Fringe Theatre Festivals

In Canada, a fringe festival is a low-capital production model that accommodates small independent theatre artists. The theatre performed at such festivals is usually small, inexpensive and often produced in bars, galleries, storefronts and other makeshift spaces conscripted by festival organizers. Considered as a genre, contemporary fringe theatre can be satirical, subversive, experimental, radical and/or concerned with expressing a particular voice: feminist, gay, black, poor and others. Fringe festivals provide venues and attract audiences to productions that have been referred to as alternative theatre.

While the contemporary fringe phenomenon began in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1947, its roots go back to ancient marketplaces where buskers, jugglers, barkers and salesmen of every stripe would do their best to attract the attention and money of the crowd. The idea of these performances as something that occurred on the "fringe" does trace its roots to Edinburgh, where the stark differences in the living conditions between the well-off and the poor gave rise to literary metaphors for the human condition. Only the well-off could afford to attend plays; however, numerous acts began to spring up outside the main theatre as buskers tried to cash in on the affluence of theatregoers. The performances of these fringe artists were so compelling that well-clad lords and ladies would often forgo the theatre altogether.

In 1947 a number of performing artists, dissatisfied with what they considered the elitist programming of the Edinburgh International Arts Festival, decided to create an event of their own. They produced their work in empty stores and church basements and promoted themselves in the streets with posters and handbills. This event, literally on the fringes of an established festival, was immediately successful in its own right. The Edinburgh Fringe evolved into an annual international event with a reputation equal to - if not greater than - the "official" Edinburgh Festival.

Brian Paisley, founder of the Edmonton Fringe, radically adapted the Edinburgh model when he created a production structure designed to enable artists to self-produce their own work. Paisley's fringe was its own centre; significantly, there was no established festival with large and already present audiences, nor was there a comparable tradition of independent production and touring among Canadian theatre artists.

Edmonton Fringe Festival

Recognized internationally as one of the best and most successful fringe theatre festivals in the world and as one of Canada's foremost festivals, the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival attracts artists and patrons from across Canada and around the world. The Edmonton Fringe has attracted performers from every province and territory in Canada as well as from the US, Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Poland, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Russia, Taiwan, Japan, Israel, Australia, New Zealand and throughout Africa and Central and South America.

With a municipal grant of $50 000, Paisley created an event designed to stimulate independent theatrical production and take advantage of Edmonton audiences - already predisposed to support summer FESTIVAL THEATRE. The budget provided for the bare performance infrastructure (makeshift venues, minimal equipment, technicians and a festival schedule). Artists were invited to produce their work on a first-come first-served basis. The Edmonton Fringe was an experiment in theatre production, an attempt to discover how to produce theatre with minimal resources.

The first Edmonton Fringe, held in August 1982, was a 10-day theatre event with 47 productions scheduled between noon and midnight in 5 venues. The audience that year was 7500. From the beginning it was a success both with audiences and with the theatre community. The low capital outlay required to produce a show, combined with the promise of earnings (performers received all box office receipts), attracted aspiring and established artists. Low ticket prices ($3) and the casual, often carnivalesque atmosphere attracted audiences that rapidly developed an allegiance to what became a yearly event.

The Edmonton Fringe Festival has continued to grow in scale. In 1987 it hosted 125 theatre companies in 10 venues, with 500 volunteers and more than 350 000 people attending. In 1994 there were 13 venues, 150 companies, 1000 volunteers and 450 000 people in attendance. "Live and Let Fringe" in August 2007 presented more than 600 artists in 21 venues over its 10-and-a-half-day run, and in 2009 the Edmonton Fringe could boast of more than 550 000 visitors.

A Fringe Circuit

Between 1985 and 1991 a circuit of 7 fringe festivals was established, opening in Montréal in June and ending in Victoria in October. In 1985, Joanna Maratta, director of TheatreSpace in Vancouver, borrowed Paisley's model and produced the Vancouver Theatre and Performance Arts Fringe Festival, a 9-day event hosting 93 performing companies in 8 venues. In 1986, Intrepid Theatre, under the direction of Randy Smith, produced a fringe festival in Victoria (3 days, 3 venues, 18 companies). In 1988 the Winnipeg Fringe opened, produced by the MANITOBA THEATRE CENTRE, Canada's oldest regional theatre. It attracted audiences and crowds larger than anyone had imagined (9 days, 29 companies, 5 venues and 30 000 attendees). In 1989 a group of small theatres in Toronto (Flexible Packaging Theatre, Stones Theatre, Crow's Theatre and Ziggurat Theatre) collaborated on organizing the inaugural Toronto Fringe, a 15-day festival with 40 companies in 3 venues produced by Gregory Nixon. In 1990, 25TH STREET THEATRE in Saskatoon produced a 5-day festival with 5 venues and 35 theatre companies under the direction of Tom Bentley-Fisher. A year later, in 1991, Kris Kieren and Nick Morra produced the inaugural Montréal Fringe, a 9-day, 5-venue fringe festival with 45 companies. That same year also saw the opening of a fringe event in Halifax (6 venues, 105 performances), organized by Kenneth Pinto.

The Canadian fringe circuit, continually evolving as events are reorganized and as new ones come into existence, is unique. While there are fringe festivals in other countries (Australia, New Zealand and the US), only in Canada is there a circuit of fringes.

Fringe Artists

Fringe festivals across the country depend for their success on the willingness of artists to self-produce their work. Early fringe shows attracted a diverse collection of performance genres and narrative styles. As a collective entity, fringe performers share a taste for theatre that is bold, excessive and minimal, experimental and often "in your face." Between 1982 and 1994, on average, over 60% of fringe companies created original work.

New, untested work thrives on the fringe because the production model encourages audiences to take a risk, to challenge themselves by trying something different. In turn, the fringe offers actors, directors and writers autonomy and provides the security needed to take risks. With each festival offering an umbrella organization, financial investments are minimal. Autonomy combined with the overall predisposition to experiment inspires some of the most provocative and political work in Canadian theatre.

Future of the Fringe

Some critics worry that the proliferation of fringe companies and the non-juried acceptance into the festivals has created events that aim at the lowest common denominator in audiences - simply a competition for laughs. However, because fringe theatre is artist-generated, unlike other cultural events that depend heavily upon government funding and critical approval, the future of fringe festivals will depend upon the activities and energy of small independent theatre companies and artists and on their ability to continue to excite and attract audiences.

Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by fringe festivals is their own popularity. Created as an alternative to the mainstream and a reaction against elitism in the arts, growing size and financial success draw increasingly professional and international artists to fringe festivals. With that comes increased expectations regarding facilities, production values and income. Large fringe festivals often pursue growth and expansion at the expense of the very grassroots principles upon which they were created.