Tuesday, June 26, 2012

After Dark, June 26, 2012

In The Heat of The Night
What is happening to the Fringe and do we all need to worry?
By Gaëtan L. Charlebois

The 2012 editions of the Montreal Fringe, The Ottawa Fringe and the London Fringe are over and that, my friends, is problem number one with that thing we love so much: The Canadian Fringe Movement.

The Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals is the organization that holds the rights, in this country, to that glorious name: Fringe. They can bestow it or not, based on certain criteria. This year they blessed a new Fringe, in PEI, the Island Fringe. But here's what else we THOUGHT they did: maintain order among the festivals. Apparently not.

Simply: this is bullshit.

Despite the fact we have about three months of Fringeable weather in Canada (four in some provinces) the various Fringes are now overlapping and egregiously. London wasn't done before Montreal started and Ottawa and Montreal ran virtually concurrently. Meanwhile, at the end of the season, two important festivals: Atlantic in Halifax and Vancouver, will be over-lapping again. Simply: this is bullshit.

Fringe companies and soloists (especially soloists) earn their living going from one Fringe to the next and here we are forcing them to play favourites. And some Fringes will lose.

That's one thing.

The other is that the days of bush-league Fringes with vermin-infested and unventilated venues should be pretty much over. Sure, it was charming when all this started 25 years ago, but when a Fringe star has to wake his or her audience up from a heat-induced torpor just to make an impression, something is wrong. I saw at least five shows this time out where I thought the performer (or I) might collapse. Might I suggest something? If there is no way around the unventilated venue problem, put the Fringe newbies in them - stop making the veterans and seasoned audiences pay and pay and pay for wanting to support this Movement. 

People don't have to spend a plug nickel on theatre to see theatre at the Fringe.

Another thing: events. Too many of them and, worse, they're sapping audiences away from the shows. Last weekend as I trudged from one sauna-venue to another to see PLAYS, I kept walking past readings and shows and concerts and fora where there was cold beer and a place to smoke and I was so tempted to just stay there...enjoy the weather and the good chat. People don't have to spend a plug nickel on theatre to see theatre at the Fringe.

Finally, and this goes to all Fringes: having lots of shows does not indicate growth. Lots of packed houses indicates growth. Montreal had over one hundred different productions and except for two shows free to Fringe volunteers, not one of the 12 performances I saw came close to selling out. And a lot of these were presentations by local favourites and international stars: Elizabeth Blue, Zack Adams, Jem Rolls. When, at the press conference here, they announced they were upping the ratio of local shows I thought: oh-oh. One Fringe veteran told me why that was a bad thing: the good local companies have their following and this audience goes from one local show to another while out-of-towners play to minuscule houses. Also, more locals means a higher ratio of frat-party shows - the kind of Fringe show that looks like it was rehearsed on a drunken Saturday night. These shows - as fun as they are sometimes - also tend to give the entire Movement a reputation as an event that presents nothing BUT frat-party shows. Another veteran told me why some stars had gone missing (and more, in the future, would go missing) from this, the Montreal Fringe: too many shows. Montreal simply does not have the audience-base for 100 shows and, bottom line, you can't make money in this city anymore.

This was a refrain I heard from several veterans who actually approached me to share this concern.

So add this to the festival overlap, bush-league venues, super-sized skeds and too many fucking events and you get...what?

I shudder.

And, yes, we should worry.


  1. Provocative article, Gaetan! I'm going to take your comments one by one:

    1) The Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals (CAFF) isn't the absolute boss of the Fringes: although it does hold the FRINGE trademark in Canada, the individual Fringe festivals are not franchises. CAFF and the Fringes all do their best to avoid overlap and, where that's impossible, to manage that overlap. Each Fringe has to deal with its own city's glut of festivals and availability (or lack thereof) of venues. There are also historical reasons for, for example, the Atlantic Fringe being when it is.

