Finding a path forward for the Edmonton Fringe: Adam Mitchell has thoughts about that as he leaves the festival

Adam Mitchel, Executive Director of Edmonton Fringe Theatre, Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

In 25 years at the Fringe, he’s been the production manager, the technical director, the operations manager for a 33,000 square foot multi-theatre complex that started out as a bus barn. He’s been a Fringe venue technician, a show operator, a stage carpenter. He’s made theatres out of spaces that used to be greasy spoons, storage units, community halls; he’s built sets for indie theatres with big ideas and teeny budgets.

On March 26, after five years as the executive director of  Edmonton Fringe Theatre, Adam Mitchell officially steps away from the administrative job at the head of the theatre company that produces the continent’s oldest and largest fringe festival. A job poised delicately between artists, audiences, volunteers, infrastructure that is epically complicated, by any standards. And it just  got more tangled and demanding in the course of the most difficult, damaging, and trying 12 months that live theatre could possibly have.

Is that a wisp of the wistful in his voice? “It’s no doubt,” says Mitchell, who was born in Edmonton and grew up in Winnipeg, “that I’m leaving a place I love more than any other I’ve worked at….”

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He tried to leave the Fringe once before, last year about this time. “I needed to re-charge my batteries,” Mitchell says simply. But it was “on the precipice of the pandemic,” so he was persuaded to stay. “Actually,” he laughs ruefully, “the challenge and chaos of the past year was quite rejuvenating … for all the wrong reasons. And it’s better to walk out feeling amazing about what we’d accomplished.”

That “challenge and chaos of the past year” have been, at heart, what exactly to do, times being what they are, with a festival that is the grassroots quintessence of the forbidden: live shoulder-to-rib gathering in intimate spaces. In the golden Before Time, the Fringe of 2019 had 258 shows from here, across the country and around the globe, in 50 venues, sold 147,358 tickets, and attracted a crowd surpassing three-quarters of a million. In the strange and uncertain world into which we were flung last spring, when the world still thought that pandemics had closing nights, the Fringe of 2020, aka “The Fringe That Never Was,” went from building stages to building platforms.

The festival figured out on the fly how to live-stream, create a video-streaming platform, support artist shows displaced by the pandemic into the ether, and generally be there in some fashion for a town where the mighty Fringe organizes the summer calendar.

A thoughtful sort of leader who seems to have a remarkable resistance to panic, Mitchell says “the Fringe, its community engagement, its relationship with artists, volunteers, patrons, have evolved in the last five or six years … and the way we have really focussed on supporting independent artists in their creative journeys” past August and into the theatre season.

The “re-envisioning of the Arts Barn as a community cultural hub” that was in progress at the Fringe in February 2020, “taking the essence of what the festival is, and applying it to the building — are now the building blocks with which we can help the community rebuild.”

“What can we do? What should we do right now?” Those were the critical questions for the Fringe in March 2020, “because we had no choice!” And they were quickly followed, says Mitchell, by this question: “if we invest in tools, in streaming equipment, in FringeTV the platform, would they be useful (to us and to other companies) beyond the days of The Fringe That Never Was?”

I guess we know the answer. And when some reduced distanced in-person audiences were allowed for a time last fall, “we had an immediate purpose for the building, too,” says Mitchell. “It gave us time to take what we were learning into our planning for 2021,” and Fringe #40.   

Edmonton Fringe Theatre’s Executive Director Adam Mitchel. Photo supplied.

A collaborator by nature, Mitchell is much more drawn to the pronoun “we” than “I” — not least because he appreciates his lively complementary rapport with Fringe artistic director (and actor/ playwright/ director) Murray Utas. “We don’t disagree very often; we volley ideas back and forth till we find the elegant solution! Mitchell is “so excited” that playwright/ events producer Megan Dart, Fringe Theatre’s communications specialist” will be interim Executive Director. “Perfect!”

