Fringe deja view: Why are there so many returning shows at the festival this year?

More than two dozen shows in this year's Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival have been performed here before. And while some are happy to see returning hits, others think the festival needs to do more to promote new work.

Some fringers love another chance to see past hits, others say the festival needs to promote new work

Gemma Wilcox's The Honeymoon Period Is Officially Over is one of many shows returning to the Winnipeg Fringe Festival this year. It was last seen here in 2007. (Gemma Wilcox)

You're sitting in the audience at a Winnipeg Fringe Festival show, anxiously waiting for the performance to begin. The lights go down. The show starts.

And then you realize — you've seen this one before.

"I got burned twice," my friend and frequent fringer Wally Mah told me. On two occasions, he went to shows he thought were new from artists he'd liked — only to discover they were straight-up remounts.

"I was really mad," he said.

And he's likely not alone. I counted more than two dozen shows in this year's festival that have been performed here before.

Some, like Gemma Wilcox's The Honeymoon Period Is Officially Over, are shows we haven't seen in many years. And then there's a show like Chase Padgett's massive hit 6 Guitars, making its third Winnipeg Fringe appearance since it was first seen here in 2013 — and once again drawing crowds.

Chase Padgett's hit 6 Guitars is back at the 2017 Winnipeg Fringe for a third time.

Keir Cutler got great reviews for his play Shakespeare Crackpot last year — but says being at a University of Winnipeg venue, some distance from the fringe's traditional Exchange District hub, made it hard for crowds to find him. He's brought the show back this year in a more central location.

Another fringe favourite, Jem Rolls, is back with The Inventor of All Things — a show he first performed in 2015, but which he says he's reworked extensively for this year's run.

Fringers like Mah, though, would rather see popular fringe acts bring something new to the festival.

"You're not developing as an artist," when you bring back old work, he argues. He'd also like to see a disclaimer in the official festival program for shows that are making a return.

But Winnipeg Fringe executive producer Chuck McEwen says for artists who come back year after year, remounting a show can provide a "breather" to work on something new.

"It gives them time to develop new work," he said, and "keep working on it until it's perfect."

Stéphanie Morin-Robert's Blindside ran in a small venue at last year's fringe. It's back for an encore this year. (Thaddeus Hink)

He also points out returning shows are often back for a very good reason — they were huge hits, drawing critical raves and sellout crowds.

He points to shows such as Blindside — a breakout hit that ran in a small venue last year and turned patrons away, making it a good candidate for a return this year.

Fringenomics 101

And then there's the money.

Many out-of-town performers tour their shows around the cross-country fringe festival circuit, and that can be an expensive proposition. Besides travel and living costs, there are production costs, including the more than $700 fee to enter the Winnipeg Fringe Festival.

Putting up a brand new work at a big festival on the circuit like Winnipeg is a risky venture that may lead to lousy reviews, small crowds and lost revenue. While there are no guarantees for artists at the fringe, bringing back a past hit is far less risky.

Even so, people including Luc Lewandoski — another frequent fringer and long-time festival volunteer — think the festival should step in to cut back the number of return shows and open up spaces for new work. He took to Twitter to suggest  a cap on the number of returning shows allowed at the festival every year.

There's a hitch with that, though, McEwen said.

"When artists apply [to be part of the festival], we don't even ask what play they're doing," he said. 

That's in part because one of the guiding principles of the Winnipeg Fringe — like other North American fringe festivals — is that it's unjuried. No one tells the artists what they can or can't perform. It's up to audiences to decide whether they want to see what the artists are putting out there.

And that means for a festival that's about artistic expression, the fringe is actually an interesting study in the basics of capitalism — supply and demand. Artists who don't want to lose their shirts performing in the festival or want to give their work a life beyond a single fringe run will supply those returning hits.

And as long as the audience demand is there, they'll keep bringing them back.

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About the Author

Joff Schmidt

CBC theatre reviewer

Joff Schmidt is a copy editor for CBC Manitoba. Since 2005, he's also been CBC Manitoba's theatre critic on radio and online. He majored in theatre at the U of M, and performed in many university and Fringe festival productions along the way (ranging from terrible to pretty good, according to the reviews). Find him on Twitter @JoffSchmidt.