The Fringe returns to its experimental roots: tickets go on sale Wednesday at noon

Merk du Solapocalyse. Photo by BB Collective.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The name of this year’s edition of the Edmonton Fringe is itself is a spirit-lifter, par excellence: Together We Fringe. It’s a salute to live gathering — in a nutshell exactly what we’ve been missing in the cruellest test of perseverance and ingenuity the theatre has ever known.

Tickets for Together We Fringe: A Fringe Event go on sale at noon Wednesday, for a unique edition of our summer theatre extravaganza. Togetherness — “but with elbow room!” as Fringe director Murray Utas puts it — marks the Fringe’s return to live theatre, inside and out- (in addition to digital programming).

After the heartbreaking cancellation last summer of Fringe #39, The Fringe That Never Was, the mighty Edmonton Fringe enters its ‘40s dramatically smaller, “hyper-local,” trimmed, modified and constrained for safety. Utas calls it “a one and done situation, “an anomaly year after the heartbreak of the one we cancelled.”

And since the Alberta government has deliberately rejected all considerations of public safety in this second pandemic summer, it’s the theatre, its artists, and this the oldest and biggest Fringe festival on the continent, who’ve stepped up with detailed precautions. “We invest in human beings,” says Utas pointedly.

The epic dimensions of our beloved summer giant have shrunk for this year. Instead of the 260 shows in some 50 indoor venues of 2019’s monster Where The Wild Things Fringe, you have 50-plus productions to choose from, dispersed through 11 indoor venues (schedule and show information at fringetheatre.ca). Each is reduced to 60 per cent audience capacity for social distancing, and mask-wearing is obligatory indoors.

Instead of the usual 11 official Fringe venues, programmed by lottery, there are but three: the Westbury Theatre, the Backstage Theatre, and the Old Strathcona Performing Arts Centre. A fourth, the Roxy on Gateway,  renamed pêhonân (Cree for gathering or waiting place) for the Fringe, is home to Indigenous artists, in eight one-off shows, plus a variety of audience engagement events, interviews, conversations, all curated by the Fringe’s new director of Indigenous strategic planning Josh Languedoc. More about this in an upcoming 12thnight post. And there’s an outdoor Vanta Youth Stage in Nordic Park (in Lighthorse Park, 10345 85 Ave.), devoted mostly to youth programming.

The rest are BYOVs (bring-your-own-venues, acquired, outfitted and curated by artists): two at La Cité francophone and the Grindstone Comedy Theatre, plus the Garneau Theatre, the Varscona, and the Yardbird (curated by Rapid Fire Theatre).

So, the Fringe playbill of 50 or so shows is only about a quarter the size of the usual festival. All the shows in the lotteried venues have been filmed for online viewing; most were slated for last year. When the Fringe was cancelled in 2020, those artists got first right of refusal.

There’s a live-streaming venue programmed from the Nordic Studio inside the ATB Financial Arts Barn by the actor/ dancer/ choreographer Amber Borotsik (available free on Fringe TV).      

For the first time in its own 32-year history the Freewill Shakespeare Festival will be at the Fringe, doing fast and furious small-cast portable versions of Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing, the former indoors and the latter on the Vanta outdoor stage (stay tuned for a 12thnight post about this).

There are names you’ll know from Fringes past. God, for example, will be present (Mike Delamont’s God Is A Scottish Drag Queen celebrates His 10th anniversary with a “best of” show.) Rebecca Merkley, the multi-faceted playwright/director/musician, brings a fourth instalment of her sparkling Merk du Soleil series: Merk Solapocalypse is part spoof, part absurdist satire, part jukebox musical, part pop-mashup, part meditation on the pandemic and its devastating effect on the arts. Gordon’s Big Bald Head, the deluxe trio of Mark Meer, Ron Pederson and Jacob Banigan, is back with MasterThief Theatre, in which they improvise everyone else’s show.

There are new names. And there’s a lot of improv. But then, as Utas points out in full existentialist philosopher mode, “the times are uncertain; everyone is improvising; we’re all improvising!”

Perhaps the biggest change you’ll notice this year, though, is in the Fringe’s massive carnivalesque crowd scene. Ingenuity was required to modify it for distanced safety, and still retain a sense of “the Fringe experience,” that indefinable but palpable sense of discovery, altered consciousness, and the smell of mini-doughnut grease.

Yes: there will be green onion cakes and food trucks. Yes: there will be beer. Yes: there will be a variety of shows in ATB Park (aka the Gazebo Park). But for the first time, that park is gated, and you need a ticket to get in. “The $20 ticket gets you a two-hour framework, two (family friendly) shows, and a surprise ‘tweener,” says Utas. In the evening, it’s an outdoor music venue. And a $25 ticket gets you two bands, each doing a 45-minute set.

In honour of 40 years of fringing the infinitely wry and misleadingly mild-mannered playwright/director Gerald Osborn has devised a free audio walking tour of early Fringe sites of note, starting with the Princess Theatre. From the dank basement of that establishment, “Father Fringe” Brian Paisley (voiced by Utas, whose general lingo has something in common with the Fringe founder) launched a summer theatre experiment in 1982 — come, bring a show, see if anyone wants to see it — that turned out to transform a city.

