Is it worth it for artists to lose money on festivals?

While dreams of theatrical stardom shine brightly in the eyes of the many who turn up at every year, it's worth pausing to wonder whether the financial risks are worth it.

Joining the Fringe circuit is an amazing opportunity — but one that comes at a price

Davina Stewart's Die-Nasty, playing at the Edmonton Fringe. (Edmonton Fringe)

For performance lovers across the country, summer heralds the arrival of Fringe season. Operating in cities from Charlottetown to Victoria, the events offer artists an easy way to share their work by selecting projects though a lottery. Tickets hover around $10-15, giving audiences low-cost opportunities to check out their talents and artists normally receive 100% of their sales. The Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals proudly proclaims on their website that in the last three years festivals "have generated more than $10,000,000 in box office revenues, returned directly to our artists."

It sounds like a sweet deal for everyone. But a closer look at the model shows it may not be living up to its promise. While artists receive their ticket revenue, they pay an entry fee of $600-900 along with their production costs, making up their salaries with what's left. In a hit show with a company of five to six and minimal production elements, each person might walk away with $400-500 for several months of work.

Some projects are runaway hits, including heavyweights like The Drowsy Chaperone and My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding. But the majority are money losers, some playing to houses of tiny audiences after a bad review sinks their sales. While dreams of theatrical stardom shine brightly in the eyes of the many who turn up at every year, it's worth pausing to ask: are festivals really good for artists?

Murray Utas, who helms the Edmonton Fringe, adamantly believes they are. A twenty-year theatre veteran who took the reins of that festival three years ago, he sees festivals as critical to artistic experimentation.

"It's an opportunity for people to try out things they could never get away with in a major theatre's season," he says. "Young artists can hone their craft and to try self-producing with very little risk. The entrance fee gives people their venue, technician, box office, and publicity, as well as putting them in the frame of a festival which brings different people to their work. It's a really fertile ground for experimentation."

Eric Rose's Tomorrow’s Child, playing at SummerWorks. (SummerWorks)

Toronto's SummerWorks — which kicked off last night — follows a slightly different model. Works are selected by jury and artists only receive a portion of their box office. They have a range of programs with different financial structures, including one-off events and international presentations. But the majority of projects still follow the "pay to play" model, with an entry fee of nearly $800.

"We offer a shared risk model and it's our responsibility to make clear to artists what that risk is," says newly appointed Artistic and Managing Director Laura Nanni. "Financial risk is an element of that and I want all of the decisions I make to be informed by what the artistic community is telling me they need."

"Helping to bring these projects to fruition is really important to me because I believe progressive culture and innovation live in new artistic creation," she adds. "Nurturing ideas that seem big and impossible is critical for us to move forward as a society and the arts are very often where true innovation begins."

A Fringer for three decades, Davina Stewart credits the possibilities the fest offers emerging artists as her reason for staying in Edmonton after university. She has two shows up this year; The Song of the Martingale, a radio play set in the 1950's about a struggling couple, and Die-Nasty, a long running improv comedy series offering quirky takes on current issues. Both projects feature huge casts (the former around 14 including the live band, the later around 25); a nearly impossible feat in a standard producing model.

"What's great about the Fringe is that you can just produce your work and you don't have to wait around for someone to give you the opportunity," she says. "You pay your fee and everyone knows what they're getting into. You put in a lot of time and maybe you're making $1.50/hour, but people figure out ways to make it work for them."

Nurturing ideas that seem big and impossible is critical for us to move forward as a society and the arts are very often where true innovation begins.- SummerWorks Artistic and Managing Director Laura Nanni

"Edmonton has a great theatre-going community, in part because of the Fringe and the opportunities it offers audiences to see so many kinds of work," she adds. "Many lasting companies are born at the festival, and a lot of strong, vibrant writing comes out of people who didn't know they were writers, just because they have an opportunity."

Calgary-based producer/director Eric Rose has a different take. He's project Tomorrow's Child arrives at SummerWorks as part of the Special Presentations series (which operates on a different financial model than other projects). Based on a 1947 short story by sci-fi god Ray Bradbury, the audio-only project invites blindfolded audience into an immersive sonic environment.

Rose made a conscious decision to avoid Fringes early in his career. Along with the limited technical resources artists receive, he takes issue with the ethics of the "pay to play" model.

d'bi.young anitafrika's Bleeders, playing at SummerWorks. (SummerWorks)

"A city can present a Fringe as an incredible cultural event at the same time that they aren't supporting it in a way that protects artists," he says. "In some ways, it's a purely capitalist market for producing art. Great work can come out of it, but the financial aspects are a problem. It would be presumptive on my part to say, 'Don't do a Fringe'. But I would definitely say don't be naïve in your expectations. It can be devastating to do all that work, spend all that money, and have five people in your audience. Just because you build something doesn't mean people will come."

Theatre maverick d'bi young anitafrika has a long history with self-produced festivals. Her 2001 turn in Trey Anthony's Fringe smash Da Kink in my Hair had a role in launching her career. A multi-award winning artist who's travelled the globe with her craft, she still makes regular appearances on the circuit. This year, she brings Bleeders to SummerWorks; a post-apocalyptic Panto-Dub-Opera, blending African-Caribbean-Canadian musical theatre, with folklore and pantomime.

"Theatre is an economically challenging path," she says. "Whether in a festival setting or simply self-producing, we always run the risk of losing money. I invest money in the work that I do, the same way I invest my love, sweat, and tears. What's key is for me is that I learn from the process, I grow as an artist, and I inspire at least one person with the story I've chosen to tell. If I achieve all that, I consider my process a complete success, whether or not I get an economic return."

SummerWorks Festival. August 4-14, Toronto.

Edmonton International Fringe Festival. August 11-21, Edmonton.


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