Why do Fringe Festivals have such a huge amount of sexual content?

Flipping through a Fringe program is often a bit confusing. Is this a guide to a theatre festival or a new psychedelic edition of The Joy of Sex?

This year's Montreal edition alone has more than a few provocative titles

Colette Kendall in The C--kwhisperer ... A Love Story (Montreal Fringe)

Flipping through a Fringe program is often a bit confusing. Is this a guide to a theatre festival or a new psychedelic edition of The Joy of Sex? One can't help but be a bit taken aback by a gaggle of naughty, provocative titles of various shows, including (at the Montreal Fringe alone) Coffee Erotica, Naked Ladies, nerdf--ker, Sexpectations and The C--kwhisperer. And that's just for starters.

Veteran theatre critic Gaetan Charlebois says the Fringe Fest circuit has long been fertile ground for performances that explore the erotic and sensual. "Sex and the Fringe go hand in hand," says Charlebois, founder of the Montreal-based theatre site The Charlebois Post. "Before shows like The Motherf--ker with the Hat was all the rage, the Fringe had The Happy C--t. Limited funds actually led pretty directly to more sexual content: lots of solos meant confessionals became de rigeur and nothing sells a confessional show like a sordid sexual past."

Maxine Segalowitz, the Montreal-based creator and star of Sexpectations, says more sexual content is understandable, given the freedom the Fringe invites. "The Fringe is a platform that encourages people to produce anything," she says. "And people want to talk about sexuality because it has a history of being silenced. I think it's extremely healthy for people to be able to think about their own sexuality while watching other people dealing with theirs through performance. As a woman, objectification is a part of our lives. My show explores learning the skills to navigate that."

Cameryn Moore's nerdf--cker (Montreal Fringe)

When Thea Fitz-James first conceived of and performed Naked Ladies, she says it was mainly an "academic striptease," a "really weird and personal" way to explore her own ideas about being framed as a sexual object. It came from many of the ideas she explored while a graduate student in York University's Theatre and Performance Studies program. "When I looked at the Twitter responses to anytime after Kim Kardashian posted a new photo of herself, the divide was revealing: either she was held up as a feminist goddess or a total slut. How do we walk through our world when the way of seeing a woman's body is in such a binary way?"

Fitz-James says the Fringe is "the perfect place to get into such issues, because the Fringe audiences have such a desire to see something different. They are very open to new things -- they want to see something that is risky and pushing boundaries."

And she adds it's good to know the audience is open to what it is she's delving into, because "the show does involve me being nude, and there are a lot of very intense ideas. It also takes a dark turn. My family's going to come and see it in Montreal, which will be weird."

Colette Kendall's show is called The C--kwhisperer. Sold yet? She warns that a racy title will only get you so far. "It's a fine line," says the executive director of Hamilton's Staircase Theatre. "You have people taking things on for shock value because you are competing with hundreds of shows. But you can also alienate people who might not be open to seeing a show if the title is off-putting to them."

Maxine Segalowitz's Sexpectations (Montreal Fringe)

The key, she says, "is having something to say. If you're not connecting with your audience, you won't have a hit. The Internet has opened things up, but it also means people aren't as titillated by the mere mention of sex. In my case, The C--kwhisperer is about leaving an abusive relationship and then finding a meaningful one. It's the love story that people found a connection with."

Both Charlebois and Kendall convey the idea that a lot of sex talk means younger audiences are more engaged at the Fringe. Mainstream theatre companies generally have much older subscriber bases and thus have to concern themselves with not offending too many people. The Fringe operates on an almost opposite basis. "Sex is always there," says Charlebois. "Clumsy and funny, cringe-inducing, queer, straight, or heartbreaking. Sexual tropes, more than for any other kind of theatre, are the backbone of the Fringe, which does go a long way to explaining the festivals' popularity with young people."

For Kendall, this led to some trouble when she tried to place an ad for The C--kwhisperer in a daily newspaper in Hamilton. The ad sales person lived up to the old stereotype of daily newspaper culture as stuffy and old-school. "They told me there was no way they could put that title in the paper," she recalls. "They suggested taking the last three letters of c--k out and putting in stars instead. I pointed out that then it might look like another c-word. Then they said they couldn't use the visual for the show, as it included part of a male buttock. I pointed to all sorts of images of scantily-clad women that they have run in the paper with no apparent problem. Then they insisted on taking out the microphone from the photo. Even the phallic symbol of the microphone was too problematic for them.

"It reminded me of what I like so much about the freedom of performing at the Fringe. Not so many hang-ups."

St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival. May 30-June 19. Various locations, Montreal.


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