Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sunday Feature: Gwynne Hunt, artistic director of the new Alberni Valley Fringe

To Fringe or Not To Fringe
by Gwynne Hunt, Artistic Director, Alberni Valley Fringe Theatre Festival
Gwynne Hunt is a writer, publisher, researcher, artistic director and producer. Her last two books were, Rampage:the pathology of an epidemic and a chapbook, brusies and bad haircuts. She teaches creative writing and theatre and currently runs an arts and crafts supply store while doing as much theatre as she can.
In 1998 I volunteered for the Abbotsford, B.C. Fringe Festival. A freelance writer, familiar with community theatre, I thought it might make for a few good articles. It was a life changing experience. After a solitary writer’s life, never knowing what people thought of my articles, I realized that writing and producing for a festival was instant feedback, a forum for my words and I got excited about the possibilities. I watched the parade of shows recognizing that instead of writing about the Fringe, I could write alternative theatre.
My first play called Breadlines was about poverty and my characters lined up at a soup kitchen, each in turn starting their monologues with, “I don’t belong here, I’m not like the rest of them.” It was the beginning of my writing and producing over 20 plays. 
Soon Abbotsford Fringe organizers felt the job was too big, people were coming from all over the world and it was too much of a responsibility. It took about three minutes of thought before I offered to take over. 

we did that with the help of an ex-con group who were doing good work in the community.

We produced live, unjuried theatre in the Fraser Valley for 14 years. It was a ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ festival. We found a movie theatre we could rent for $250 for five days. The only catch was we had to build a stage and tear it down every year but we did that with the help of an ex-con group who were doing good work in the community. It was a rewarding experience.
Last year I moved to Port Alberni, BC on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Port Alberni is at the end of a 40 mile inlet of ocean waters; beautiful, serene and the place I came to retire. That didn’t happen because within a few months I had opened an arts and crafts supply store called the Main Artery across from the Capitol Theatre. Within a couple of months I had my name in lights for instructing theatre workshops. Who doesn’t love their name in lights?
In the Fall I rented Char’s Landing to produce Breadlines. We sold 90 tickets and that seemed reasonable so I knew the town of 17,000 was ready for something different. Next we rented the Capitol and performed The Vagina Monologues to a sold out 220 seat audience.

I told the wistful thespian that we could do a Fringe Festival and set out to make that happen.

After a random conversation with a Portal Player’s member I committed to bringing a Fringe to Port Alberni. This is a town caught between mills shutting down, lay offs, and unemployment, struggling to find an identity. Port Alberni has a sign saying Argyle Street is in the Rotary Art's District and it occurred to me that I could try to live up to the street designation by bringing performance art to the street. I told the wistful thespian that we could do a Fringe Festival and set out to make that happen.  Our non-profit, Art Matter’s Society paid the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals who agreed to tentative permission to ‘Fringe’. Really?  They used to hand out CAFF memberships like candy on Halloween back in 1998. At first I didn’t want to put the work into something that may be taken away in 2014 but of course you can't ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ without courage.
Getting the word out about the new Alberni Valley Fringe Theatre Festival has been an intensive undertaking; contacting other Festivals for help, sending out press releases, hours on the internet finding possible acts. I really thought ‘who would want to come  to a town of 17,000 people to put on a show’. A lot apparently. First I had to convince the Portal Players to help me. I asked for a reduced rental of the theatre, they gave me the theatre for free. 
The line up this year for the inaugural Fringe in Port Alberni includes; Grim, a dance fairy tale from the Broken Rhythms Dance Troupe from Victoria, Cougar Annie Tales also from Victoria, The Oblivion Series from New Westminster, Jake West Circus Artist from Chilliwack, Take Five and An Actor’s Nightmare from Quadra Island, A Crack in My Reality from Gibson’s Landing, Standing Up For Myself from Chemainus and a burlesque routine from Miss Rosie Bitts from Victoria.
Locally, my children’s play, MacBethie and my new one act “capsule-it’s about time”, Connections and The Raven from two new writers and Ballerinas from the Portal Players.  The local high school Drama Club has written a play called One Prince, No Waiting. An Aboriginal carver, Jason Titian is performing his Birth of Releasing Light Kreations and singer/songwriter Misha Munroe will perform, as will poet Stephen Novik in Eye Thoughts of Verse City. The Port Alberni Improv Army will perform a FringeProv Comedy. We have 19 shows.

There is a lot left to do before June 21, 22, 23 when Fringe Fest hits the Alberni Valley.

Art Matter’s Society like all the other producers of festivals organizes, pays for everything and promotes the shows. There is a lot left to do before June 21, 22, 23 when Fringe Fest hits the Alberni Valley. We find billets for our out of town performers, sell buttons to raise money, produce tickets and Fringe passes.  There is a ton of administration to organize, volunteers to find, sponsors to acquire. Based on my years of experience I think we will attract over a thousand people to our ‘art’s district’ and this will be one of the best Fringe Festivals I have ever organized because the people here take ‘art to heart’.
The companies performing at the Fringe pay for their time slot but get 100% of ticket sales. It is a huge opportunity for theatre groups to perform as most can’t rent a theatre and pay for tech support on their own. It is all about fostering and encouraging art in the community. Everyone has a story and Fringe Festivals offer the opportunity to share those performance art pieces without boundaries or judgment.
If we can Fringe in Port Alberni, you can Fringe just about anywhere.  If you have already caught the ‘fringe bug’ drop by the Main Artery, 4969 Argyle Street, Port Alberni or email for more information.

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