Saturday, February 1, 2014

jackDawe, February 1, 2014

Disappearing Acts
by TJ Dawe

Is fringe touring disappearing? Maybe. 

I started touring my own shows in '98. Many festivals were first come first served. A few were lotteries. 

Now they're all lotteries, and they're clogged as a hair filled tub. In December the Toronto Fringe put out a list that included all the applicants that didn't even make their wait list. It's longer than Infinite Jest

Since 2002 or so there's been the CAFF lottery. Get drawn in that, and you're in as many festivals as you like (minimum five). Ten companies get drawn a year. I've applied every year. Never gotten drawn. 

In spite of that, I toured eight or nine festivals a summer pretty much every year till 2008. It was reliable that I could get into that many. I knew plenty of other people who did this too.

Not so much anymore. 

They came up with their own stuff. They were rarities. 

Over the past five years I've noticed friends trying to build on a hometown success only getting accepted into one or two festivals. Or none. 

I've seen veterans curb their touring, simply because they aren't getting drawn in any of the lotteries.

I planned a bigger tour for this summer. I got into two festivals (Orlando - where few international applicants apply, and Victoria)(and damn, was I lucky to get drawn in Victoria, looking at their wait list). I'm applying for a BYOV in Edmonton. The three venues I've used as a BYOV in Winnipeg in the past don't have room for me this year. 

What's happened? Fringe audiences aren't much bigger. Fringes aren't crawling with agents and producers and talent scouts and artistic directors. It's the same fringe circuit it ever was. 

Here's my theory: there's more of a culture of self-created theatre than there used to be. When I was a theatre student in the 90s, I looked up to Daniel MacIvor, Ronnie Burkett, Spalding Gray. Writer/performers. Creators. They didn't audition and play roles. They came up with their own stuff. They were rarities. 

I did my first tour in '94, in a MacIvor play David Cheoros (a grad student where I was an undergrad)(and he's the guy who runs the Edmonton BYOV I'm hoping to do my new show in this year) directed, and found the fringe circuit full of creators. Foursight Theatre, Way-Off Broadway, Naomi Cooke, Karen Hines, Frank Mecshkuleit, Sensible Footwear. The fringe was a rarefied environment where theatre audiences were open to original, self-created work. 

Since then, self-created theatre has made significant inroads into mainstream houses. Mike Daisey, Forced Entertainment, Mump & Smoot, the Pajama Men, Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland, the Electric Company. The PUSH festival, the High Performance Rodeo, Magnetic North, UNO, the Wildside Festival. 

the monolithic big houses did take care of a selected circle. They still do.

Theatre students are exposed to more of this stuff. More of them are graduating and going in that direction instead of solely auditioning, or auditioning at all.

This fits in with a bigger cultural trend. People are more likely to become entrepreneurs than before. There are more options than getting an entry level job with a big corporation and trusting that they'll take care of you till you retire. Theatre companies were never really like that, but the monolithic big houses did take care of a selected circle. They still do. But it's a shrinking circle. 

These days, musicians put out their own music on sound cloud, and indie labels. You can find an audience without big label and radio support. Anyone can write their own blog, and some hit it big. Film festivals thrive. Cable shows hold their own at TV awards. Web series rack up hits by the millions. Anyone can create something and post it on Youtube. Some go viral, completely by their own merits. 

I'm happy to see this wider acceptance of the micro as well as the macro. I'm encouraged by this increasingly widespread interest in the kind of theatre I gravitate toward. 

The work was tilted in the direction of original creation - overwhelmingly so. 

But I'm sorry to see the decline of across-the-circuit touring. A nine festival tour translates to roughly sixty performances. A show grows in that span. It can't not. You learn as a performer. If it's your script, you'll change it as you go, based on how it's playing. It's an excellent, on-your-feet education. 

But there's no guidance from above, no mentorship. There isn't a grounding in tradition - though many artists come from formal training. The artist is left to make her own discoveries, which is both good and bad. 

So what do you do when you can't tour the fringe anymore? Play the game. Submit your work to artistic directors and juried festivals. Apply for funding. The climate's changing. There's more acceptance for new, rule-breaking, unpublished theatre than there used to be.

