Arts

Why the London Fringe Festival is an important stop on the Canadian circuit

London Fringe has evolved beyond its core group of theatre-lovers into a burst of creative energies that boasts 350 scheduled performances taking place across 9 different venues.

The 17th edition of the festival kicks off today

The scene at London Fringe. (London Fringe Festival)

As the famed Stratford Festival gets underway with its 64th season, a much younger dramatic arts festival is waiting in the wings nearby, preparing to take the stage. Follow the Avon River southwest unto its junction with the Thames, and you'll happen upon London, Ontario — a city of less than half a million people, but with a vibrant theatre scene nonetheless. Its Fringe Festival turns 17 years old May 31st, ushering in 12 days worth of live performances, visual displays and community activities.

Born at the edge of the new millennium, co-founder and executive producer Kathy Navackas remembers "waiting breathlessly to see if there would be any audiences" for the fledgling festival's opening shows. Fast-forward to present day, where the annual celebration has evolved beyond its core group of theatre-lovers into a burst of creative energies that boasts 350 scheduled performances taking place across 9 different venues. London Fringe has become an organization that operates year-round, making it yet another firmament in the London arts community, alongside The Grand Theatre, Original Kids Theatre Company, and others that render the medium-sized city into an unexpected hub for Canadian theatre.

Despite the city's omnipresent offerings of singular theatrical experiences, every summer when Fringe rolls around, enchantment fills the air. "It's here for a short time and then poof, it's gone," Navackas said. "Except for the memories."

Mr. Richardson Was Jesse James: An Ontario South-Western. (London Fringe Festival)

Out of the 103 applicants entered into a random lottery that drew the names of 47 lucky theatre companies, a plethora of players hail from far and wide to bring their work to the city's stages, including troupes touching down from British Columbia, California, the United Kingdom and Australia. But local talent is abundant as well. Mr. Richardson was Jesse James: An Ontario South-Western excavates a local legend concerning the outlaw's summer spent in Princeton, Ontario; Sit Still Look Pretty questions, through dance, the unjust gender expectations enforced upon young women. The very nature of Fringe's selection process ensures there is something for everyone and that there is someone for every show.

What occurs offstage throughout the festival, however, is perhaps as enthralling as what does. London stands out on the Fringe circuit for its strong gallery lineup: the one-of-a-kind Visual Fringe is guided by the same philosophy as the live performances, meaning its selection process is non-juried and artists keep 100% of their sales. 

For the first time this year, London Fringe Block Party will coincide with the city's annual Nuit Blanche on June 4th. A day replete with street vendors, artisans and family fun will thusly transform downtown's Dundas Street into a sundown soirée, complete with art installations, interactive exhibits and more. A newly-developed London Fringe app allows festival-goers to navigate the plentiful roster of things to see and do using their smartphones, while the social headquarters of the fest — entitled Club Fringe and also making its debut this year — provides performers, volunteers and patrons alike a space to convene. 

A painting by Jennifer Collins being shown at this year's Visual Fringe. (London Fringe Festival)

"Each year has its own unforgettable treasures," beams Navackas, fondly reminiscing about the time performers dropped in at the Childrens' Hospital, as well as her first experience witnessing the stunning Visual Fringe entry by Mount Hope's palliative care art therapy program. She's undeniably proud of what her festival has accomplished, and with good reason.

Although London's is hardly the largest dot on the growing Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals' map, it is an indelible one. The festival's devoted audiences and returning performers are pure testament to that. "The performers feel at home here and then we send them off on the tour happy," Navacakas said.

Whether right now is your first time hearing about the festival or your 17th year reaping its rewards, this indie showcase makes quite the case for a city not routinely heralded for its cultural accomplishments. London Fringe is definitely something to write — as well as sing, dance, act, paint, sculpt — home about.

London Fringe. May 31-June 11. London, Ont. londonfringe.ca

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