MT Space in action at the 2013 Guelph Jazz Festival.  ©Brett Delmage, 2013
MT Space in action at the 2013 Guelph Jazz Festival. ©Brett Delmage, 2013

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It was an ordinary Thursday morning at the Guelph Jazz Festival. Academics, musicians, and listeners were crowded into a small meeting room to listen to talks about Intercultural Musical Exchange, all part of the festival's academic colloquium.

And then several people, new to the colloquium, crowded into the room, taking the most disruptive routes possible to find empty seats and disturbing the crowd. Not much later, the same people started to interrupt speaker Sandy Evans, asking her edged questions and challenging what she was saying. Evans took the interruptions gracefully and answered them as best she could, but after several interruptions, the audience became edgy, and asked the interruptors to stop. This being Canada, it was all smoothed over eventually, but it was odd and unexpected – not the warm and respectful feel normally seen in those sessions.

Fast forward to Friday, mid-morning, to what was supposed to be a “Rapporteur Summary Session and Performance”. Pianist Marianne Trudel and drummer Hamid Drake started playing, and the same people interrupted again, even more in-your-face.

And then all became clear. The interruptors were revealed as actors, from the “MT Space” company in Kitchener-Waterloo, who specialize in improvisational theatre for social change.

They were hired by festival artistic director Ajay Heble to insert improvisational interventions into the colloquium proceedings. And that's what they did, with particular emphasis on exposing power differentials and marginalized and racialized structures.

The actors' descriptions of why and how they made their interventions sparked considerable discussion about how much respect is warranted to speakers and musicians. Drake noted that sometimes both audiences and musicians think that music is great because it's improvised, but oftentimes, it's just meandering. Musicians can fool themselves that the music is great, he said.

Others discussed where disrespect should or should not be shown, what makes someone an authority, and how one deals with uncomfortable behaviour. One person asked whether it was disrespectful or not to dance to music in a concert situation.

It was a fascinating – if disconcerting – meta-discussion, and it's doubtful it could have occurred at any other Canadian jazz festival besides Guelph. With its interdisciplinary focus and its willingness to experiment, the Guelph Jazz Festival allows for innovative moments like this and rethinking what actually works.

    – Alayne McGregor

All photos ©2013 Brett Delmage

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