“This festival is honouring the process of creating,” says Utas of this summer’s unique edition of the Fringe. “It celebrates the not-quite-done, the ‘I don’t know, let’s figure it out as we go along’…. The Fringe was as always an experiment. And now, the first and biggest, it’s still a one-off.”

Now, for 2021, “it’s the Fringe of the Fringe.”

Ticketing: You can book tickets online (tickets.fringetheatre.ca), on the phone (780-409-1910), or (the not-preferred method) in person at the box office in the ATB Financial Arts Barn (10330 – 84 Ave.). Artists set the ticket price for live shows to a $13 max, plus a $3 Fringe service charge. The surcharge is reduced to $1 for shows with ticket prices under $10. For digital versions of live shows, Utas explains, “we’re letting the audience decide the ticket price” between a $5 minimum and $13. “That way they know they’re not getting Netflix!”

   

   

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Together We Fringe: the second annual live Telethon happens Friday

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Last year about this time, we were still reeling from the woulda/coulda been’s — and the heartbreak that the 39th annual Fringe was cancelled. That was a first. And so was the telethon that The Fringe That Never Was held on Fringe TV, propelled by festival director Murray Utas’s question: “can you imagine Edmonton without the Fringe?”

We can’t, in truth. Fringers stepped up. The Fringe is back, safely small but live!, for a 2021 edition with a celebratory name: Together We Fringe. And there’s a second annual Fringe Telethon, Friday, to ensure its future.

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Live on Fringe TV from the Westbury Theatre, 2 to 6 p.m., it includes an array of live performances, DJ Red Cloud, and an excerpt from the Fringe show The Man Who Fell To Pieces for another. Interviews with such Fringe artists as the creators of CHANZO are on the afternoon’s program too. And the full show lineup, some 60 of them live, will be revealed on fringe theatre.ca, so you can study up and plot your Fringe before the tickets go on sale Aug. 4 at noon. The Telethon hosts are a lively trio: Utas, Megan Dart, and Josh Languedoc.

EPCOR, and its invaluable Heart + Soul Fund, will match the first $25,000 in donations, dollar for dollar. Phone lines are open 2 to 10 p.m. (780-448-9000).

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En route to Heaven (and Alberta’s Black history), live at the Citadel: meet star Helen Belay

Helen Belay in Heaven, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Janice Saxon.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Getting to Heaven was “a long, winding journey,” says Helen Belay.

Belay is not only the star of the Cheryl Foggo play of that name starting its live run on the Citadel’s Shoctor stage Saturday. But getting to Heaven was her choice, the result of her quest, as a member of the trio of BIPOC Citadel artistic associates appointed this past year, to find  “a story we thought needed telling…. In my brain, my northern star was the question of what black folk need right now, a story that will feed us.”

“We all deserve a simple true human story, an honest reminder of our own humanity.”

Edmonton audiences have seen the multi-talented Belay in such high-contrast productions as the Teatro La Quindicina screwball Vidalia, the black comedy The Society for the Destitute Present Titus Bouffonius at Theatre Network, and the dark prairie drama The Blue Hour at the SkirtsAfire Festival. In Heaven we meet Belay as Charlotte, a spirited young Black woman in the 1920s who arrives from Ontario to be a teacher in the Amber Valley in Alberta.

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Amber Valley: that settlement of Black pioneers, former slaves who’d fled escalating racial violence south of the border in the late 19th and early 20th century, is a shamingly little known and untaught part of our shared Canadian history. It figures prominently in playwright/historian Foggo’s own cross-border family story of the early 1900s, as she told 12thnight in 2017 when Workshop West was producing her play John Ware Reimagined.

And, “although very different in its particulars,” as Belay points out, the story has powerful parallels to the narrative of her own family. She is the child of Ethiopian immigrants (her father is a research scientist) who arrived here, via England, as “people looking for a better life, who put their faith in the unknown” when conditions became insupportable.

Belay, a U of A theatre school grad, knew about the Amber Valley and its population of refugees from working as a historical interpreter on 1920 Street at Fort Edmonton Park. She made up a character to play, one Zelda Dupuis, “who was either a proud city gal or a kind-hearted rural woman, depending on the day”). “We weren’t at the point yet when we were talking about ‘diverse narratives’,” she says. “But it (i.e. Alberta’s Black history) just didn’t come up; that’s what I noticed.”

“I began to feel this sense of dissonance…. I’d be teaching this history, and people would come up to me, innocently, and say ‘you’re great but I was just wondering ‘would you be here?’. And I didn’t have an answer. And that bothered me.”  The question they were asking, of course, was about the presence of a Black person in Alberta in 1920.

And what Belay remembers vividly from her researches about Amber Valley was “being profoundly moved by the story of these people…. I’d become really fixed on sharing this history. And so to find this play, by an incredible artist, was mind-blowing; it felt like a gift from above.”

As a storyteller, “I love history…. How can you know where you’re going if you don’t know where we’re coming from.” What she’s learned from studying history, she says, is that “there’s always an exception to what we think is true. And the exception is almost always bigger than we think….” If we assume a certain time and place was only populated by white men, well, think again. That white-centric view of the past is sustained by “the people doing the researching, the writing, the recording.”

