Transforming Fringers

I’m sitting in the grass, in the shade of a gazebo, watching kids dancing on an outdoor stage while performers gingerly set up around them. I’m eating a green onion cake and drinking lemonade with half a lemon floating inside. A woman comes up and offers me a free ticket to some indoor show that’s starting in ten minutes. “My son can’t use it,” she explains.

If you’re an Edmontonian, the scene is set. But an anywhere-elser might need to be informed that this is the heart of the Fringe Festival, both literally and figuratively. All I’d need is a thick stack of handbills to promote my own show, and I’d be right back in the zone I occupied for the first 17 years of my theatrical career. For most of the years between 1991 and 2008, I was a playwright or director, or both—or else I was reviewing Fringe shows for See Magazine, an arts rag that no longer exists.

This summer, I have nothing to promote, and no assigned schedule of shows to review, and that freedom allows me to savour the taste of the onion cake, and affords me more of a choice about whether to accept this unexpected comp. The show has the word “Dick” in the title, but a quick glance at the poster board clarifies: it’s a detective spoof. But the poster also has the word “Psychic” on it, which implies audience participation. I politely decline. I feel badly for the performer(s)—12:30pm on a Thursday afternoon is not going to be a popular slot—but at least they got the money for that ticket. They can afford their own onion cakes later, or else they’ll skip them and go directly to the beer tent.

The Fringe got its hooks into me in 1991, when the festival was already almost 10 years old. That year, after seeing a couple of unmemorable plays, I somehow learned that anyone can do it. Three months later, when the Chinook Theatre began accepting applications for 1992’s indoor shows, there I was, with entry fee in hand. More precisely, there I was three days after the office began accepting applications, but I still got into the first-come, first-served lineup. I didn’t know it then, but that was the end of an era.

The following year, I showed up early on the first day, but the lineup of local applicants already stretched around the block. As a result, my Summer 1993 application ended up on the dreaded Waiting List. In a gesture of megalomaniacal frustration, I went and formed my own theatre festival, the Carnival of Shrieking Youth—but that’s another story.

The Fringe had outgrown the first-come, first-served system, but it took a few more years for Chinook Theatre (soon to become Fringe Theatre Adventures) to adapt. The application process for the ’94 Fringe became the stuff of legend in the Edmonton theatre scene. In early December, a few days before the office opened, numerous cliques of artists formed and nominated “spotters”—one artist per group who would snoop around the Bus Barns for any sign of a lineup forming early. As soon as the first hopeful Fringer arrived to stand in line, the spotters got on the phone (1994: no email, no texting) to all their chums, provoking a sudden flood, artists rushing in to join the line before the precious slots were all snatched up.

That year, the rush occurred three days before the office doors were even unlocked. Hundreds of artists, hunkered down in tents in the alleyway between Orange Hall and the Library. In the middle of the Edmonton winter. For three days and three nights. Eventually, the Fringe staff took pity and let us camp out indoors, but they still made us wait to be processed, like supplicants at the monastery. We slept on the floor. My mom brought us sandwiches. After three days, my application still ended up Number 16 on the waiting list.

With that kind of front-end commitment, some Fringe artists get heavily invested in their shows. Others wait until eight weeks before the festival to start writing, much less rehearsing (I notice a high volume of improv shows in this summer’s calendar. Clever kids). One can observe similar levels of investment in self-promotion. In my day, the Fringe boasted “over 100 indoor productions”—now it’s nearly double, thanks to the profusion of “Bring Your Own Venue” shows. If we wanted to draw any sort of audience, most of us had to scream pretty loud to match the chorus.

There were always a handful of companies and playwrights who seemed like they were above all that. Mostly, they were the “old guard,” artists who had been performing since the early 80s, when the Fringe was founded. Nearly all of them still have their names in the calendar, sometimes attached to numerous shows. I was jealous of their sold-out houses, their five-star reviews…and of how effortless they made it all seem. Most likely, there were other, younger artists who thought the exact same things about me and my clique.

My envy kept me from connecting much with the “old guard,” which sucks because a lot of them are great people. I also missed out on a whole other side of the Fringe experience by ignoring the national and international touring artists’ groups. It wasn’t till 2008, when I took a show on tour to 5 other Canadian Fringe festivals, that I understood the amazing cultural smorgasbord—not only the shows, but also the personalities of artists of all ages who are nuts enough to spend their summers touring foreign lands with intentionally weird-ass theatre projects. None of us ever made any money to speak of. But knowing that was freedom of a different kind.

I’m glad I’m out of it now. But I also miss the intensity and the creative madness. So many Fringe patrons, munching obliviously on green onion cakes, and never knowing what it’s like on the other side of the lineup.

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