'Hard to imagine an Edmonton summer without Fringe': Theatre festival cancelled over COVID-19

For the first time in its 39 year history, the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival has been cancelled.

Annual 11-day theatre festival draws hundreds of performers to city every summer

As the COVID-19 pandemic puts the city's festival season in limbo, the 39th Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival has been cancelled. (Edmonton Fringe Festival)

Sometimes the show can't go on.

For the first time in its 39-year history, the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival has been cancelled.

Organizers say the street theatre festival will not go ahead as planned due to the ongoing pandemic.

Self-isolation and restrictions make it impossible for theatre groups to rehearse and prepare new material leading up to the Fringe, said Adam Mitchell, the event's executive director. 

The unknowns of the pandemic make the risk of hosting an event too great, he said.

"It's hard to imagine an Edmonton summer without Fringe," Mitchell said in a statement. "While the decision to cancel is difficult and emotional, we also know it's necessary. The health and safety of all Fringers is our top priority."

Fringe is not alone in its decision to cancel. COVID-19 has already caused the cancellation of two popular summer festivals in Edmonton: the Freewill Shakespeare Festival and the Edmonton International Jazz Festival. A third festival, NextFest, will move its events online.

The pandemic has taken a toll on the Canadian arts scene.

Musicians have cancelled tours. Major concerts have been called off. Theatres have closed. Stages, stadiums and concert halls have fallen silent. The festival season as a whole remains in limbo. 

Fringe festivals in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto have already been cancelled. 

In Monday's COVID-19 update, Alberta's chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said large public gatherings like the Fringe festival won't be allowed any time soon. 

"I think something like the Fringe festival, other social gatherings, until we have a vaccine or some other means of ensuring wide-spread immunity, some of these gatherings are going to be the riskiest kinds of activities to engage in," said Hinshaw. "Especially gatherings that bring together people from all over the country or all over the world. So those kinds of restrictions, I would anticipate will be in place for some time."

Edmonton's Fringe festival, which takes place over 11 days in August, was expected to bring hundreds of artists to the city to perform in theatres, makeshift stages and in the streets.

A record 147,358 tickets were purchased in Edmonton during last year's edition of the event, generating $1.4 million for participating artists.

This year's line-up included buskers, actors and street performers from around the world. 

The artistic community has been devastated by the pandemic, Mitchell said. He said the organization will work with the Edmonton community to find new and innovative ways to reach audiences and sustain the livelihoods of performers.

"We will Fringe again and we look forward to celebrating the 40th Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival," Mitchell said.

"Until then, we are shif​​​​​​ting our priorities toward re-opening the doors of the ATB Financial Arts Barns as soon as it is safe to do so and championing our creative community."

On Aug. 13 when the festival was scheduled to start, Mitchell said organizers will hold some sort of virtual vigil. 

"We're going to make sure that we make as much noise as we possibly can in celebration of what's not happening and acknowledgement of what we've not been able to do, but also hopefully in looking forward to next year as well."

Artists who were slated to perform through the festival's lottery program can request a full refund of their application fees or defer their fees to secure a spot in the 2021 festival, organizers said.

Delays may be expected as staff work remotely and deal with a high volume of refunds, reads the statement. 

"The realities of the pandemic are changing daily, and we are doing our best to respond as quickly as possible. We don't have all the answers yet, but we are here to support you and find solutions that help artists."

Ben Henderson, city councillor for Old Strathcona where the Fringe is held, recommends organizers of other festivals make timely decisions before putting too much money into an event that won't happen. 

"The responsible choice for their long-term health, as sad as it is, may be to make a choice now before they get in too deep," Henderson said. "If they can recognize before they ramp up then the long-term consequences won't be as bad for them." 


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