The love story of Heaven, its setting in Amber Valley, the Citadel production directed by Patricia Darbasie, all gain  resonance in the context of the pandemic year with Black Lives Matter, and ongoing reassessments of diversity and access within the theatre industry itself.

“It feels like we’re all collectively thinking about diversity with a bit more courage, I think,” says Belay. “These discussions, hard but so necessary, do discomfit a lot of people…. I’ve had the experience of bringing things up, and watching people shut down.” Now they’re more apt to “attempt to actively engage,” she’s found.

“In my life, sometimes, I’ve been made to feel that my Blackness and what I bring to the table are two separate things. Blackness as something to be fixed, something to be worked around. People just not knowing what to do with it.”

“People wanting so badly to make me feel equal and included. But it’s just awkward. That hasn’t shifted,” Belay thinks. But people are more able these days to “accept that awkwardness as a gift…. As a working actor, I’m lucky. It’s seen — without my prompting — as broadening discussion. Instead of something to be navigated around, it’s like an added element.”

“I don’t go through the work reminding myself of my own racial identity. It’s life that reminds me….”

“How we portray people is really powerful,” Belay says, of her love of theatre. “And it’s important for people to see not only themselves but other people…. Who was it who said ‘theatre is like a gym for your sense of empathy’? There’s a real opportunity to feel understood, or to understand a bit more about the world. And that is transformative!”

Not only have Belay and her fellow artistic associates Mieko Ouchi and Tai Amy Grauman each chosen a play, “a story we felt needed telling,” for the Citadel’s Horizon Series (the others are Mary’s Wedding and A Brimful of Asha), but they’ve highlighted mentorship (the RBC Horizon Emerging Artist Program) for artists. And her time at the Citadel has given her a new appreciation of “the meticulous work that goes into planning a season,” and sowing seeds for long-term change. “I was privileged and lucky to be working with a bevy of really generous people who received the events of last year … and said ‘how do we make this better?’ I really have felt welcome, and listened to….”

It took months of sleuthing, Belay says, to come up with Heaven, the play (first produced at Calgary’s Lunchbox Theatre two decades ago) that met her particular requirements.  Not one of the ever-increasing archive of contemporary plays about about radicalized trauma, “important though they are,” but “a story of love and light and hope.” Heaven, she says, has its political edges to be sure, but it’s “more  true to my lived experience as a Black person.” She cites the assistance of such artists as playwright Donna-Michelle St. Bernard and Brian Quirt of the Banff Centre Playwrights Lab in exploring possible choices en route to Heaven.

Charlotte, the teacher who comes west to Amber Valley, is a role to cherish, says Belay. “She’s young and feisty and smart. Very strong-willed. She’s trouble! Quite the firecracker. I’m enjoying her, a lot.”

“She’s educated; she’s opinionated. She hasn’t seen the kind of active racial hatred that made the settlers in Amber Valley leave home…. And you get a glimpse of the diversity within the Black community itself.”

PREVIEW

Heaven

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Cheryl Foggo

Directed by: Patricia Darbasie

Starring: Helen Belay, Anthony Santiago

Running: Saturday through Aug. 15

Tickets: 100 per performance in the 681-seat Shoctor Theatre. Available at citadeltheatre.com or 780-425-1820.

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The first line of your play is here: a public service from 12thnight

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight

The week in overheard lines (from walking alone), a selection of possible first lines for your play-in-progress.

The Fringe is coming. So feel free to use any of the following (since “Who’s there?” and “When shall we three meet again…?” are already taken):

•“Talking to him is like talking to someone who’s dead.” (possible thriller?)

•“In the end I did apply. And I haven’t heard a thing. NOT A THING. (pause) Typical.”

•“One hour 15 on hold….”

•“Fucking sourdough.”

•“My mother is on my case, just one thing after another….”

•“Don’t mind him…. He’s just being friendly.” (giant growling dog, rushing over, no leash).

•“I just think it’s going nowhere; I mean, I even hate his music.”

•“Start with going for coffee, then see….”

•“I mean, what the fuck.” (all-purpose)

•”She’s like ‘snap out of it’.”

•”Works better with gin than vodka….”

•”Even with the stairs, it’s still only, like, 8,000….”  (limited audience appeal)

•“I don’t know where I got it….” (no one wants to see this play)

•“Whatever….” (homage to Pinter or Beckett?)

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Thoughts on the Plain Janes’ Scenes From The Sidewalk the sequel

Scenes From The Sidewalk – an inside-out cabaret relocated to the Westbury Theatre lobby, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

You have to hand it to the catastrophe that is the pandemic: it’s impossible now to take for granted the “live” in live theatre. “Going out to the theatre,” a phrase to be tossed off expectantly in my line of work, has a newly minted kind of thrill to it. The feel of an adventure. If I ever took it for granted, I sure don’t now.

It’s exciting to go out and have theatre be your destination. Hell, it’s even a bit exotic finding parking in Old Strathcona.

