Celebrating a maverick of form and content

The Ryga Arts Festival honours Canadian writer George Ryga, a keeper of words and a champion of marginalized voices.

Archival photo of George Ryga

Archival photo of George Ryga

George Ryga (1932-87) was a playwright, novelist, scriptwriter for television and radio, poet, and songwriter. If the art form included the written word, he did it.

Ryga (pronounced Ree-ga) was an artist ahead of his time, shining cultural light on Indigenous issues—most significantly with his 1967 play The Ecstasy of Rita Joe—as well as issues surrounding the unhoused and the LGBTQ communities, decades before Canada at large. “He was a leading voice in Canadian culture in the 1960s and 70s, a maverick of form and content,” says Heather Davies. “A champion of marginalized voices.”

Davies is the artistic director of the multidisciplinary Ryga Arts Festival, which began in 2016 as the Marginal Arts Festival. The annual event is normally held in Ryga’s home base of Summerland, in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, but due to the pandemic it will be online for all to enjoy through Side Door, August 15 to 23.

“I call this a blended festival. We are community-engaged, and we have visiting professionals, and I’m trying to always have those two energies come together,” says Davies. “It’s always this ebb and flow—or a circle—with the community and visitors being in conversation, the experience will be richer.”

The lineup includes events whose “values resonate with George’s,” says Davies. Opening weekend features a reading of Night Desk, a theatre piece Davies adapted from Ryga’s novel set in the 1950s Canadian wrestling world (featuring a forbidden-for-the-time love). Jean Teillet, who is Louis Riel’s great grand-niece, will read from her book The North-west is Our Mother, a history of the Métis nation. There’s a symposium about grassroots activism, “about the role and responsibilities of the artist, as they relate to our region and country at this particular moment.” More readings, concerts, and conversations follow.

“We got it down to words, theatre, and music,” says Davies.

Juno winner, blues musician, and actor Jim Byrnes plays the Ryga Arts Festival on August 22.

Juno winner, blues musician, and actor Jim Byrnes plays the Ryga Arts Festival on August 22.

The pivot to online was a challenge for Ryga Fest, but as Davies puts it: “Artists, we’re amazing makers of lemonade. Here are the lemons, go for it.” For a festival whose maximum capacity is normally 300, the internet allows global eyes to attend. “I feel this year when people are craving community and needing to create interaction, in this town of 11,000 people we’ll do whatever we can do to build bridges,” she says. There will be two live music events with a socially distanced capacity of 40, and they’ll also be livestreamed.

With the world changing so rapidly it’s hard to even guess what the 2021 festival will look like, but Ryga is hopeful. “I think that the hybrid music event is absolutely in the plans, and I’m excited about that,” says Davies. “We as a small festival then have an opportunity to have a much greater geographical reach. We’re also looking at totally acoustic, unplugged, outdoor experiences for 50 people. We need to be better at everything that we do. We need to be nimbler, more creative, and think outside the box.”

But before that, Summerland (and its global surrounds) will celebrate Ryga in this particular moment. “I feel good every day,” says Davies, “if I can live up to the level of creation and activism he had.”

Written by Tara Thorne

Tara Thorne is a writer, editor, and pop culture critic in Halifax.