The International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI) at the University of Guelph will host its second online round-the-clock festival, known as “if 2021.” This year’s programming will run for just over 25 hours, beginning at 7 p.m. ET on Friday, Aug. 13.

The online event will feature more than 150 artists from more than 20 countries. All performers are paid, and the event is free of charge.

“One thing that’s different this year is that nothing will be repeated during the 25 ½ hours,” said festival curator Dr. Ajay Heble, IICSI director and professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies (SETS). “All the content will only be aired once, whereas last year we did have a handful of repeats.”

The inaugural 2020 event drew a global audience of more than 2,500. Last year’s event was called deeply touching and beautiful by audience members and “a huge, cathartic rite” by Italian music magazine Musica Jazz.

“We were thrilled with the success of last year’s event,” Heble said.  “For if 2021, we would love to reach even more people. This year, we received some dedicated marketing funding, so we’ll be able to get the word out through paid advertising in some targeted spots. We hope this translates into more people tuning in.”

photo of Prof. Ajay Heble sitting next to a window
Dr. Ajay Heble

IICSI had talked about starting an improvisation festival for some time. Last year, as the COVID-19 pandemic and its physical distancing restrictions settled in, organizers saw an opportunity to hold an event that created a much-needed sense of community and sparked artistic hope and inspiration.

IICSI is an international leader in the study of improvisation in the arts.

Heble said improvisational artists were quick to respond last year to invitations to perform at the festival, and the same goes for this year. The event, he said, will showcase a broad range of creators, including musicians, dancers, theatre artists and filmmakers exploring the theme of pandemic constraints while imagining the world anew.

“I would very much like people to recognize the important role that the arts and creativity can play as vital tools for building resilient communities, promoting social cooperation and adapting to unprecedented change,” Heble added. “During uncertain times, improvisation can offer us inspirational lessons about resourcefulness, resilience and hope.”

He added that since the first lockdowns during the pandemic, arts organizations, artists and musicians around the world have demonstrated the effectiveness of improvisational responses, “creatively using public spaces and the digital sphere to connect artists with their communities in profoundly moving ways.”

World-renowned artists performing at if 2021 will include:

  • Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie
  • Free jazz musicians Matthew Shipp and William Parker
  • Japanese composer and pianist Satoko Fujii
  • Czech avant-garde violinist Iva Bittová
  • Canadian poet George Elliott Clarke
  • Canadian playwright and SETS professor Dr. Judith Thompson

The full line-up is on the event website.

“Recent international crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic and protests against racialized violence, have made clear the vital need for improvisation in our current moment,” Heble added.

“We are seeing, perhaps now more than ever, how individuals and communities must adapt to unprecedented situations, how they can build new ways of communicating with and relating to one another, and, in the words of Arundhati Roy, ‘imagine [the] world anew.’”

Festival and community organizations around the world have again worked closely with U of G to stage this year’s event. Participants include more than 25 partnering organizations across Canada and several international partners.

Support has come from Musagetes in Guelph, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Art Gallery of Guelph, U of G’s Office of the Vice-President (Research) and the College of Arts.


Dr. Ajay Heble