Fundy Fringe Festival tackles live, indoor shows in the age of COVID-19
Festival director says it may be first in Maritimes to try live audience shows since March lockdown
The COVID-19 pandemic has either cancelled most New Brunswick arts festivals or driven them online for virtual experiences.
But the Fundy Fringe Festival will head into uncharted territory with plans to hold live, indoor shows this coming week.
For festival director Sarah Rankin, it will be the culmination of five months of adapting the festival over and over again.
The festival lineup was announced in early March, not long before the pandemic lockdown in New Brunswick.
At that time, Rankin had 23 acts booked for the festival, many from outside the province. Initially, she wasn't too concerned.
"I don't think I thought it would be as long as it has been," Rankin said of the response to the pandemic. "You know, a couple of weeks and back to normal."
But it soon became clear that wasn't the case.
Rankin held an online town hall with the artists, and many were reluctant to be part of a virtual festival, believing their works needed to be performed in front of a live audience.
Rankin said it was also clear "there was no way we could have acts from outside" the province.
She began planning a fully virtual festival, with just nine acts, using recording equipment owned by the Saint John Theatre Company.
It was only recently, as the province began loosening restrictions, that she started to think it just might be possible to try some live, indoor performances at the BMO Theatre in Saint John.
Here are the rules
Audiences will be small because of physical distancing requirements, with available seating for just 34 people.
Seats must be booked in advance and masks are required when the audience members are not in their seats.
Artists are also required to wear them, except when they're onstage.
"That's our policy and we're sticking to it," Rankin said, adding anyone who is reluctant to wear a mask should take in the shows available online.
The theatre will be cleaned and sanitized after each performance.
And are people showing signs they're ready to watch live theatre in the age of COVID-19?
"I've been surprised by the number of people buying tickets now," Rankin said.
"People are a little burnt out" by the many restrictions placed on them over the past five months, Rankin said.
One of the live performances will be by Andrew Gaunce, who did make the trip from out-of-province to be here.
The Saint John native travelled from Toronto, where he, with his creative partner Joey O'Dael, operates Aberrant Theatre, which produces works of horror for live performance.
He has been self-quarantining in a trailer in his parents' yard for the past two weeks, timed to finish up just before the festival begins.
Gaunce said getting ready for this performance has been an exercise in adaptation, too.
He had a piece prepared for the festival that included a lot of audience participation, but that just wasn't possible under the new regulations.
Instead, he put together an entirely new piece called Like Butter In A Dog's Mouth.
Gaunce said he has also probably rewritten the whole piece in the last two weeks.
"It has been created in a vacuum," he said, adding he doesn't even have a director to give him a second set of eyes and ears focused on the show.
"But I'm confident in it, I feel really good about it, but who knows?"
It's a tale of horror and suspense — Gaunce calls it a dark folktale. The title comes from an old Scottish saying that means something is gone forever.
The show will be performed live at the BMO Theatre and live streamed on the Fundy Fringe Festival YouTube channel.
The other live shows performed there include Saint John's Improvisation Corporation with Mashup 2, Moncton's Kay Kreative Arts with a rom-com called Just Desserts, and Quispamsis native Caroline Bell in a semi-autobiographical piece called Swing.
Those tickets must be reserved by phoning (506) 652-7582.
The pre-recorded content can be found on the Saint John Theatre Company's website under Virtual Studio.
There will also be an outdoor show for children, a puppet show called The Wren and the Bear.
"It's been an adventure," Rankin said of the effort to put together this year's festival, "Sometimes I feel like I'm chasing my own tail."
But for Gaunce, the fringe festival experience makes the effort worth it for him.
"Love it," he said, "Last year was one of my favourite artistic experiences, especially to get to perform in my own hometown. Love it."
The Fundy Fringe Festival runs from Aug. 17 to 22.