Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Devil's Advocate #1

The Devil is Making us do it...

(see all Devil's Advocate topics so far)

Welcome to a new feature on CharPo. Every once in a while a question has to be asked of people who love theatre which may be provocative or even incendiary. That's what this open forum/thread is for. Join the convo in comments below.

On to the business of Devil's Advocate #1!

Canada's unique Fringe circuit has habituated theatre-goers - especially young ones - to small shows at low prices. (Even with this premise, some bitch there are too many solos at the Fringe.) Is it possible that we have created a climate where companies outside of the Fringe can no longer charge a fair price for tickets? Have theatre-goers been trained by the Fringe to expect hit-or-miss productions? Has accelerated growth at some of the fests tipped the balance between good productions done by veteran artists and crap? In short:

Is the Canadian Fringe circuit ruining Canadian theatre?


  1. I think that it's an important training ground. And I've loved the democracy of it. You find old pros, emerging artists, and complete outsiders. Those complete outsiders can sometimes create some of the more interesting work, and eventually become emerging artists and old pros. In that sense, it's *responsible* for Canadian theatre.

    The cheaper the shows, the more shows audiences members see. I will sooner drop 120$ on 12 shows than 45$ on one. At 12 shows, not only have I spent more than twice what I'd spent on a single ticket, I've also bought more beer, spent more on transportation, diners and other incidental spending that going out entails. Cheap shows make economic sense.

    Further, in seeing 12 shows instead of one, I've been able to experience community, be among other humans, and engage in ritual more, these activities have been shown to be in steep decline over the past few decades. The human animal requires these interactions order to thrive. Cheap shows also make social sense.

  2. I've always seen the Fringe as a 'gateway' for theatre-goers. Pretend Mrs Somebody isn't used to seeing theatre, but takes a plunge on a handful of shows that don't put her out of pocket too much, let's say, for the cost of a professional big-venue show she gets three tickets. One show is fabulous- a roaring good time, one yawner and one is not terrific but has moments of potential and whose artists clearly are high-spirited, devoted actors. She walks away from the festival knowing that this 'gamble' has paid off as such: 1- She feels that she contributed to the development of the theatre community through her $ support and participation in the beer tent/special events (feeling of inclusion), 2- She uses the buzz to comment on shows and shares her thoughts with other Fringers which prompts discussion about the medium (feeling of community), 3- She recalls several of the artists she liked and keeps an eye out for their work in the future (feeling of empowerment/affirmative choice).

    But then, come September, she shells out for a full-price ticket for a professional production, the only one running that weekend, and does not have the same experience, let's say, enjoying it 'halfway'. Mulling with friends and discussing the show is not much of an option as she went alone, nor is meeting the artists (in this circumstance), she does not review plays so has no public forum for opinion sharing, and so on. What does she take from the show?

    The most attractive aspect of the Fringe for me has never just been the quality of the shows, but the sense of community it instils, as in, art community, or community of people who can freely express their opinions and laugh together, roll their eyes together and be moved together. The intensity of the Fringe is special, and it's a beautiful evolving creature. I don't stay out til 3am much anymore after a full day of Fringing (or perhaps I may once more!) but the years of memories and experience the fest has given me are massive. I still recall incredible shows from 10 years past...

    This year, working with Imago Theatre gave me the chance to witness the awesome audience response during the post-show talkback sessions of the Wildside Fest in January. Merely providing audiences with the opportunity to discuss the show gave the experience an extra depth -- it was like participating in one of those really dynamic and telling university lectures (that I hope we all have had a chance to witness/engage in). Because theatre never really is a finished product--in that the spectator can feel it's a unique and evolving work (unlike film where the audience usually walks away with a sense of completion), there is a huge opportunity to make the medium far more interactive, which sadly is lacking in many professional Canadian productions. Thus, when money is spent and the spectator cannot share, ask, ponder aloud about the story they've just witnessed, of course they can feel robbed, as though they are expected to simply walk away. If that was the case, why does theatre exist? Should we just film the show and play it later?

    You've raised a really important question here that I think leads to this one: what is theatre FOR? As a sometimes actor/singer/playwright, I love the medium, and very much love being able to share the breadth of the experience (from both sides). I believe Canadian theatre is not ruined by the Fringe circuit, in fact, has a lot to learn from its format: why else is it so fringingly successful?

  3. I used to go to Place des Arts when they had noon-time excerpts of the Big Dance Shows, a chance to see some of it without the full price ticket. Lower prices mean people see more, and that raises their understanding of the art. If they see only one or two shows a year, they are likely choosing based on "most obvious" or a review by someone "they trust". Seeing lots means one can compare, see trends and patterns, see difference and commonality, to build up one's understanding of the art. Critics get to do that, they are paid to attend, "regular people" don't get that luxury. But until they've seen enough, they can't say much about what they've seen. When they see lots, they can even question the critics.

    Fringe ticket prices only matter if that causes prices to drop elsewhere. Some of us may not see much beyond the Fringe, some may go elsewhere after being tempted. But the Fringe is a different space. And people go to the Fringe for a different experience.

    For ten years, I saw almost every "Danse Vernissage" at Studio 303 here in Montreal, watching because it was five dollars each month, seeing different dance juxtaposed on the same bill. But it was excerpts or artists trying new things, sometimes artists going solo after being with a company, sometimes people who would never be seen at a larger venue. I saw the same piece multiple times, evolving each time. When they changed the venue, made the program more restrictive, raised the prices, it wasn't as much fun anymore. It wasn't just the higher ticket prices, it became like what existed elsewhere. And now new dancers and choreographers have to struggle to find a space to start out at.

    The Fringe fails when it becomes a comfortable venue. Artists can stay as long as a decade (that seems to be the limit), a familiar artist, a known show, but are they taking chances? And are they making money? Mari Osanai apparently stopped coming the Montreal Fringe because she was losing money, yet she got great reviews. She hasn't been back since she last appeared. Shakti the same, plus the familiar people putting on the solo successes. If there's no place for them to go after the Fringe, then they will keep coming back, not only using up slots that fresh blood could use, but likely suffering from the low ticket prices.

    There are exceptions, some artists do find a place after the Fringe. Steve Gallico, Rick Miller, lots of people who have moved to tv or movies, But, it sometimes seems like the Fringe becomes a ghetto m they can't move on because there's no other place. But one reason they can't move on is because Fringe is seen as "lesser", not good enough for the main stages.


  4. Let me throw this out there:

    1) Montreal is not really a "jazz" city despite the Jazz Fest. Do the Fringes nourish their cities small-theatre scenes? Really?

    2) Is there an unsubsidized company besides Mirvish making money? I know more companies which have gone under waiting for subsidy. Some of the comments here suggest cheap is good and I would suggest cheap encourages imagination (to some extent), yes, but may not pay for anyone's crust of bread.


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