The little festival that could: How P.E.I.'s Island Fringe sets itself apart

With no theatres and only eight shows, It might be Canada's smallest fringe festival...but it sure has a big heart.

It might be Canada's smallest fringe festival, but it sure has a big heart

Charlottetown's Island Fringe Festival has no traditional theatre venues. (Michael Wasnidge and Andy Reddin/IFF)

Charlottetown's Island Fringe is, in a word, unique. With a mere eight shows over four days, it's the smallest Fringe festival in Canada. It's also the only one with no theatres — all works are instead staged in site-specific venues. This edition will feature shows in Rochford Square, a board game café and the local firefighters' club, among other places.

"There's an undeniable magic with site-specific work," says founder and festival director Sarah Segal-Lazar. "Certain places just have an atmosphere that's fascinating for performance and it also gives the public access to spaces in the city they may have wondered about but have never been able to get inside."

A Montreal-native, Segal-Lazar's family summered on P.E.I. when she was growing up — and Canada's tiniest province has always held a special place in her heart. After finishing her studies at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, she was curious to start working there and began discussions with the Victoria Playhouse about starting a festival. When the company backed out a few months later, she had two options: cut her losses and scrap the idea or forge ahead with no venue and not a cent in the bank.

Participants showing their Island Fringe pride. (Courtesy of the Island Fringe Festival)

"I was 22 at the time, so you could say I was young enough not to know better," she laughs. "Maybe not everything happens for a reason. But the festival in its current form would probably not exist if things had gone according to plan. The Island Fringe is built on this idea that if you have a thing you want to do, it doesn't matter if you don't know how. You just do it. That spirit continues to guide us in running the festival and it creates a space for artists where they feel like they can just make things happen."

Justin Shaw is one of those artists. Hailing from a little outside Cardigan, P.E.I. (home of the world's smallest library), the recent National Theatre School graduate is excited to return to the Fringe after his turn in last summer's Nutshell — an exploration of anxiety disorder staged at Beanz coffee shop. Presented in an outdoor wrestling ring, his solo The Wrestling Play follows a man who quits his job as a teacher and moves to Mexico, chasing dreams of pile-driving stardom.

Justin Shaw in The Wrestling Play. (Ashley McLeod)

"Fringe festivals are great because they challenge the norms of what theatre can achieve," says Shaw, who recently took the reins at Fort McMurray's Theatre; Just Because. "As a performer, the Island Fringe provides you with non-traditional performance opportunities at the same time it caters to the needs of artists and instills a sense of fun and celebration that theatre really deserves."

The Island Fringe is built on this idea that if you have a thing you want to do, it doesn't matter if you don't know how. You just do it.- Sarah Segal-Lazar, Island Fringe festival director

Rory Starkman is originally from Toronto, but moved to Charlottetown five years ago. A three-time Island Fringer (including co-writing Nutshell which Shaw appeared in last year), Starkman's 2017 contribution is the semi-autobiographical Just The Way It Is, which follows a non-binary trans person's journey of self-discovery and acceptance.

"This show is intensely personal and vulnerable and I don't think I could do it just anywhere," Starkman says. "Aside from that, the Island Fringe is one of the few opportunities for emerging creators in P.E.I. It's a breath of fresh air for the theatre community and one of the few places to see independent, raw performance."

The team behind Rory Starkman's "Just The Way It Is." (back row left-to-right): Morgan Wagner, Justeann Hansen, Ash Arsenault. (front row left-to-right): Rory Starkman, Olivia King. (Olivia King)

Along with its tiny scale and unconventional venues, the festival is unique for their hands-on relationship with the projects they present. With the usual Fringe model, artists get a venue, technician and box office support for a flat fee. In part because of their size and site-specific mandate, Segal-Lazar and her team often go to unusual lengths to help artists, reading scripts and scouting venues to find the perfect space for a show.

"I'm also an artist and I've had festivals where I've been treated well and festivals where I've been treated like garbage," Segal-Lazar says. "I would never want an artist to have a bad experience and we're in a unique position to be able to ensure that. It's not like you're going to get rich off of making theatre, so if people aren't having a good time, then why are we doing this?"

Island Fringe Festival. August 3-6. Various locations, Charlottetown.


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