‘A lovely step back into live performing’: What was it like to be a Fringe artist in 2021? We asked.

Laura Raboud, Nadien Chu, Rochelle Laplante in Macbeth, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

For artists, the Fringe has always been an experiment. Does their new show have potential? Will it attract an audience? How will the audience react? Will they get it? Laugh in weird places?

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In 2021, when a live Fringe itself was an experiment in making something big smaller, and safe in dangerous times, artists weren’t even sure how they could rehearse together, much less what would happen in Old Strathcona on Aug. 12.

How did it work out? We caught up with some Fringe artists on the last Sunday of the festivities.

•For the first time in its 32-year history the Freewill Shakespeare Festival went fringing. It was with Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth, Dave Horak’s two portable small-cast 70-minute productions honed especially for taking to parks and people’s back yards this summer. Both shows sold out their allotted 60 per cent houses early in the week.

From more than one angle, Horak is happy with the results of the cross-festival experiment. “It accomplished what I wanted,” he says, “which was to hire back some the actors (who lost the gig) when we cancelled last season, and do versions of the plays originally programmed” before he got the artistic director job. “So I can come back next year with my own programming.”

The Fringe shows and the summer pop-ups “reached a different  audience than we would normally get,” Horak thinks. “I was surprised that both shows shows got such great response…. I think we brought in some of our usual Amphitheatre (Heritage Amphitheatre) but I also know we reached some new folks.”

“I designed Much Ado,” a riotous high-speed version of the multi-hued comedy, as a ‘kids show’ since we were on the (Vanta) Youth Stage, and it was great seeing kids in the audience laughing at Shakespeare.” He got positive feedback, too, from stalwart Freewill fans about Macbeth as an inventive all-female black comedy with satirical edges. “That was great too since there’s alway a risk messing with Shakespeare too much…. I think we were able to experiment a bit because it was the Fringe.”

“And most important we’ve been able to keep everyone healthy and safe!”

Incidentally, if you couldn’t score a ticket, here’s an option. Freewill is doing one more week of pop-up shows; some are private but a bunch are open to the public. Check freewillshakespeare.com for the schedule.

Whizgiggling Productions premiered a new play, Destination Wedding, a frothy concoction expertly made from comedy and mystery by playwright/ director/ designer Trevor Schmidt, Northern Light Theatre’s artistic director. “I think we were quite fortunate with both our location and having Trevor’s name attached to our show,” says Whizgiggling’s Cheryl Jameson, one of the three actors in the show. “We did quite well!”

“It felt weird being on site and crossing through the main outdoor stage area,” she says of that main Fringe thoroughfare, usually packed with people. “And there was almost never anyone in the beer tents, even the performer beer tent.”

She describes the 2021 experiment as a Fringe with “a small-town fringe festival feel to it, which isn’t necessarily bad, but there were no sounds and crowds and energy we were used to…. But I had an an amazing cast, we had great technicians and a great venue (the Westbury Theatre), so we ended up having a really great experience.”

“We are just thrilled to be back onstage doing live theatre in front of people instead of my cat.”

Carlyn Rhamey is one of a small number of artists who brought a show from the great big Canadian Elsewhere (in her case Hamilton). The ADHD Project is a captivating solo demo of how to use real-life personal documentation, to fashion a play. “Our venue (La Cité Auditorium) is a 200-seater, so at 100 seats (reduced capacity) it was perfect for me!” she says. “I enjoy a more intimate performance space…. Overall I did all right.”

At this year’s edition, which didn’t have crowds to pitch shows to, “ I found not being able to flyer more of a struggle, as I often get a chunk of audience through that,” Rhamey says. “But overall still a successful Fringe, and a nice easy intro back into touring and festivals.”

•Ashley Wright, director of Chris Dodd’s Deafy, a funny and moving solo show that took us vividly into the world of the Deaf, was pleased with the Fringe’s dual live/online face this year. “We did well at the box office. But we’ve also appreciated the opportunity to let people see it online. For those who are still hesitant to be out and about in crowds, or for folks who aren’t in Edmonton, the online version of Deafy (available now through Aug. 31) proved to be a big success.”

Jaimi Reese, Ceris Backstrom, Manny Aguerrevere, Josh Travnik in One Song, Margin Release at Edmonton Fringe 2021. Photo supplied.

•Calla Wright and Daniel Belland brought One Song, a startlingly impressive new musical about coming out for young audiences, to the Fringe in staged reading form, to test it out on a live audience. And the live audience loved it. At a festival where new work often gets lost in the fray of more polished crowd-pleasers, it was a happy experience, Wright says.

“It actually worked out great!” she says. “We never sold out or anything, but we had really solid houses of 15 to 45 people every performance. Our expenses were relatively low — just the space and Fringe fee (lowered to reflect the 60 per cent capacity rule) plus a few technical rentals and minor costume pieces — so we were actually able to break even, and pay the company a profit-share.”

“It was also very useful in terms of taking the show elsewhere! It was great for us to see the show eight times, and get a sense of how audiences reacted to various parts. We also found all our reviews gave us great feedback, which gives us a really solid jumping-off point for improvements.”

So a new musical that deserves a bright future was launched at the Fringe, in this strange year. Wright thinks the experience will take One Song forward. “We had some teachers come to the show and express interest in a future school tour, which was one of our big goals.”

“Definitely a weird Fringe…. I really missed seeing all the shows I normally do, and the en masse family reunion the Fringe usually is for theatre artists. But for us, One Song was a really lovely step back into live performing! It was incredible to be back rehearsing with new and old friends….”

“We felt so supported and safe to share our process with Edmonton. And I think we’re all feeling really fulfilled.”


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