Arts

How the Edmonton Fringe revolutionized Canadian theatre

It seems like a perfect moment to reflect on this awe-inspiring annual event — one which has had an undeniably huge impact on Canadian theatre.

For its 35th birthday, let's fete Canada's original Fringe Festival

The Edmonton Fringe Festival. (Edmonton Fringe Festival)

It is almost impossible to believe, but this August will mark the 35th birthday of Edmonton's Fringe Theatre Festival. Which makes for the perfect moment to reflect on this incredible, awe-inspiring annual event, one which has had an undeniably huge impact on Canadian theatre. The event, based on Edinburgh's Fringe Festival, has inspired sixteen Fringe festivals across Canada and many more in the United States. As critic Liz Nicholls told The Walrus in 2012, the festival is "the most strange and seductive thing Edmonton has ever produced... its most contagious export."

The Festival has helped to create new audiences for Canadian theatre, and has provided fertile ground for new and upcoming artists, many of who have since made profound contributions to our national theatre. And it began, oddly enough, as a result of an oil bust and some government cuts. In 1982, the Northern Lights Theatre Company was told their funding would be halved. The summer festival organizers said there was no way they could put on their productions at half the budget, so abandoned that effort, and asked Brian Paisley, then head of Edmonton's Chinook Theatre, if he had any ideas.

I thought, 'What the hell. Let's do this and have fun.' Nobody expected it to last. We thought it would be a one-off.- Brian Paisley

At the time, the Chinook offices were located in the basement of the Princess Cinema on Whyte Avenue, and Paisley took a walk around the block to brainstorm. "I thought to myself, 'What a sleazy neighbourhood this is,'" he recalls. "Then the idea came to me."

Paisley wrote up a page-and-a-half-long proposal, striking in its simplicity and inspired by his trip to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe the year prior. Edmonton's version of the festival would allow small shows created by professional, novice and amateur performers and artists that would utilize the empty business spaces in the then-economically-depressed district of Strathcona. The Fringe would pay for venues and technicians, and each production would be charged a small, nominal fee. Perhaps most importantly, Paisley envisioned a festival without any gatekeepers. It would be an anything-goes event.

Paisley remembers thinking how sorry he felt for whoever would want to take on such an organizational feat. But they came back to him and said they wanted him to run it. "I thought, 'What the hell. Let's do this and have fun.' Nobody expected it to last. We thought it would be a one-off."

Paisley, who now lives in Victoria and writes for television, says he continues to be "amazed at how the idea caught on. I guess it was an idea that was waiting to happen."

The Edmonton Fringe Festival. (Edmonton Fringe)

Brad Fraser, the prolific playwright, screenwriter and director, still recalls the show he wrote for the Edmonton Fringe in 1985. Chainsaw Love told the story of a family of cannibals in a post-apocalyptic future visited by vampires. The protagonist wore a bondage mask and wielded a chainsaw. "The biggest expense on our budget was blood," recalls Fraser, who is now Toronto-based. "It ended with everyone turning into a zombie and doing a disco dance. It really only could have existed at the Fringe."

Fraser remembers the joy of the do-it-yourself spirit of the Fringe. "It was a great place to try something you knew you couldn't do anywhere else. Actors could do things they wouldn't normally be cast in, to prove they were versatile. It allowed you to exercise muscles you wouldn't otherwise be using. There was no pressure to sell out the box office. It gave artists permission not to ask for permission."

But Fraser also stresses that while individual artists may have gained exposure and ultimately careers from Fringe beginnings, the impact on audiences should not be overlooked. "New audiences came out of the Fringe. Younger audiences in particular, people who might never have gone to an established theatre in Edmonton or Toronto or Montreal. The successes of alternative Fringe shows indicated to artistic directors that there may well be audiences and voices they were overlooking, like queer, First Nations or women's voices. We now hear people urging for more diversity in the theatre. I think much of that began with the Fringe."

The successes of alternative Fringe shows indicated to artistic directors that there may well be audiences and voices they were overlooking, like queer, First Nations or women's voices. We now hear people urging for more diversity in the theatre. I think much of that began with the Fringe.- Brad Fraser

Jennifer Tarver, now artistic director of Toronto's Necessary Angels Theatre Company, remembers making her debut at the Edmonton Fringe in 1994. "It was incredible place to put on a show," she says. "But what I remember was how much fun it was just to hang out there and see shows. It transformed that neighbourhood. I remember running from venue to venue, seeing shows and bumping into friends. The fun was infectious."

Tarver's first show was a production of Menotti's opera The Telephone. This one act, first staged in 1947, depicted a couple whose romance was complicated by the woman's obsession with her telephone. The romcom opera seems strangely germane today, given the advent of cellphones, but Tarver did something unique with the show: she personified the telephone, having an actor (Raul Tome) play the phone itself. The casting trick worked, leading to critical raves for the show.

"The Fringe really allowed for innovation like that," Tarver says. "It gives you extraordinary freedom. You know right away you're taking a risk. You may not get a review, you may not get a huge crowd. But that in turn allows you to take risks. It creates a place where potentially extraordinary work can be done. Those early Fringe experiences helped to clarify my vision."

And yes, Tarver confirms, "I think it's changed Canadian theatre. I think it's made things edgier. A lot of innovation still springs from the Fringe."

Tarver points to one of the most famous Fringe shows as proof of the possibilities of the festival as a launch pad. The Drowsy Chaperone began as a Toronto Fringe show in 1997, and then morphed into a hit on Broadway, where it would win numerous Tony Awards in 2006, including Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score.

"I wouldn't just argue that the Fringe Festivals have had an impact on Canadian theatre," Tarver argues. "I would say they have revolutionized Canadian theatre."

Edmonton Fringe Theatre Festival. August 11-21, Edmonton. www.fringetheatre.ca

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