    Certainly, some artists do have to make choices as to which city to play. But this assumes all artists have actually gotten into all of the Fringes they want. For more than a decade now, CAFF has tried to facilitate touring by creating a "touring lottery" for artists who intend to perform at five or more Fringes, and all of the Fringes hold a number of slots for touring artists.

    2) You're right, the days of crap venues should be over. The problems are price and availability. Professional-grade theatres often aren't available 24/7 for the Fringe; or, if they are, they charge not only for the rental but for the time of their staff every hour the Fringe is there. That overtime adds up fast.

    Location is also an issue. Though the Petite Licorne, l'Esquisse, or Aux Écuries could be excellent Fringe venues, they're not exactly within walking distance of the Beer Tent. But is that really an issue? It's certainly debatable.

    3) Events. Your comment that events are "sapping audiences away from the shows" is not a fact. The average Fringe audience member goes to see 1-3 shows during the festival and doesn't really get involved in events outside of the plays they go see. Maybe they go to the beer tent, maybe they don't, but if they do, it's not for an event, it's just a break between shows. Attendance at most events seems to be very casual. And most of the audience for the music events is only there for those events. That said, god help the Fringe artist who has to compete with the Drag Races.

    4) Growth and the indication of growth are not the same thing. Even though the number of Montreal Fringe shows has increased, the average attendance per performance has remained stable (somewhere between 35-40 people/show). Not all local companies have a following, and not all out-of-town artists are superstars. Elizabeth Blue did her first Montreal Fringe show last year and built her audience like Zack Adams and Jem Rolls did, when each and every one of them arrived as complete unknowns. Case in point: TJ Dawe, who arrived in Montreal in 1998 when there were only 50 shows in the Fringe and never came close to even selling 50% of his venue that year.
    I also think your perception of the "frat-party" show is anecdotal, and certainly not unique to Montreal. There may be some truth in the notion that out-of-town companies are more experienced, that their shows have been performed before in their home cities, etc. But what I often heard when I was GM of the Fringe from Canadian artists was that they used the Montreal Fringe to workshop their new shows, then took that show on tour the following year. I have certainly seen my share of out-of-town Fringe shows that were not ready for prime time.
    It's true that touring artists don't make as much money in Montreal as they do in Toronto, Winnipeg or Edmonton, but there are historical, geographic, demographic, linguistic, and media-coverage-atic issues at play that have nothing to do with how many shows are at the Montreal Fringe or how many of them are local.

    So don't worry too much: the Montreal Fringe has actually been quietly and steadily thriving.

    Patrick Goddard
    General Manager, Montreal Fringes 1999-2004 and 2008-2011

  2. You can blame the G20 for a lot of the overlapping fringe schedule. The G20 in Toronto forced Toronto Pride into the Canada Day weekend, which had been Toronto Fringe territory. Pride and Fringe overlapping was a complete disaster for the Fringe as a lot of people and audiences are involved in both. That weekend was a wasteland of audience for the Fringe. However, the Canada Day weekend worked very well for Pride and they permanantly moved there. This forced the Toronto Fringe to move a week later, creating a gap after Ottawa and overlapping with Winnipeg. It's been dominoes from there as everyone has been trying to readjust. I know London is testing a new spot this year to see if they can increase their audiences. It's not perfect, unfortunately.

    As for large percentage of local companies, yes, it does make it harder on the touring artists. I know some who skip Toronto because of it. But I have to ask, who is the fringe for? Toronto has huge competition for the local spots because there are so many people here trying to make theatre and Fringe is the most economical way of making theatre. For people doing work with large casts, it's the only real way to get their work in front of audiences. If your local base is expanding, shouldn't they get access to the resources Fringe provides?

  3. Josh Weinstein

    I liked the Fringe a lot better when I could see a full PLAY. Now, 90% of the shows are solo shows. Solo shows aren't plays!!!

    So I quit going. I understand that current economics makes it hard for people to put on full-cast productions, but I'm not paying $12 unless I get some drama--which can only come from more than one person on the stage.

    My suggestion: cancel solo shows. That would decrease the amount of applicants.


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