“I’m very fortunate because, in whatever role I’ve had, I’ve always managed to be a collaborator with the artist in the room, whether a designer, a director … I really believe in the value of that type of collaboration; it’s part of the magic of what we’ve created at the Fringe.”

Mitchell, a graduate of the U of A’s technical theatre program, is steeped in Fringe, the concept and the execution. His first Fringe experience was in the late ‘90s, as a techie at both the Winnipeg and Edmonton festivals. Then he became the technical director of both Fringes, the two largest in the country. In Edmonton, his first year in the job was the Fringe’s last in the old Bus Barns, before the rebuild that opened as the Arts Barn in 2003.

Fringe touring? Mitchell has done that, with the sketch comedy troupe The Spleen Jockeys, and with Rick Miller, the star and creator of the widely travelled Fringe hits MacHomer and Bigger Than Jesus. “I got to see venues across North America — and hang out with a very cool artist. It was fun,” he says.

Theatre production resumés don’t come much more blue-chip and varied than Mitchell’s. He’s been the U of A drama department’s production manager, and the technical director at the Timms Centre for the Arts. He’s been the production manager at the Arden Theatre, the St. Albert Children’s Theatre, and the Kids’ Fest.

And he has big theatre experience too. He landed a “dream job” as the mainstage technical director for Canada’s oldest regional company, the venerable Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. “After the very modern program at the U of A, and years of working in the scrappy indie theatre world, it was (like) going back to school.” Mitchell’s wife Keri Mitchell, the executive director of Theatre Alberta, headed the RMTC’s education and outreach programs.

“When I came back to the Fringe in 2015 (as executive director), I was coming home,” he says. And leaving that home wasn’t an easy decision. “I’m going back over to the production side,” he says of a theatre career that began with carpentry. Meet the new manager of Rock Solid Custom Cases, a locally-owned family-run 35-year-old outfit specializing in creating road cases for entertainment touring. It was recently bought by FM Systems (the audio production company that has long supplied Fringe venues, as well as the Grey Cup and the Junos).

Meanwhile Mitchell, the maestro of contingencies, has spent the last 12 months juggling multiple possibilities for Fringe 2021. Certainties are in short supply — beyond this one, perhaps: “it is not realistic to say we’re going to on the other side of COVID by August this year.” Health and travel restrictions, safety rules governing gathering, social distancing, house capacities, the zeitgeist for that matter, are all in a state of continual flux. How can there be a fixed Plan A with a back-up B? No, try F or G, or Q, and avoid “plan” in favour of “possible scenario.”

“We’re trying to extrapolate from what we’ve learned on the digital side, and create the opportunity for artists to build and simul-cast a version of their show for consumption over the internet,” says Mitchell of this year’s edition of our summer theatre extravaganza.

He’s hopeful that alongside the digital, “artists and audiences will be connecting again live in the theatre“ to some extent, however restricted that live indoor audience might have to be. Ideally, artists can sell whatever limited number of tickets for live consumption are available, and also market their show online.

The scale of the 40th annual Fringe will be strikingly different from its decades of predecessors. Mitchell can imagine, depending on restrictions, five or so lotteried venues and a handful of BYOVs, with a preference for cabaret-style seating and a dual focus: “maximizing safety and the ability to film.” The aim, says Mitchell, is “an aesthetic and a standard that honours the live theatre experience, and doesn’t try to be film or TV, but is still better than a single-camera locked in at the back of the house.”

Worst-case scenario: “if we’re not able to have a live audience indoor audience at all but can still facilitate live streams and film for local companies, we will do that.” And he and the Fringe team have considered every possible gradation in between.

“At the end if the day we believe the live theatre experience is what theatre is about…. We don’t want to compete with Netflix but we believe people still want to support creations by local artists in their community!”

“We’ve accomplished an incredible amount with a small team,” a fraction of the usual Fringe size, says Mitchell. “We remind ourselves every day that we’re the fortunate ones; the people we’re doing it for aren’t working right now.”

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