Arts

After 27 provocative years, the Montreal Fringe Festival has proven it can't be tamed

"If organizers ever boast that there are no limits on what the festival has to offer, they're hardly exaggerating — it's actually kind of their mandate."

The festival's 2017 edition will highlight all the boundary-pushing work that makes Fringe theatre so special

Les Prix Frankies at the Festival St-Ambroise Fringe de Montréal. (Cindy Lopez)

70 years ago, in what has come to be regarded as the first ever Fringe Festival, the famed Edinburgh International Festival was greeted by eight theatre troupes who had decided to stage their work on the sidelines of the official ceremony. It's a grassroots tradition whose seeds have spread their way across the whole globe — and nowhere have they been implanted more firmly than in the cultural capital of Montreal.

The 27th edition of the St-Ambroise Fringe Festival, which runs until June 18, will see droves of thespians descend upon the city to set up shop for 20 days of original performances at more than 20 venues. Last year a mass of about 60,000 attendees, made up of locals and pilgrims alike, were estimated to have taken part in the Fringe adventure. If organizers ever boast that there are no limits on what the festival has to offer, they're hardly exaggerating — it's actually kind of their mandate.

This means anyone from anywhere can make it into Fringe.- Oliver Skinner

When the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals (CAFF) was fossilized in 1994, one of its four commandments ensured that Fringe overseers would have no say in the actual artistic content of their shows. Without being bound by the threat of censorship, creators are thus encouraged to explore their more subversive sides and commonly veer into territory that is challenging, provocative and downright NSFW. Just one example of this tendency at Montreal's 2017 edition is Peter Pansexual — the tale of Peter Pan turned upside down that sees Peter, Wendy and the Lost Boiz "crushing the patriarchy, exploring their sexuality and flaunting their eternal youth on social media." The farce is ultimately billed as a performance for the "young at heart," which is precisely what a Fringe-goer should try to be: open to the unexpected and unafraid to laugh at themselves.

(Glam Glam Productions)

The other three guidelines in the CAFF's rulebook state are essential to creating the festivals' diverse makeup: participating companies must be randomly selected by lottery, ticket prices should be affordable or pay-what-you-can and 100% of the proceeds will return straight to the artists' pockets. Since theatre troupes aren't beholden to appealing to any sort of selections jury or a broad audience, and without a great deal of money at stake, this means anyone from anywhere can make it into Fringe.

If organizers ever boast that there are no limits on what the festival has to offer, they're hardly exaggerating — it's actually kind of their mandate.- Oliver Skinner

With such a bricolage of theatrical avenues to go down, it would be a fool's errand to establish a clear roadmap for navigating this year's Montreal festival. That's where the Fringe-For-All showcase comes in handy, where every participating company is invited to premiere a live teaser of their work and pique the audience's interest, leading to what should ideally become a choose-your-own-adventure style itinerary. On top of the routine roster of shows, additional programming includes a Fringe Prom, live music and drag performances at the Fringe Park, pop-up galleries teeming with displays of local talent and a special "on the margins" edition of Montreal's true-life storytelling series, Confabulation.

Théâtre Kata at the 2014 Fringe-For-All. (Festival St-Ambroise Fringe de Montréal/Facebook)

Besides panning out for nearly twice as long as all other stops on the Canadian Fringe Festival circuit, Montreal's Fringe is as multidisciplinary as the city itself. Amy Blackmore, who has served as the festival's artistic director since 2011, hails from the world of dance, and homegrown indie acts are known to dial up their exposure when they take the stage. Some early titles generating #fringebuzz include works as discrepant as One Too Many, a drunken stumble through alcoholism and friendship; Docile Bodies, a feminist riff on the writing of Michel Foucault; and The Morning After The Life Before, a hoorah for Ireland becoming the first nation to gain marriage equality by popular vote.

(The Morning After The Life Before/Facebook)

That's the only context where popular vote will truly have a place at Montreal's Fringe Festival, however. It's a festival with foundations in going against the grain and operating on the outskirts — and it's grown into something that can't be tamed.

Montreal Fringe Festival. To June 18. Various locations. Montreal. www.montrealfringe.ca

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