By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
One evening two summers ago the veteran Fringe and Street artist Heather D. Swain was sitting on her Strathcona balcony having a cocktail with friends, watching The People go by. And that’s when it came to her.
“This would be a perfect venue for a Fringe show!”
Extrapolation followed. “Wouldn’t it be cool if I never left a prop at home when I went to rehearsal? Wouldn’t it be cool if I didn’t have to rent a venue to do a Fringe show?”
Swain’s apartment in the only two-storey on the block has housed a succession of artists — theatrical, visual, culinary — in its time. The much-beloved late stage manager Cheryl Millikin once lived there; so did the painter John Freeman. “It had that energy around it,” says Swain. She and her artist friiends all call her balcony “the Juliet balcony” actually knowing that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet doesn’t mention one thing about locating the famous balcony scene on a balcony.
Anyhow, Swain’s bright idea was planted in the summer of 2016. And it had a bonus: the following summer would the 25th anniversary of her arrival in Edmonton from her home town of Toronto (she prefers to call it “Ontario” to avert latent hostility). “I came here in 1992 to do a Fringe show,” she laughs. “I got here in March with five grand, and my money had to last till the Fringe.” Hmmm. Five months of rent to pay before the Fringe opening night of One Morning I Realized I Was Licking The Kitchen Floor: a comic look at depression. It would be touch-and-go.
“I quickly found out that this is the best English-language theatre community I know in the country.” She never left.
In the end, the stars didn’t line up at last summer’s Fringe for Swain’s anniversary theme. It would have to wait till the 2018 edition of the summer festivities.
The choice of venue was inspired. But “what the heck would the show be?” 1992, incidentally, was another first, too. That was the year the Fringe launched its own bright idea, BYOVs (bring-your-own-venues) for shows that just couldn’t be contained in any of the dozen officially appointed Fringe venues. To qualify, artists had to demonstrate that their show was “site-specific,” that it resonated with and gained by a particular non-traditional venue. Those days are long gone. All you need these days for a BYOV is $550 bucks to be part of the box office and program, a locale willing to put up with you, and a lot of energy.
So, inspired by the original BYOV spirit, Swain, who’s afraid of heights, started research into balconies for the show that would happen on her own.“The power to sway people’s choices, the beauty, the romance of the balcony,” as she says of the thrust of From The Balcony. “Think of the iconic moments in history that happened on balconies: I couldn’t get them all in. Hitler, the Queen, the Pope, Eva Peron….
Her landlord stepped up. When he was interviewing prospective tenants for the first floor apartment under Swain’s he told them “if you’re not OK with having a Fringe show on the balcony above and people standing in front of your deck, and not being able to use your regular door during the Fringe, you can’t move in!” The four university students who live were cool with all of the above.
So the audience, a maximum of 54, stands in the yard at 2 p.m. daily (a time chosen for sun placement and lighting), shoulder to shoulder, looking up. “I stop twice during the show so they can do the neck exercises my physiotherapist recommended,” Swain says. “My greatest fear is that it’s seem like I’ve set up my own standing ovation.”
When the show is done, the star closes the sliding balcony door, and steps back into the green room, which magically turns back into her living room. “Then I go into the kitchen, open the fridge, and pour myself a glass of prosecco.”
From The Balcony opens Friday at 2 p.m. on Stage 34, “260 steps west of the Fringe box office” and runs every day through Aug. 26. Tickets are “$13 with neck brace, $12 without neck brace.”