A Telethon kicks off the strange summer when the Edmonton Fringe went online

Fringe director Murray Utas. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Everything that’s happening is changing the landscape…. Let’s make our own destiny!” — Edmonton Fringe director Murray Utas

The Fringe, Edmonton’s beloved August giant of a theatre festival, and a game-changer for this town in every way, needs some audience participation.

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At a time of major heartbreaking might-have-been’s here’s a seminal one. Next Wednesday (by tradition a theatrical red-letter day), the Fringe box office would have opened and tickets would have gone on sale for this year’s 250 (or so) Fringe shows. But the 39th annual Fringe, alas, has been cancelled. Instead, The Fringe That Never Was is holding an all-day Telethon Aug. 5 (phone lines at 780-448-9000 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and livestream on Fringe TV 12 to 4 p.m.). Tears, Beers & Tickets You’ll Never Use is the first event of its kind here — and the kick-off to the digital version of the Fringe that will take the annual festivities online to Fringe TV Aug. 13 to 23.

The goal of the Telethon is to raise $1 million for the festival, of which 30 per cent will go to an endowment fund for artists, for emergency services in times of need — like this one, which continues to be devastating. And 70 per cent will go to the continuing operations of a festival that will suffer a punishing $3 million loss this year of cancellation, with a view to ensuring its return in August of 2021.

It will feature a live assortment of theatre artists and musicians, with Fringe faves and guest celebs taking pledges. And, says Utas, it’s exactly the artist/community interaction that’s always been at the heart of the festival.

“I’m asking everyone ‘do you really care?’ Can you imagine Edmonton without the Fringe? In a year when the Fringe can’t be there for the community, what can the community do for the Fringe? It’s our time of need!”

And this city owes. The Fringe has changed the face of Edmonton theatre (and its profile), and kept our artists here, and creating, all year round. It’s a magnetic force field for community cohesiveness. The biggest Fringe in North America, and the prototype for the rest, is probably Edmonton’s brightest, most influential idea. And there’s this: beyond the $1.5 to $1.6 million in ticket sales that go directly back to 1600 or so Edmonton Fringe artists, the festival is “a major economic driver that’s not happening this summer. Eateries, shops, mercantile….” as Utas points out. The estimated spin-off is in the $15 to $17 million range annually.

The Fringe is inviting Fringees to donate their yearly Fringe budget — what you’d spend every year on shows, on the program, on beer and green onion cakes — to support the festival that has given Edmonton so much. “Buy a beer you won’t be drinking,” says Utas. “Buy a ticket for the show you won’t be seeing.… We’re close to the bone here. And beyond the Now, how do we keep this going?”

“People need us. People need joy. People need something to look forward to.”

The Telethon is the kick-off. While they won’t have a Fringe to go to this summer, the people will have an online Fringe to experience, as Utas explains. “We needed to honour the dates.” Every night of The Fringe That Never Was (except Sunday), starting at 5:45 p.m., there will be digital programming, including performances, conversations, interviews with artists, audience members, volunteers. And since the Fringe community is “inclusive, and international,” there will be surprises, Utas promises.

Performances by theatre stars like Farren Timoteo, Andrea House, Todd Houseman will be accompanied by meet-the-artist conversations with Utas about their work, the impact of COVID on their lives, their plans-in-progress, their thoughts about theatre, their dreams.

“I ask everybody three questions,” says Utas. “Why is the Fringe important to you? What do you love about the Fringe? What will you miss most this year?”

With the participation of FringeLiveStream, the lottery-drawn showcase of Fringe shows that continues through the country’s cancelled fringe festival circuit. our viewing entertainment includes The Collapsing Future Cabaret (with artists of every stripe from four continents, Aug. 20 and 21, 6 p.m.). You’ll see new Fringe contributions from Todd Houseman and Lady Vanessa Cordona (creators of Whiteface), and the innovative Vancouver puppet company Mind of a Snail (Aug. 13 and 20, respectively, 7 p.m.). You’ll see digital adaptations of shows by Josh Languedoc (Rocko and Nakota: Tales From The Land) and The Coldharts (The Unrepentant Necrophile), Aug. 13, 14, 18, 19, 20. 

Says Utas, “I’ve had to call in a ton of favours! I don’t have a budget for artists, but I gave them what I do have!”

The IBPOC Circle Conversation (Aug. 18, 6 p.m.) features some of the country’s most exciting young talent. There’s episode 3 of Fringe Revue (Aug. 15, 7 p.m.). To combat your festival wistfulness, the Virtual Wine Tent comes to you with a half-hour of live music from local talent at 8:30 p.m. nightly. And, yes (in answer to your implied question about Fringe tradition), the Friday night Fire Show, featuring an international array of inflammable street artists, is happening (Aug. 21, 7 p.m.). And so is the Fringe’s Late Night Cabaret (Aug. 22, at the non-insomniac hour of 7 p.m.).

“Come and go as you like, just like the Fringe,” says its exuberant director. “And it’ll stay online after the night. But if you tune in live, there will be stuff just for you on the night!  Come join us and it will be worth your while!

Check out the digital venue, Fringe TV, for the full schedule of dates and times. And the 12thnight.ca interview with the multi-talented Indigenous theatre/ film artist Todd Houseman is coming up soon.

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