‘A Fringe Event’: what to expect as the Fringe goes back to its roots

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Solstice … yeah whatever. It’s impossible to think of summer without visions of the Fringe, dancing in the outskirts of your brain and gradually moving in for full occupancy. In the four decades they’ve been entwined, the Edmonton summer calendar has naturally arranged itself around our beloved giant of a festival. Fringe is what August is for.

Which is why, in the spirit of anticipation, I made my way over to the Fringe Patio last week. To get a feel, on location, for the mystery landscape of the Fringe at the big four-oh. (An aside: they were testing new cocktails for the upcoming Found Festival in July; aperol was involved.)

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Fringe director Murray Utas and Fringe Theatre’s interim director Megan Dart were there, having a Friday afternoon think about the short list of five possible scenarios from the long list they’ve been working on since The Fringe That Never Was of 2020.     

In the unstable world of pandemic protocols and every-changing restrictions, for artists and audiences, the pandemic has made Fringe-size gatherings (the 2019 edition of the festival attracted a crowd of some 3/4 million), a mystery scenario. And the Fringe is its own unique combination of outdoor crowds in an entire ‘hood and indoor audiences in small, sometimes sometimes rib-to-elbow quarters. “Live” and “intimate” are among its favourite adjectives.

“This is not the year to break box office records,” says Dart. “Nobody’s expecting to make any money…. This is the year of looking after each other, the year of coming together, the year of ‘community cares’.” Declares Utas, “never put profit over people.”

“It’s gonna happen,” says Dart of the festivities slated to run Aug. 12 to 22. “But it will look so much more like it did in the earliest days…. We’re not even calling it a ‘festival’. It’s A Fringe Theatre Event.” In this it hearkens back to the first-ever Edmonton Fringe; that’s what it was called in 1982,  the continent’s prototype, when no one could say exactly what it was, beyond a small and strange grassroots eruption of theatre in Old Strathcona. Same thing in 1983, when the Fringe was still, in personality and identity, in its formative stages as a kooky experiment.

“I know people want to fringe,” says Utas, like Dart a Fringe artist himself before he ever ran the festivities, “But we want to make sure ‘weird’ is just on the stage.” So don’t expect to be using “fringe” as a verb (an Edmonton invention incidentally) in the same way this year, just hanging out for the day, jostling your precarious way to a packed beer tent through crowds with a program in one hand and a couple of green onion cakes and a tub of hot sauce in the other. “Coming to the site will feel very different this year,” says Dart.

So, here’s a peek at the mysterious scenario-juggling involved in throwing a giant theatre ‘event’ in the middle of a pandemic. “Yes, there will be shows. And some of them might be live,” Utas says. “There may be venues, but not very many. The park (i.e. the Gazebo Park next to Fringe headquarters) may be a venue….” BYOVs? Yes, but not very many.

Usually the Fringe team has a working blueprint/schedule of the festival by June. It’s not that kind of year. Utas and Dart say they’ll finalize all things Fringe by the end of the month, with the big reveal (hey, they’re both playwrights) set for early July.

Some of the Fringe shows we’ll see come August will be live, some streamed online; some may be both live and streamed. The proportion, like the COVID restrictions, is still in flux. In the year since the 39th Fringe got cancelled, the Fringe has invested in digital expertise and equipment “as a tool for everyone to use,” as Utas says. Fringe TV is now an invaluable digital platform used by many theatre companies in town, and it’s ready for action. Utas reports that last summer 61 countries tuned into the festival’s online experiments on Fringe TV. “We’re at the intersection of digital and live, and there’s no road map.”

Last year, Utas announced that all groups who’d landed a lotteried slot would get “first right of refusal” in this year’s edition. He Zoomed with them individually, and ran a series of town halls cum workshops for artists starting last November, to explain “digital options on the Fringe TV platform,” and “to make it an opportunity to learn some skills” for a world where digital performance has become prominent. What you shouldn’t expect, due to travel restrictions, is a contingent of international shows.

“The Fringe has always been an experience. And we’re back in experience mode for our 40th,” says Dart. Utas quotes a Fringe volunteer who “exploded my mind” (a pure Murray-ism) on what he values about the festival: “I can have an experience I never expected to have in my entire life.”

“When we cancelled last year, we had a (Fringe) funeral and two weeks mourning,” says Dart “And the team came back with such fervour. Kudos to them! 15 months of planning for the unknown with such care, so much heart…. It’s allowed us to be nimble.”

What you’ll see come August may not be the Fringe you recognize, Dart predicts. But it hearkens back to its origins lo these many years. And it will have something of the same experimental spirit. Says Utas, “we’re true to our scrappy DIY punk roots….”

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