Sunday, July 14, 2013

Sunday Feature: Gwynne Hunt wraps up the first Alberni Valley Fringe

by Gwynne Hunt

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. She is the Artistic Director of the Alberni Valley Fringe Theatre Festival. 

A few months ago I wrote an article called “To Fringe or Not To Fringe?”  I was challenged to bring a Fringe Festival to the small 17,000 person town called Port Alberni, BC.  After 14 years of producing a Fringe Fest in the Fraser Valley (Abbotsford/Mission) I felt I was up to the task. We received 20 entries and as we got closer to the June 21, 22, 23 Fringe dates I was getting worried that I was throwing a party that nobody was going to attend. 

By 10 PM of the first night when I was sitting in the back row watching Bitts of Tease Cabaret to a howling audience of over 150 as Vava Vunderbust was beating the bongos, I knew I had made a difference to the town, the Port Alberni theatre scene and to the future of small Fringe Festivals.  It can be done.

We had 959 ‘bums in seats’ as we like to say in Fringe-speak. You can’t do a head count as many of the people who go to Fringe shows go to several so we add up the ‘bums in seats’ and the total house for the festival; 959.

I also recognize that the travelling shows rely on the press

That is a pretty impressive number for 20 shows and a first year festival as most Fringe shows get between 30 to 80 people per show-we averaged 50 per show.  We had some shows that did not fare as well and some like Cougar Annie Tales who sold 88 tickets (audience of 130 counting cast/crew/volunteers) to two shows.  In spite of theatre goers in the ocean side fishing town’s tendency to like strippers and comedy, the Pick of the Fringe was a dance troupe from Victoria, Broken Rhythms who produced a beautiful fairytale called Grim.

I wouldn’t be able to call myself an activist and a person who likes to live on the ‘fringe’ if I did not mention that I d not agree with the trend for Fringe Festivals these days to in some ways encourage juried theatre by sponsoring Fringe Picks.  Fringe is live, unjuried theatre—nobody should stand in judgment of any show and declare it the ‘winner’.

However, I also recognize that the travelling shows rely on the press, the accolades and the ‘wins’ to promote their shows as they go from town to town. So, I arranged for a ballot box to be placed in the lobby and asked people to vote for their favourite show. I can still fill the mainstream tradition started by other Fringes and retain my rebel status. At least that is what I tell myself.  And to be honest the seven dancers were there when I called them to the stage to receive their award and they were super happy. They had never taken their show out of Victoria and it was an honour for them.

Art Matters Society produced the Festival with me as Artistic Director.  We paid for the venues or negotiated free space, garnered tons of free advertising, printed the tickets, put up posters, found billets for travellers, postered over 300 posters for out of town groups, found buskers to play guitar, sing, and face paint and we organized an opening night party and then let the festival play itself out.

There were a few lessons learned. 

Janet Munsil, the Executive Director of the Victoria Fringe offered to help out as her family lives in Port Alberni but I bet she didn’t expect to be cutting up vegetables for opening night. She sliced, diced and she did everything I asked of her; jumping in when I failed to organize a shift replacement for ticket sales or forgot an usher couldn’t make it.  With her and her dad’s help, things ran pretty smoothly.  We had about ten great volunteers and the Portal Players who run the Capitol Theatre were awesome in providing us with volunteer techs to run lights and sound.

There were a few lessons learned. We need to stagger the shows better as the smaller venue across the street did not enjoy the same crowds as the theatre.  I need to learn to ask for help in the planning stages and not do all the work.  I need to train the volunteers better.

Besides producing 14 years of Fringe Festivals in the past, I have organized several other theatre events and in all my years of experience I never enjoyed a festival the way I did this one. The shows were excellent quality, the performers gracious and tolerant, the volunteers helpful, and the audiences appreciative and for the first time ever I was given a standing ovation at the closing ceremony and presented with a bouquet of flowers.

People are just nice in Port Alberni.

I pulled a Sally Field. No, I didn’t cry out, “you like me, you really like me” but I did look at the crowd standing and clapping and I clapped my hands together with childlike glee and screamed, “I had this dream, I really did.”

OK, it was a bit embarrassing but in reality I have produced some 20 odd festivals and other events, I have also produced and directed close to 80 shows. Sure I’ve been given a rose once or twice, a pat on the back but I have never been given a standing ovation for my work.  Once at the end of a Theatre BC juried festival I fell off the stage when the lights were flashed in my eyes. Not only did I get a bad review from the adjudicator but nobody even helped me off the floor. 

People are just nice in Port Alberni.  Like the festival itself, that moment was awesome.  I realized that Port Alberni is a town that appreciates my vision and my energy. The larger cities I have worked in see over-achievers come and go. I have won awards before but nothing has ever felt so good. 

The President of the Portal Players said, “If you feel up to it and you want to do it again, we will continue to sponsor you.”

He didn’t have to ask twice - applications will be ready in September for the 2014 Alberni Valley Fringe Theatre Festival.

Read Gwynne Hunt's essay from before the Festival.

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