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That’s what happened last night. The air was so coughable that the Plain Janes moved their Scenes From The Sidewalk “inside-out cabaret” inside — the Janes’ artistic director Kate Ryan called it “an inside-inside cabaret” — for the second of their sold-out two-performance run.

The sidewalk is where you hang when you can’t go inside. In the first instalment of Scenes From the Sidewalk last September, the performers were outside the Varscona, looking in at an audience of 20 with masks, clean hands and a temperature of 37 or less in the lobby, looking out. This time the “inside” was the lobby of the Fringe’s Westbury Theatre (everyone was masked, and that felt relaxing). And, hey, here’s a cheering thought: intermission, verboten in the depths of the pandemic, is back!

The intervening 10 months, isolating and scary, have ceded, if not quite given way, to a feeling that didn’t resonate in 2020. “Have you ever felt like nobody was there? Have you ever felt forgotten in the middle of nowhere?” wonder the cast together in one of the evening’s finale ensemble numbers (Found/Tonight, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pasek & Paul). “Have you ever felt like you could disappear? Like you could fall, and no one would hear? Well let that lonely feeling wash away….”

Wash away it does in the togetherness experience that is theatre. Funny how musical theatre and even pop song lyrics take on new colours from their environment, one that feels different in a somewhat vaccinated summer, in sometimes subtle ways, from 10 months ago.

Beautiful City from Godspell, for example, sung by newcomer Logan Stefura, loses its carapace of pandemic edge in the hopefulness of the moment (“not a city of angels/ But we can build a city of man”). Ditto Feeling Good from The Roar of the Greasepaint the Smell of the Crowd, performed by the formidable triple threat/spoken word poet Althea Cunningham. Or I’m Not Afraid of Anything, an escalating anthem to self-confidence from Jason Robert Brown’s Songs For A New World, delivered with major impact by the charismatic Daniela Fernandez.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more darkly funny song about the ironies of death than My Dogs from the William Finn musical Elegies, written in the aftermath of AIDS 9-11. The wry Josh Travnik makes a meal of it — as he does with the breathless momentum of  One by One by One from the Adam Gwon musical Ordinary Days, whose frustrated protagonist, rebuffed over and over by urban passersby in his quest to distribute handbills for a visual artist who’s in jail, sings “the city tends to make me feel invisible.”

So are we ready to shed the cloak of invisibility that wrapped around us when all human contact was declared dangerous? As always the Janes mine the musical theatre and pop repertoire for songs that get at questions like that, in clever ways. Gwon’s Calm (sung by Rain Matkin-Szilagyi, who’s a real find) is playful about the frantic life that catapults towards a calm that feels all wrong.     

The seven-member cast  — including musical theatre composer/lyricist Graham, a sympathetic and lively accompanist at the keyboard — have chosen songs that speak to them. Graham, who’s off to NYU Tisch this fall, is a talent to watch, judging by the musical Marnie Day he wrote with cast-mate Sue Goberdhan, and his song In 50 Years, with its lyrical insights in how to approach a future that is anything but certain.

Time, suspended indefinitely during the pandemic, is back in operation. As the finale of Marnie Day has it, “We don’t got forever…. You just gotta do what you can with the time you’ve got….”

Back to the theatre, my friends, to discover the possibilities.

   

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The Grindstone is ready to crack you up: the Comedy Fest is back

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca    

In a laughter-parched land, there is hope.

After a year of set-backs, re-sets, contortionist pivots and ingenious work-arounds involving the great outdoors in all kinds of weather, the Grindstone Theatre in Old Strathcona launches a second edition of its Comedy Festival Wednesday.   

Try as he might, the Grindstone’s indefatigable artistic director Byron Martin had to cancel last year’s fest, all planned and contracted as it was. True, complicated logistics didn’t prevent him from throwing a last-minute five-day socially distanced “mini-Fringe” at the end of August. The Re-Set Festival had nine rotating improv, stand-up, and sketch comedy shows in two tiny venues, including the Grindstone’s 84-seat bistro headquarters on 81 Ave.

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After all, Martin himself, who must have been terrified by a moment of inactivity as a child, is a spontaneity specialist. A rare example of a triple-threat/impresario, he’s also an improv artist, the creator of (and participant in) the hit show The 11 O’Clock Number, an entirely improvised musical that’s part of the Comedy Fest. And improv artists are trained to say Yes.

“I reached out to the 2020 artists first,” Martin says of the lineup of talent for the the five-day festivities. He lost a couple of headliners in the intervening time, “but I’m excited and feeling hopeful about this year!”

The starry all-Canadian line-up includes John Dore (of self-titled meta-reality mockumentary-style TV series fame), Chris Locke (from Baroness Von Sketch and CBC’s The Debaters), Adrienne Fish, Andrea Jin, and Ryan Williams.

Local faves include the sparkling sketch trio Girl Brain, Rapid Fire Theatre’s Marv n’ Berry, Charles Haycock, and the elite virtuoso improv team Mark Meer and Ron Pederson. The latter, incidentally, leads a one-day improv workshop July 23 as part of Grindstone’s education program. Ah, and did I mention the Stand-Up Stand-Off Competition (the finals are on Wednesday night)?

