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).

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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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