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.