By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“A grand experiment.” That’s that’s how Megan Dart, Fringe Theatre’s interim executive director, describes this year’s trimmed one-of-a-kind adaptation of the Edmonton Fringe which ends its 11-day run tonight. “Like any good show you don’t know what is it till you get an audience.”
Together We Fringe faced, head-on, the most controversial, logistically challenging, loaded concept of the year: togetherness. It’s always been a specialty at this, the continent’s oldest and biggest Fringe, with huge crowds outdoors, and audiences crammed into little theatres (many of them makeshift, and none of them roomy) indoors.
In this changeable late-pandemic moment, when the tension between human gathering and social-distancing continues after 18 devastating months, Together We Fringe celebrated 40 years of fringing by inviting theatre-goers back to the live theatre experience (with a digital option available for all shows in the official Fringe venues).
Would theatre-goers come? Inside (and with their masks on) to see live shows? No one could say for sure.
They did. A Fringe like no other (last summer’s was cancelled) in a year like no other was downsized by about three-quarters to 61 shows (from 260 in 2019) and 421 performances in 11 venues (down from 50), each reduced to 60 per cent of house capacity for social distancing.
By Sunday night, 71 percent of the available indoor show ticket inventory for this reduced-capacity Fringe, had been sold (some 37,307 tickets). Which is, impressively, a higher percentage than the 54 per cent of available tickets sold at 2019’s giant, with its record-busting 147,358 in ticket sales. And it’s not over. All digital Fringe performances are held over, online, till Aug. 31.
“We did our job! We’re a theatre festival!” Dart declared happily on Sunday morning, echoed by Fringe director Murray Utas. Of the five scenarios Dart, Utas and their team juggled in the landscape of ever-changing restrictions during this past year, one was to go all-digital, as other Fringes across the country (including Winnipeg) have opted to do this summer. “We didn’t want to go there,” says Utas.
Both he and Dart feel their “grand experiment” in going live has been validated. After a Zoom-laden year “people were missing it. Live theatre. Edmonton is a theatre town.” The streamed versions of shows produced (and paid for) by the Fringe were both “a gift to the artists, who can take them wherever they go, and insurance for us,” says Dart, in this landscape of changing restrictions. The streamed shows are all held over on Fringe TV through Aug. 31. So far they’ve sold 2,426 tickets (pay-what-you-can, with a $5 minimum), Dart reports.
Edmonton is a theatre town, yes; it’s also a summer festival party town. And the Fringe’s massive outdoor scene (in 2019 estimated at nearly 850,000 site visits) has been perhaps the biggest challenge of all to make over at a moment in history when public safety requires social-distancing. How do you prevent too many people from fringing together at close quarters, and still be a festive experience?
Utas and Dart experimented. Their initial try was a no-go, as they admit freely: a two-hour $20 entry ticket into the ATB (Gazebo) Park, gated for the first time, to see outdoor shows, grab a green onion cake and beer, and feel kind of Fringe-y. “”Murray and I stood in the park (on the first Friday), looked around, and knew it wouldn’t work,” says Dart. “We knew before we even opened.” Says Utas, “we’re just not gates and fences. We’re all about being accessible.… But we also knew we couldn’t welcome the masses” as usual. On a busy Fringe Saturday, it wouldn’t be unusual to attract 20,000 people to the site, predominantly in the ATB Park and clustered in circles around street performers.
The entire park was licensed, which explains why the Fringe’s beer tents (“we had too many,” says Dart) seemed eerily empty. The $20 ticketing idea was jettisoned on the spot the first Saturday morning, adjusted to pay-what-you will tickets, with the money going directly to the outdoor artists in lieu of the audience bucks that would normally drop into their hats, busking style. “We’d already filled their hats,” says Dart of the Fringe’s direct contributions. By Saturday afternoon, the park had sold out (to wit, 500 Fringe-goers, at distanced picnic tables), and remained so almost every night. “It was an incredible success.” And somehow, “organically” laughs Dart, it was never over-capacity.
“I’m so proud of our team,” she says of production forces led by Chris Kavanagh. “Such care and heart to make sure it was a comfortable experience….”
In the end, the pay-out to Fringe artists (who chose the ticket price to a $13 max, and kept the gate minus the $3 Fringe service change) will amount to some $350,000. It’s a fraction of 2019’s $1.4 million, but the artist roster is much smaller than usual. And Together We Fringe gave artists a chance to return to performing live in front of a live audience after a shutdown year. “No one had their legs under them,” as Utas puts it. 12thnight chatted to a selection of Fringe artists; look for their comments here.
Together We Fringe was a quieter, smaller, gentler version of something noisy, hustling, and big. But 154 of the 421 performances (389 of them indoor), more than a third, sold out (their 60 per cent max), reports Dart of performances in venues varying in size from the Garneau and Westbury Theatres to tiny Grindstone. To cite just a couple of examples from the range of Fringe “theatres,” there wasn’t a ticket to be had for either of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival’s two shows, Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing, after the first Fringe weekend. Die-Nasty sold-out seven of its nine performances at the Varscona. Every performance but one of Trevor Schmidt’s new play Destination Wedding at the Westbury was sold out. All the available tickets for the Fringe’s own Late-Night Cabaret at the Backstage Theatre, reduced to 68 seats, were instantly snapped up….
What will the Fringe team hang onto for the future? Digital versions of Fringe productions, say Utas and Dart decisively. Streaming is a great enhancer of audience outreach for one thing: fringers in 19 countries tuned in, and bought tickets (so far, another $7,000 to artists).
The experiment of a venue dedicated to Indigenous artists (curated by Josh Languedoc) is a keeper too. Quickly, tickets for the one-off performances at pêhonân were nearly impossible to land. “That they sold as quickly as they did (and to such a wide audience demographic) is so revealing about how necessary it was. It shouldn’t have taken so long!” says Dart. “Such a gathering of community and generations! This is just step 1….”
There were “a lot of firsts,” says Utas of Fringe 2021’s roster of game artists. “A lot of first-timers!” Dart points to “the significant piece of our festival ecology that was missing, the international artists, and a certain hum.”
“There’s no party to this one,” says Utas of Fringe 2021. “But it was kind, a kind version of the festival.” And, against the odds, it was back.