The Comedy Festival has five days of indoor shows (two shows a night) in the Grindstone Theatre, plus entertainment on the new 250-seat Howl & Roar Records Outdoor Stage in the Trinity Lutheran parking lot next to the Grindstone (mask-wearing is “encouraged but not “enforced”). Creating that second venue outdoors was a response to pandemic vagaries: “we were locked down and re-opened so many times,” sighs Martin.

The Grindstone has also reno’ed a 120-seat venue under the Mill Creek Cafe, “down the hall” from the Sewing Machine Factory on Whyte. As Martin describes, the new Grindstone Studio is a rehearsal studio and stage, and contains the office of Grindstone’s “education manager.” Grindstone holds comedy classes of all kinds, and the upcoming Camp Grindstone is (July 26-30 and Aug. 23 to 27) is “a weeklong exploration of Grindstone’s signature classes” in improv, sketch writing, performance art, musical theatre.

Actually, Grindstone, which hosts “events” for every known holiday and then some, is home to no fewer than four festivals this summer. After the Comedy Fest comes a big outdoor dance party/disco party July 31 and Aug. 1, at Louise McKinney Park. Then Grindstone is a Fringe BYOV with two venues — the bistro theatre headquarters (the outdoor patio space will be the show lobby) and  the new Grindstone Studio — each with  five or six shows. Then, there’s the second annual Mural Festival…. Even the tireless Martin allows that “it’s a bit overwhelming now … but it feel great!.”

And all of the above, of course, is in addition to running a bistro and bar, with his brother Joses Martin, the Grindstone’s producer.

The idea of “an indie comedy festival to support local comedians” in a combo of improv, sketch, and stand-up, is irresistible to Martin. The Grindstone is where Girl Brain, for example, first gathered fans. He says mildly, “it’s a pretty safe bet you’re gonna laugh.”

PREVIEW

Grindstone Comedy Festival 2021

Theatre: Grindstone Theatre and Bistro

Where: 10019 81 Ave.

Running: Wednesday through Sunday

Full schedule and tickets: grindstone theatre.ca 

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Mamma Mia! here we go again: live theatre is back at the Mayfield

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It sounds like the blueprint for a door-slammer farce to be sure (the kind that the Mayfield Dinner Theatre propels across its stage from time to time). After closing and re-opening and re-closing the doors a dizzying number of times this difficult pandemic year and a half, the theatre is about to open them again.

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The Mayfield is back, starting in September, with a five-show season of live shows for real-live in-person audiences. And with four of the five productions, music — yes, singing! — is involved, in a lineup that leans deliberately into proven audience favourites, and the shows that got cancelled.

It starts small, Sept. 14 to Oct. 31, with the two-actor music bio-revue A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline, starring Sara-Jeanne Hosie and Sheldon Bergstrom as the narrator. And by next spring (April 12 to June 12, with an extended run possible), the lineup goes big and full-bodied: the Broadway blockbuster Mamma Mia! with its cast of nearly two dozen plus the band.

That hit was to have opened at the  Mayfield last spring. So “Here We Go Again,” laughs Mayfield artistic director Van Wilmott. Retaining the rights a year later was “tricky,” he says. The show is in big demand, a natural for the big Broadway touring companies when they’re back in action. “It’s a happy show to come back to.”

The Mayfield’s Yuletide slot November 9 to January 23) is occupied by a hit show originally scheduled for last summer. Wilmott has had to cancel Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story, a perennial Mayfield fave last seen at the theatre a decade ago, no fewer than three times.

Nashville Outlaws, which runs Feb. 1 to April 3, marks Wilmott’s return to his first Mayfield show as artistic director (and the first production he directed there) in 2007. The revue, by Will Marks and Sara-Jeanne Hosie taps a nonpareil hit catalogue: songs by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson.

“Each show (in the season) gets a bit more complicated,” says Wilmott. “You just don’t know the audience comfort level. A big question mark.”

During the summer of 2022, July 5 to Aug. 1, Mayfield audiences will be watching a revival of Sexy Laundry, a comedy by Vancouver’s Michele Riml last seen at the Mayfield in 2011, when the run was shortened by the theatre renos of the time. It’s about a couple trying to jump-start a 25-year-old marriage, armed with a copy of Sex For Dummies. Casting for the new production awaits.

Like so many of Edmonton’s theatres, the Mayfield has been persistent and ingenious in the face of ever-changing restrictions. The lockdown of March 2020 meant that the musical Rock of Ages never hit the stage at the dinner theatre. When the theatre returned to action last summer, it was with a straight play (Playing With Fire: The Theo Fleury Story) since singing onstage was verboten, and an audience at tables separated by Plexiglass and reduced to about 25 per cent of capacity. After that, the original revue Keep Calm and Rock On, for which special Plexiglass booths were custom-made for individual singers, closed four weeks early in the big lockdown of last November. But, as Wilmott points out, since gatherings beyond households were not permitted (much less dancing in the aisles), the theatre’s usual Christmas party crowd couldn’t happen anyway. The upshot: the Mayfield with a massive Plexiglass surplus; some has been diverted to the washrooms.

