In 1991, five friends – Benj Gallander, Greg Holmgren, Carol Pauker, Rob Sherwood and Ben Stadelmann – came together to put on the first SummerWorks Festival. The decision to mount a new fringe-style festival was a response to what was seen as a growing, under-represented small theatre community.
From the success of the first year, it was apparent that there was a definite need in the community for this type of festival. Since 1991, SummerWorks has continued to explore and respond to the needs and wants of our audience and theatre community. Each year there were improvements and revisions, instigated by the Producers, often inspired by feedback from the artists participating in the Festival.
From 2000-2004, under the direction of Franco Boni, the Festival made significant changes in order to further distinguish itself as a unique and integral part of the Toronto theatre community. The most significant change was the gradual transition from a lottery system to a fully juried Festival.
These changes were instrumental in raising the calibre of work so that SummerWorks is now the Ontario’s premier festival of cutting-edge, exciting, professional theatre. It is the breeding ground for the mainstage shows of the future and the hub for Toronto’s most dynamic, dedicated performance professionals.
In 2005, the Festival came under the leadership of Artistic Producers Keira Loughran & Kimahli Powell. Their focus was to continue to build support for the artistic excellence the Festival had come to be known for and to serve as a meeting ground of Canada’s most exciting and engaging emerging and established artists with the launch of the SummerWorks Canadian Pavilion in 2006. In 2007, Keira took on full responsibility for the festival as sole Artistic Producer.
In January 2008, Michael Rubenfeld became the Artistic Producer of the Festival, bringing with him his great love for music, and his desire to find new ways of exploring theatre as a communal experience. During his eight-year tenure, SummerWorks transitioned from a theatre to a multi-arts festival, emerging as a home for all forms of contemporary performance, boundary-bending pieces and challenging works. Beginning with starting the Music Series, Rubenfeld also established the Live Art Series, Dance Series, Performance Gallery, Performance Bar, SummerWalks and co-created the SummerWorks Leadership Intensive Program (S.L.I.P.) with Jordi Mand, creating a home for emerging arts practitioners to delve into the business of the arts.
In 2015, Rubenfeld also initiated Progress, an International Festival of Performance and Ideas. Operating under the umbrella of a unique collaborative curatorial model, a rotating group of Toronto-based arts organizations present groundbreaking work from around the world that responds to considerations of what “progress” can mean to Canada’s performance ecology. The Festival is presented each February in partnership with The Theatre Centre.
In April 2016, Laura Nanni was appointed as Artistic and Managing Director, continuing to build community and creating an inclusive home for diverse and ground-breaking contemporary performance.
During her tenure, Laura increased the organization’s accessibility practices and re-defined Summerworks’ programming structure to reflect Canada’s ever-changing performance ecology. This includes: SummerWorks Presentations– fully developed works offering a snapshot of contemporary performance; SummerWorks Lab– a place for exploration, experimentation and process where audiences experience works at a critical juncture and also play an essential role in the development of the work; SummerWorks Exchange– a dynamic initiative encapsulating the Festival’s professional development and industry activities; and SummerWorks Public Works– free performances, bringing artists and audiences together to experience public space in new ways.
Another key shift, beginning with the 2018 Festival, was the waiving of all artist participation fees, followed by a move to a guaranteed artist fee model in 2020, as part of SummerWorks’ deep commitment to removing barriers to participation for artists.
In March 2023, SummerWorks expanded its organizational capacity, boldly moving into a new co-leadership model, with the appointment of Michael Caldwell as Artistic Director and Morgan Norwich as Managing Director.