYment: Aerial, Drumming & Dance, She, the Rock: poetry panel, plus The A&N Experience, an interactive art installation surrounding live performances including a variety show and comedy and music nights.

“Over this pandemic, we’ve all realized how important art is, and more than ever realized how important live performances, events and enjoying the spontaneity of that is,” says Jang. “I would love it if we can bring that back, even if it’s with lower capacities, masks and protocols. At least we’re still bringing people out to enjoy live performances again, and I know it will be electric and quite emotional.”

This story comes from the Spring 2022 edition of Legacy in Action. Read the full magazine.