“It feels so exciting to have a show onstage coming up,” says Wilmott. The plan is for full capacity in the 450-seat house, and a return to the theatre’s signature buffet. All kitchen and serving staff will be masked, with rigorous sanitizing measures in place.

Tickets are on sale soon at mayfield theatre.ca.

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Scenes From The Sidewalk: another Plain Jane “inside out cabaret”

The cast of Scenes From The Sidewalk (a second inside-out cabaret), Plain Jane Theatre. Photo supplied

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Something has got to start/ I am ready to be loved”….

Ready To Be Loved, from Edges by Pasek and Paul.

Eleven months ago, a little indie company with a specialty in musical theatre — re-discovering, re-imagining, re-purposing, re-buffing the off-centre, the under-loved, the forgotten — had an ingenious work-around idea.

In the pandemic world of last September, when nearly the worst thing you could possibly do in public was sing (and inside a theatre? unthinkable!), the Plain Janes devised an “inside-out cabaret.” In Scenes From The Sidewalk, the audience, 20 of us, sat far apart in the Varscona Theatre lobby looking out the big front windows. The performers were outside wistfully looking in — and singing, dancing, storytelling, very separately, on the sidewalk. The city ‘hood was their stage.

The numbers they chose from the musical and pop repertoires felt reinvented by the constricting, isolating, mortality-soaked circumstances of our lives. And there were new creations, too.

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In this late-pandemic world, the Janes are back with another edition of Scenes From The Sidewalk, produced again by Kate Ryan. They’ve moved across the street to the Westbury lobby at Fringe Theatre headquarters. And for two shows, Sunday and Monday, a cast of seven — five performers from last time and two newcomers (Rain Matkin-Szilagyi and Logan Stefura, recent MacEwan grads) will be outside. They’ll be looking at the audience inside and “turning the neighbourhood into a block party,” as musical director Matt Graham puts it. The 30 “inside” tickets were gone in a flash, but you can bring a lawn chair and hang outside.

“The world felt so scary last time,” says Daniela Fernandez of Scenes From The Sidewalk I. “It felt like there was more to come.” There was an unmistakeable frisson to going out, queuing to have your temperature taken, seeing other live people out in the world, masked and distanced though they were. “Like a speakeasy,” laughs Sue Goberdhan. “Like you’d need a secret password,” Graham says.

“It was such a weird time to create anything!” he muses. A musical theatre composer/ lyricist himself (he’ll be leaving for NYU Tisch in August), Graham had been in “a song-writing slump, banging my head on the keyboard for a few months,” until the inside-out cabaret came along. In a middle-of-the-night revelation, he realized “it’s hard to be optimistic, but not impossible! This (show) is more … well, you feel the joy of the vaccine summer in the set list!”

Scenes From The Sidewalk: An Inside-Out Cabaret, part !, September 2020, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo supplied.

For one thing Scenes From The Sidewalk II is “twice as long”; the cast is doing two sets. For another, there are more group numbers than solos. And the cast had the thrill of rehearsing in person, on the garage pad of Althea Cunningham’s apartment. “Just hearing the voices together for the first time, without the lag of a Zoom call,” was “so beautiful it made you want to cry,” says Graham.

“I wanted to make everyone’s dreams come true,” he says of the song-gathering process. He asked the cast “what have you wanted to sing you haven’t been able to? What do you want to get off your chest right now? What song has been on your mind the most?”

Interestingly, though “none of us are particularly religious, there’s more gospel this time … rejoicing, making a joyful noise, I guess. Because we can!”

“The energy feels very different this time,” agrees Fernandez, “more optimistic, more hopeful, more alive. There’s more percolating. And because we’ve done it once, we’re pretty comfortable….”

No wonder actor/ playwright/ poet/ activist Cunningham picked Feeling Good (Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley) for one of her numbers: “It’s a new dawn/ It’s a new day/ It’s a new life/ For me/ And I’m feeling good….”

The song is quite precisely of this moment, says Cunningham, who’s working on a Nina Simone homage musical. “When I got my first jab, I was so emotional, I cried…. A time to celebrate!” As a black artist, her year has had the “double-whammy” of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. Her spoken word piece  Human First, First Human, “about the black experience,” is part of the show.

Goberdhan, the new co-artistic director of Azimuth (with Morgan Yamada), actually had COVID early in the pandemic. “You just realize things could have ended very differently,” she says simply. “It helps you take stock a little bit.”

She thinks the new show speaks (or rather sings) “to the ways we interact with the world, and the ways they’ve changed…. Being single during the pandemic, I’ve realized that any adverb you put in front of the word ‘single’ applies to me,” she laughs. What she wanted was “a song that invites the world into my world … a song that’s all about doors opening and things happening.” Ready To Be Loved from Edges: A Song Cycle by the Dear Evan Hansen team of Pasek and Paul is 15-years old. But it’s a perfect fit: “I think at last the cloud has moved aside/ I’ve spent a lifetime waiting/ Awoke today to find my arms are wide open….”

Lawrence’s wry and funky It’s Not All About You is on the money too. Goberdhan and Graham are doing it together. “It reflects just how much our (collective) patience has diminished,” she says. ”People have been on their own for months and months. And now you don’t know how to talk to people, how to listen to people. You have to re-learn social skills!” says Graham.