I recently attended the AGM-a-palooza in Vancouver. A handful of small companies had seven minutes each to tell their assembled peers what they've been up to and what they're working on. The work was tilted in the direction of original creation - overwhelmingly so. 

Give it another 20 years, and perhaps the seasons of major houses will tilt that way too. And maybe there'll be more festivals providing avenues for self-creators who haven't found a place in the system yet. There's certainly enough talent itching for a chance to be seen.


  1. I have seen several of your Fringe shows, either with you or by other people. You have a very consistent level of quality in your creations. I think it is time for you to move beyond the Fringe. Free up space for the next generation. Move to the mainstream or cut a new path in theatre in Canada. You can do it!

  2. Actually, I'm already involved in a number of outside-the-fringe projects (I'm writing this from the space where I'm working up the projection cues for a 22 minute piece I've devised as part of Boca Del Lupo's micro-performance series). But I've honed the part of my mind that turns my experiences and thoughts into minimalist monologues - a harder sell outside the fringe, but something there's a ready audience for within the fringe. And there's something immensely satisfying about coming up with an idea, writing the script, and within six months, it's up, running, getting responses from the audience, etc. Right now that part of my creative life is happening in tandem with the much longer timelines of all of these other projects. Apart from this piece for Boca Del Lupo. that's happened pretty quickly and easily.

  3. You mentioned Mike Daisy, I also note people like David Gorman getting a TV special (or two) produced in a one-man-show style. The success of comedians like Louis CK and Aziz Ansari selling a download of a live performance video might hold some attraction for a performer like yourself. If I know how you run your tours, you use your scripts as a value-add to people who come and see the show, so maybe paid downloads as well?

    Maybe only record certain pieces, or compose things that are original, so you don't cannibalize your own business.

    Of course this is just one suggestion. Another would be a TJ Dawe "label" of sorts, where you can endorse someone else's product, and they share revenue in exchange for your advice. Become an Angel Investor in creative projects, where your name lends as much if not more to the attention around a project than money or resources alone could. If there were a network of such like-minded "investors" promoting shows across the continent, complete with "opening acts" of up-and-coming local artists, we'd be recycling a centuries-old business model the latest incarnation of which was Vaudeville. Although I suppose it helped in Vaudeville that people owned multiple venues.

    I'm sure I'm skipping 10 or 15 really important points, but this is an internet comment, what do you want?

  4. I want a fully thought out business plan, that's what! What kind of an internet comment was that?

    Actually, a fully thought out business plan would be much appreciated, because something I've come to really understand about myself in the last few years is how little brains and inclination I have for the production side of show business. I'm swamped with admin (and I do it all myself) at the level I'm at - and Fringe Festivals really make it easy for you. So I'd love to do a digital download of a show, or have my own label, but the amount of work that'd be involved to make that actually happen… oy. I'd need people working for me. Or with me. People I can't afford to pay. Not now, anyway.

    But I'm toying with the idea of putting a pretty good video recording of my show Medicine on youtube, in its entirety. See what the effect of that would be. Would that kill all future bookings? or would it increase them…

    I've got video and audio recordings of other shows, and it's been on my list literally for years to do something with these things, but there's no deadline on that, and no money (in the immediate future), and a whole lot of drudgery. So I find myself not doing them. I hope to. Someday.

    In the meantime, I'm rehearsing The Fugue Fugue - which has a dress rehearsal tonight! I'm getting the technical elements in place for PostSecret: the Show, which goes up in April, and soon I'll be memorizing and revising Marathon, which goes up in Orlando in May. And I'm also redrafting two screenplays with a writing partner across the country. And turning the Fugue Fugue into a two person show with another collaborator in July. I'm remounting Medicine in a couple of weeks. And I'm doing a reading of Lucky 9 and giving a talk at an Enneagram conference in a week. I just sent off two blog articles half an hour ago. And my taxes (which I have to do for two countries, having dual citizenship) loom over me like a thundercloud. And there's other stuff too. Oh boy.


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