#FringeSoWhite: Why aren't there more Indigenous people and people of colour in the Fringe Festival?

Have you noticed how white the Fringe is? A veteran Fringe creator, a new festival actor, a pioneering playwright and a newcomer volunteer have some theories about why the Fringe is so white — and ideas on what might be done to change it.

A director, actor, playwright and volunteer share suggestions to diversify the Fringe

A selection of handbill's from the 2016 Winnipeg Fringe Festival (Kaj Hasselriis)

Have you noticed how white the Fringe is?

The vast majority of Winnipeg Fringe Festival audiences are white. So are most of the performers.

Out of 169 productions at this year's festival, we could only find 16 that feature Indigenous performers and performers of colour.

To be fair, the theatre community as a whole in Winnipeg is pretty white. Just go to any mainstream theatre production in the city and you'll see for yourself. The Fringe is just a reflection of that. And the festival is limited in how much it can do to affect the ethnic and cultural makeup of its shows, since a lottery system is used to determine who gets in.

Says Fringe spokesperson Hayley Brigg: "We always hope that, due to this un-juried process, we make the Fringe an inclusive environment that gives any independent theatre artist an opportunity to share their stories onstage."

Still, we asked a veteran Fringe creator, a new festival actor, a pioneering playwright and a newcomer volunteer why the Fringe is so white — and what might be done to change it.

'White theatre'

2016 Winnipeg Fringe shows featuring performers of colour:

  • Beyond the Wild
  • Charlatan!
  • The DnD Improv Show
  • Flesh-Coloured Crayons
  • Folk Lordz 
  • Jonno
  • The Merry Men
  • Old Times
  • Outside Joke: The Improvised Musical
  • Siddiqi Jones
  • Snapshots
  • Space Hippo
  • A Story of O's
  • A Walk with Raven and Coyote
  • When God Comes for Breakfast, You Don't Burn the Toast
  • zahgidiwin/love

If we missed any, please let us know!

Frances Koncan, the writer and director of this year's Fringe shows zahgidiwin/love and Flesh-Coloured Crayons as well as three previous shows, said most of the plays at the festival are what she calls "white theatre." By that she means they follow a traditional Western narrative with a beginning, middle and an end — in that easy-to-digest order.

"I find a lot of Fringe plays are predictable, which I don't love," said Koncan, who added that she prefers shows that focus more on "spirit and soul," rather than telling one linear story.

Still, she admitted that it's tough getting the Indigenous community to come out and see zahgidiwin/love, including members of her own family.

"It raises issues of religion they're not ready to discuss," she said.

She's trying to get other Indigenous people out, though. For one afternoon performance this week, Koncan gave away free tickets to a local Aboriginal youth organization, Ndinawe, and several of their members attended.

Getting friends and family out

Primrose Madayag Knazan said it's a challenge to get the Filipino community out to see her shows. (Primrose Madayag Knazan)
Primrose Madayag Knazan knows what it's like to try and entice members of her own community to come out to the Fringe — and face resistance.

Starting in 2000, she has written and directed 11 Fringe plays, including the smash hit Shades of Brown. Many of Madayag Knazan's shows focused on Filipino issues. But she said convincing her Filipino-Canadian friends and family members to come was tough.

'I struggled to get Filipinos out. I don't think they got it. If I held a karaoke contest I could probably get them out.'- Primrose Madayag Knazan

"I struggled to get Filipinos out," she said. "I don't think they got it. If I held a karaoke contest I could probably get them out."

She said theatre just isn't a big part of her community, unless it involves music.

"If I was on stage I bet my mom would have told all her friends to come, especially if I was on stage singing."

Confidence and finances

For Kelsey Wavey, the young Indigenous lead of zahgidiwin/love, the main barriers she confronted when considering the Winnipeg theatre scene were confidence and finances. Wavey said she's extremely thankful she got free theatre lessons at Manitoba Theatre for Young People and free bus tickets to get there.

It wasn't until she went to MTYP that she started to believe she could shoot for an acting career.

"It gave me the support to believe I could do it."

Otherwise, she said, "I felt pretty discouraged in high school." It didn't help that the main theatre production during her time there was Alice in Wonderland — an example of "white theatre," she said.

For its part, the Fringe said that it tries to make the festival as accessible as possible to a wide range of Winnipeggers by keeping ticket prices low (just $10 for any show) and offering free outdoor programming at Old Market Square.

Furthermore, the Fringe said it has opened up its Kids Venue at MTYP to children from local day camps and even sponsored Syrian refugees to come to this summer's festival.

Colour-blind casting

'Jonno' is a good example of 'colour-blind casting' says playwright Primrose Madayag Knazan. (Echo Theatre)
Now, Wavey is discovering the same challenge as many other visible minority actors — trying to get cast in roles that aren't race-dependent.

Madayag Knazan said she hopes that, in the future, more Fringe creators consider what she calls "colour-blind casting." A good example this year, she said, is the Fringe production Jonno.

"The play's not about Filipinos but they chose two Filipino actors," said Madayag Knazan. "That's awesome."

One volunteer's experience

Meanwhile, there's the Fringe community outside theatre.

Gabriela Chavez, a first-time volunteer at the festival, believed she could find acceptance in that role — but that wasn't her experience.

The Ecuadorian immigrant, who arrived in Winnipeg shortly after last year's festival and recently completed an English program at Red River College, signed up to volunteer because she loves the arts. She attended the Festival du Voyageur and the Jazz Fest, then volunteered earlier this month at the Folk Festival.

"It was very nice and welcoming," she said of the Folk Fest. She doesn't feel the same way about the Fringe. 

At her volunteer orientation session she said the instructors spoke quickly and assumed everyone in the room generally knew how the festival was run. When Chavez asked questions, she said she felt like she was "bothering" people. She wishes there had been an "ambassador" there — someone to introduce themselves individually to volunteers and ask their names.

Chavez's first volunteer shift left her feeling discouraged, too. She said she was assigned to sell drink tickets in the beer tent next to a white woman. The patrons mostly ignored her, she said, and bought the tickets from the other volunteer.

"Usually Canadians are so polite," she said. 

When Fringe publicist Brigg heard Chavez's story, she said in a statement, "We are glad this feedback was brought to our attention. With over 700 dedicated volunteers providing support to the Fringe every year, we are always looking at ways we can enhance our recruitment and training."

Anajali Sandhu, Kristina Guevarra, and Frances Koncan star in 'Flesh-Coloured Crayons'. (Frances Koncan)
On the bright side, Chavez really likes the two shows she's seen so far at the festival. One of them was Koncan's zahgidiwin/love. "It caught my attention," she said. She was pleased to see a play that touches on something she recently learned about, residential schools.

Taking risks

In her experience as a Fringe creator, Koncan, the woman behind zahgidiwin/love, feels that, overall, the Fringe is "very supportive." She calls it "a good place to take risks for low financial risk."

She also said her efforts to get attention at the festival are starting to pay off.

"This is the first year where I feel like people are noticing my name."

This is the first year where I feel like people are noticing my name.- Frances Koncan

That includes Indigenous people from outside the Fringe community, including this popular comedian reacting to the news that Koncan's show was nominated for the Harry Rintoul award for best new Manitoba play at the Fringe:

On Sunday night, Koncan will find out if she wins the coveted award from the Manitoba Association of Playwrights.

We'll find out next summer if the face of the Fringe gets any more diverse.