For Fernandez, this moment is about “facing fear, the fear that’s all around us…. “ And the song beautifully positioned for that is I’m Not Afraid Of Anything, from Jason Robert Brown’s Songs For A New World. She takes it to heart, since there are big changes happening in her own life — as a musical theatre triple-threat who’s moving into the male-dominated world of sound design (she’s a Citadel RBC Horizons Emerging Artist). “Scary but refreshing! Learning a new skill has helped me come into my own as an artist. The hardest part is getting started.”

Breathe from the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical In The Heights, an insight, both in Spanish and English, into overcoming the universal fear of falling short of people’s expectations, “is one of the songs in musical theatre that speaks most strongly to Fernandez, she says. “Welcome home, just breathe….”

As last time, there are original creations in the show, too. Graham’s In 50 Years is one, a reflection on the uncertainties of the future. Taste, by the queer pop duo Homofonik (Daniel Belland and Josh Travnik), is another. And the show includes the finale of Marnie Day, a 2018 musical by Goberdhan and Graham (did I mention they’re a musical-writing team?). “We don’t have forever, but let’s have a go!”

“There’s a big hug in that song,” says Graham. It’s one of the things that none of the cast will ever take for granted again.   

    

PREVIEW

Scenes From The Sidewalk II

Theatre: Plain Jane Theatre Company

Musical director: Matt Graham

Starring: Althea Cunningham, Daniela Fernandez, Sue Goberdhan, Matt Graham, Josh Travnik, Rain Matkin-Szilagyi, Logan Stefura

Where: Fringe Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, Westbury Theatre lobby, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: Sunday and Monday 7:30 p.m.

Tickets: tickets.fringetheatre.ca. pay what you will. Contributions to the show’s Gofundme Campaign are welcome.

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Summer, live theatre, and a message for you, theatre friends, from 12thnight

Hello theatre friends, and salutations of the summer season from 12thnight.ca!

Live theatre with live audiences. In person! Now there’s a concept that could catch on.

Exciting to see live theatre is en route back, re-emerging in a variety of ways, on a variety of scales, from the strangest, most trying 18 months ever for the art form we love, and its artists. If there’s an upside to the devastation of the pandemic year, it’s that the  astonishing resourcefulness and ingenuity of theatre artists — in stepping up to re-imagine the art and re-educate themselves — have been demonstrated so vividly. I learned the word “experimentalist” this year, and it has wide applications to the people I’ve talked to for 12thnight.ca.

Thank you, 12thnight.ca patrons, for sticking with me through this terrible, and also inspiring, year and a half. And you should know that your support of my Patreon campaign has been absolutely crucial in this hard year: the theatre coverage on the site wouldn’t have been possible without your monthly pledges. And I’m so grateful.

To help support 12thnight.ca YEG theatre coverage, click here.

I hope you’ve been enjoying the 12thnight.ca content (there is no charge to subscribe, and so far all content is free). There’s more, much more, to come as live theatre returns this summer. And it will be fascinating to see what experiments will be retained, and what will change, as the performing arts industry moves into the future in a new season.

If you haven’t been a patron before, I really hope, dear reader, that you’ll be able to join my 12thnight.ca venture outside the mainstream media — entirely funded by the readers — and help support continued coverage of the art form that is Edmonton’s special strength. And if you haven’t been able to contribute this past year, I’m hoping you’ll be able to reconsider as live theatre starts to go live.

Please join me as a Patreon patron by chipping in a monthly amount (you choose the amount) if you can. It makes 12thnight.ca possible: www.patreon.com/12thnight.

Many thanks, and see you at, or in, the theatre soon,

Liz

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Together We Fringe: A Fringe Event. Our beloved summer theatre binge is back, live, and modified for 2021

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

This year the Fringe is not going to look and feel like the adrenalized, crazy, big-ass monster you and thousands of your closest friends hang out with day and night in August (you know the rampaging giant I mean, that jostling, elbow-to-rib extravaganza of a summer theatre festival with a mind-exploding number of shows).

To help support 12thnight.ca YEG theatre coverage, click here.

But in the most trying, chaotic times theatre has known, creativity will prevail. So, yes! The monster is tamed, for safety, just this summer. But there will be live theatre, inside theatre venues (in addition to digital programming), at the upcoming 40th anniversary edition of the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival Aug. 12 to 22.

At a press conference Thursday, Fringe director Murray Utas, Fringe Theatre’s interim executive director Megan Dart, and Josh Languedoc, the Fringe’s new director of Indigenous strategic planning, outlined the modified configuration of the upcoming “Together We Fringe: A Fringe Event.” It’s a title that conjures the inaugural 1982 “event,” an unexpected grassroots eruption of summer theatre here when no one knew exactly what a Fringe would turn out to be be.

“Scenario #1 is the way it’s gonna roll,” says Utas. Along with Dart and the Fringe team, he’s spent the year since the digital edition of 2020’s The Fringe That Never Was planning, re-planning, re-re-planning 40th anniversary possibilities for the country’s oldest and biggest Fringe in this second pandemic summer— and arriving at a short list of five. #1: “We’re going inside.”

