By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
If Fringe director Murray Utas is looking a little dazed — a rarefied combo of surprise, delight, and fatigue — who can blame him?
It’s the last day of Destination Fringe, the 41st annual edition of Edmonton’s 11 day-and-night summer theatre binge, the first and biggest on the continent. And the 2022 edition marks, he says, “the culmination of two-and-a half years of being on high-alert and high-functioning…. ”
Proposing, planning and re-planning, re-thinking and re-thinking the re-think: “Honestly I feel like I’m a Fringe play,” Utas laughs. Improv isn’t the word. “No, it’s busking! You have to put on the show AND gather the crowd….
Would it happen? Would the people come? Would the community embrace our favourite summer festival once more? Impossible to know for sure in advance. But, yes, yes, and yes. By Sunday morning, with a full day and evening of shows to go, the Fringe had sold 94,493 tickets to its 164 indoor shows (a figure that will be tuned up by the end of the evening). By Sunday afternoon 22 per cent of performances had sold out compared to 2019’s 20.7 per cent. And the return to artists, who get 100 per cent of the ticket sales, is pushing $1 million.
These are not, of course, the dizzying figures of 147,000-plus tickets of the gargantuan 2019 Fringe, with its 258 shows and $1.4 million pay-out to artists. But Destination Fringe, with it 164-show universe in 27 venues was on a deliberately smaller scale for this late-[pandemic world of ours (and dramatically up from last year’s 65 shows). “We were listening…. We’re intentionally growing incrementally.”
Most of the Fringes on the circuit have reported a drop of 20 to 30 per cent in ticket sales from 2019. But since there are fewer shows, Utas predicts, “the house percentages are almost exactly the same as 2019. Which means more revenue per show. “It brings out the socialist in me,” he grins.
Utas and Fringe Theatre executive director Megan Dart call the 2022 edition, with affection, Almost Fringe. “We had to ask ‘what does it mean to an engage an audience now?’ It’s not like anything was missing. But there was a lot of ‘I don’t know how that’s going to go’…. Coming here, I couldn’t predict how things would work.”
Fringe 2022 comes at the end of two-and-a-half years of “complete and utter reinvention on the daily,” says Utas, from the moment of “the creative switch” in March 2020 when live theatre abruptly shut down.
“There’s nothing normal about the world we’re in,” as he puts it. “There’s no normal on the other side of what we’ve been through. But at least if there’s no normal we can see what is there.”
“There’s a lot of new at the festival this year,” and Utas is happy about that. “New plays, new musicals by the next generation, new theatre artists, new curators for music and cabaret.” And new initiatives from the Fringe itself, like the Youth Empowerment Program that gathered seven participants and mentored them, in everything from performance to production.
What has surprised him? “Stamina,” he says instantly, by which he means something both artists and administrators have lost their grip on in the fallow period. More of the work than ever is new. “Many artists (who had Fringe slots) have been waiting since 2020,” says Utas. “A good majority of them asked if they could do a different show than they’d originally had in mind.” The answer: “Of course! Times are very different.”
“Artists have recovered enough to want to create; I think that’s why we saw so much new work.…”
There have been changes. Thanks to a last-minute federal grant, the Fringe threw a big free street party the night before the festival started, as in the olden days of Fringe, to welcome the community back. The KidsFringe came back in a big way, all shows free, “packed every day opening to close. We printed 2500 passports (for kids to stamp), and we had to keep printing more.” Utas thinks they under-estimated the variety of outdoor entertainment for the crowds that gathered. He’ll know for next time.
The 85th Avenue corridor, long static, came alive with mural painting led by Matt Cardinal and an assortment of DJs. , in such a big way “If you make room,” says Utas, “you have to stay far enough out of the way, and it can go places you never imagined.”
“And, really, isn’t that the Fringe itself? You jam a little, you open up creativity, people come, and it happens! Nothing but good news…. This felt like community. And that’s a beautiful thing.”