Fringe Festivals

Fringe Festivals  Splattered against the summer  landscape of Canada, when zine folks  don’t spend quite as much time in their  basements with glue sticks and stray bits  of cut out paper, independent theatre  turns quiet towns and neighborhoods  into colourful canvasses of performing  arts. Each of these festivals, which last  anywhere from 3 to 10 days, has the  word “Fringe” shoved somewhere into  their name, and vary as widely as  interpretations of that word do.

Ken  Pinto at the Atlantic Fringe gives a  widely approved definition of what the  Fringe festivals are all about: “A low  cost, low risk theatre delivery system for  art/ artists /audience. You learn by trial/  risk/error/terror/the free market.” Put  with less verve, send in your application  and cheque and you might just find  yourself at centre stage.  Two things make the existence of  this sort of festival vital: the cost of  presenting live theatre and the need for  an actual audience. While indie  publishers can jam a copy of their zine  in someone’s pocket or scatter them in  small book and record stores, live theatre  requires some semblance of an audience  that must be gathered and performed  for.

So one needs a designated place and  often such things as sound equipment,  lights etc. That costs big money; just  renting a venue runs in the hundreds if  not thousands of dollars. That’s where  Fringe Festivals step forward, gathering  together small troupes, individuals,  small companies and all other  configurations of performing artists, to  provide the trappings needed to face an  audience. More than 4,000 such  performances will take place this  summer.  So Fringe is a place where many  minds converge; writers, actors,  technicians and audiences. New and  unknown works get top billing with  more established acts. Volunteers push  and pull and get people into the seats  and the artists themselves retain  complete creative control and receive  one hundred percent of the box office,  minus their application fees, which can  run anywhere from $25 to $480.  Those fees, plus, of course,  corporate sponsorship, make it possible  to see a huge range of work, that,  perhaps most importantly, features local  talent in all of the various roles.  Although most of the festivals set their  playbills according to a first come first  serve basis, there are quotas to ensure  local folks get seen and heard. Some  festivals that receive far more  applications than they can possibly  accept use a lottery system where luck  of the draw literally determines the line- up.

The competition for spots in the  Fringe come from all over — the U.S.,  U.K., Germany, Australia etc., because,  while Fringe exists in the U.S., (there are  6 cities which host Fringe), and while the  idea was born in eighteenth century  Scotland and has dwelled there in  modern form since the 1950s, Fringe  really has become a Canadian thing.  North America saw its first ever Fringe  Festival in 1982 when Edmonton started  the canvas from the centre of this  landscape. Since then, Fringe spread out  across the country to thunderous  applause because it responds to that  truly Canadian condition where artistsmust do more for less, and just be happy to recoup their costs. These festivals attract innovative performers who appreciate an artist-controlled outlet. Joined together under the Fringe wing they rouse audiences from their homes and the people actually arrive in droves at the indoor and outdoor venues. Some festivals broaden the scope beyond theatre, including street performers, activities for children, art exhibits, dances and Improv games making the event a community-based celebration of the arts – certainly better than seeing Cats or The Phantom coming to a theatre near you. Attendance at all the Fringes is well over 500,000.

So think of these festivals as the zines of theatre. Some productions are glossy and perfect bound, and others are rumpled and poorly stapled. Some things you see will be truly radical, and others might remind you of high school. But if you’ve got the $8, and a night off this summer, and are near one of the many places across Canada where you will find the Fringe in its multiplicity of definitions, go and see what actors and playwrights in this country are cutting and pasting and drawing together.

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