The Fringe in Edmonton, the oldest and still largest of its kind on the continent, is a perfect storm of large- and small-scale live gatherings, neither a go in pandemic times: huge outdoor crowds, approaching 800,000 in 2019, and 260 shows in some 50 venues, many of them intimate, shoulder-to-shoulder affairs between artists and audiences.

Fringe director Murray Utas. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography

This year’s return to Fringe live isn’t about a record-breaking show and audience tally, needless to say. It’s about safety, distancing (and masks) … and ingenuity. “We’re working with 60 per cent capacity indoors,” says Utas. As he explains, there will be three official indoor venues programmed by lottery (instead of 11 in 2019): the Westbury and the Backstage Theatres in the ATB Financial Arts Barn, Fringe HQ, and the Old Strathcona Performing Arts Centre. First dibs on those venues went to the 2020 roster of artists.

At the fourth official indoor venue, the Roxy on Gateway, (temporary) home of Theatre Network, the Anishinaabe actor/playwright/activist Languedoc will preside over “a standing invitation,” as Utas puts it, to “be part of  conversations about rediscovering what a relationship between audience and artist means from an Indigenous perspective.” Join the circle. Bring your questions.

There will be BYOVs, too, bring-your-own indie venues acquired and outfitted by artists themselves, in five locations (instead of 39 in 2019), each curated with six or seven shows. The Varscona Theatre is one. Grindstone Theatre will run two or three venues. There will be two at La Cité francophone (one curated by Poiema Productions and Kenneth Brown, the other by Jon Paterson). Metro Cinema and Yardbird Suite are BYOVS, too, the latter curated by Rapid Fire Theatre.

So this return-to-live edition of the Fringe will have 63 or 64 indoor shows (“less than 25 per cent of a normal year” as Utas points out). The shows themselves will be announced when tickets ($13) go on sale Aug. 4.

As for fringing itself, with its packed beer tents and rib-to-rib squish of Fringers wandering through the site, put that right out of your mind. “No gathering spaces. No just coming down to the festival and walking around doing your thing….”

“We’re treating the ATB park (McIntyre aka Gazebo Park, next to Walterdale Theatre) as an outdoor venue this year,” says Utas, “not as a destination where you come to see street performers and hang out.”

For the first time “we’re gating the park, from the 83rd Ave. bike lane up to the Calgary Trail and down to the Strathcona Library.” Utas describes it thus: “You’ll buy a (timed) ticket. Once you’re inside the park, you’ll get “the Fringe experience for a couple of hours — entertainment, green onion cake.… It’s like you’re getting a two-hour pass inside. And I’m going to entertain you with some performances. But you’ll be able to wander around, buy some merch, get some snacks and some drinks, visit with your people.”

“I’ve curated the park for you,” says Utas. The shows “are specifically geared for outdoor performance … see some of the best in the world; see some different sensibilities.” Which is, of course, a stellar component of the Fringe experience.

There will be 22 outdoor shows ($20 a ticket), and seven music nights ($25).

Freewill Shakespeare Festival’s two productions, in rep on the Fringe’s outdoor stage

There’s no Kids’ Fringe this year. The theatre-for-young-audiences venue is a ticketed outdoor “youth stage” in the YES (Youth Emergency Shelter) parking lot at the north end of the usual Fringe site. During the day, it will run shows for kids. Every evening of the festival, in a new collaboration, the Freewill Shakespeare Festival will run its two offerings — 70-minute versions of Macbeth and Much Ado — in rep.

“It’s a great partnership for me,” says Utas of his Shakespeare connection. In addition to attracting an adult adult, the bold, fast Freewill productions address the 12 to 18-year-old demographic that hasn’t been singled out by Fringe programming.

In addition to live programming, the Fringe will continue to have its livestream channel, and digital content, “for those who aren’t comfortable with coming back yet.” The Nordic Studio (Studio Theatre) in the Arts Barn is the festival’s TV studio. Full content details await, but there will be interviews and conversations with Indigenous artists and community leaders (curated by Josh Languedoc). And actor/dancer/choreographer Amber Borotsik is creating “pop-up performances,” Utas says.

The big four-oh. As the Fringe turns 40, under unique circumstances that require unusual persistence and ingenuity, it’s the moment to think back on the unlikely birth and improbable exponential growth of Edmonton’s beloved and transforming summer theatre festival. Playwright Gerald Osborn, the Fringe Theatre manager and unofficial archivist, who’s a veritable repository of festival history and lore, has devised “an audio play journey,” as Utas puts it, “five to seven stories on the StoryHive platform, that will take you through the Fringe’s first years…. You the audience will walk to the first five venues, and listen to the stories.”

And Utas will make his debut as “Father Fringe,” aka lanky, pony-tailed laid-back Fringe founder Brian Paisley, whose bright off-the-cuff idea for a summer theatre binge in 1982 took hold here so startlingly. “It’s just me with more gravel in my voice,” says Utas modestly. “We just talk the same way.”

It’s nearly Fringe time in a place where that really matters. So welcome back. Stay tuned to fringetheatre.ca for updates. And that’s where the tickets will go on sale.      

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