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Q+A: Backstage at the High Performance Rodeo with Kelly Reay

Kelly Reay is currently the festival producer for One Yellow Rabbit, but a decades-long career has seen him travel across many of Calgary’s renowned stages. (Photo courtesy of the High Performance Rodeo.)


Like so many performing artists before him, Kelly Reay, festival producer for One Yellow Rabbit, was obsessed with storytelling from a young age. He dreamt of following his passion right to Hollywood’s doorstep, and first began working in Calgary’s theatre scene in hopes that the experience would make a perfect stepping stone to the silver screen. But an unexpected lesson learned early on later made it impossible for him to leave the stage behind.

“There is a richness and a uniqueness in this medium that you can’t achieve in any other, in film or TV,” he says. “Theatre is very much a communal experience—you’re there with this group of strangers, collecting shared experiences, and that rawness is ultimately one of the big things that drew me to theatre and made me stay. That idea of how visceral seeing a live performance is, and sharing that specific performance, on that night, with whosoever is in the audience.”

During Reay’s travels across the main stages and backstages of many of Calgary’s finest theatre companies—among them Theatre Calgary, Vertigo and Sage—he was offered the opportunity to become One Yellow Rabbit’s liaison for storytellers for the High Performance Rodeo, Calgary’s International Festival of the Arts.

“I’m the hub,” he says of his role bringing the annual festival to Calgarians. “A big part of it is having a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in our city, across the country, internationally, within the industry.”

In his second year as festival producer, Reay plays a role in curating the Rodeo and makes sure that every act that comes to perform in it has everything they need—from props to stages to hotel bookings—to bring their amazing show to our city’s audiences.

“The shows at the Rodeo can be totally off the wall and challenging, but also adventurous and thrill-seeking, and I think that’s why something like HPR has been able to survive, and thrive, in Calgary for 32 years,” Reay says. “Calgarians are really passionate about it, because there’s an adventurous spirit, a curiosity about the world, in our city.” 

We had a chat with Reay about his tips for getting out and enjoying Calgary:

How can our readers get the most out of their HPR experience this year?
This year we have something called a Flex Pass, where you can purchase, essentially, four tickets for $120, and those can be used in a variety of combinations. It’s the most efficient way to see a wide range of shows at the festival.

As a long time resident of Calgary, what continues to surprise you about our city?
It feels, to me, like this is a far more progressive city, politically and artistically, than people are quick to give it credit for.

What do you love most about Calgary?
I love our location in the world—how close we are to the mountains, how close we are to beautiful nature. I also love that we are an international hub. I love that we can fly almost anywhere in the world direct from Calgary, and that we’re also a destination for so many international visitors. It makes for such an interesting blend of ideas and culture here.

Where is your favourite place to dine out in Calgary?
My favourite places are ones that maybe aren’t so fancy, but have amazing atmosphere: The Palomino Steakhouse and The Ship & Anchor pub. I rarely do fancy, I gravitate more towards a down-to-earth vibe.

What sights would you insist visitors to Calgary check out?
Prince’s Island Park and Fish Creek Park are a must, because they offer such an escape. Ten minutes into the park and it feels like you’re not even in the city anymore.

Where do you hang out in your down time in Calgary?
I’m seeking out nature. I’m trying to take advantage of the natural beauty of the city. That’s something that people don’t realize about Calgary, is that we have a lot of beautiful green space, especially down along the river.

Where do you go to catch some great local theatre?
The downtown core is a real arts hub. Arts Commons houses a collective of vastly different resident companies—and if, for whatever reason, you can’t find what you’re looking for there, a block away is Vertigo Theatre and Lunchbox at the base of the Calgary Tower. So within this three-block radius, you can find just about any show you want.

What excites you the most about Calgary’s theatre scene?
There’s a real driven, creative, entrepreneurial spirit in Calgary. Our artists don’t sit around waiting for the phone to ring—they go create their work, they go self-produce. We have a real fertile community that gives space for that and encourages that growth. It’s that spirit that really keeps me going.


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