COURTESY OF FRINGE THEATRE ADVENTURES

At the Fringe

How a one-time experiment became Edmonton’s loopy theatre-party extravaganza

By Liz Nicholls

During the summer of 1982, in a prairie city I thought I knew well, something small and weird happened to the civic landscape—something that would change it forever.

It was the annual off-season drought for live theatre, the peaceful time of year when you could hang around Edmonton and never bump into an actor or a director, a playwright or a designer, except maybe in the departure lounge at the airport. In that halcyon period of summertime inertia, you never had to hear a pitch for a one-man multi-balloon version of Hamlet or a modern-dance exploration of the collision of sexuality, politics and spirituality. You certainly didn’t have to weigh the possible merits of shows called Buck Duke’s Wild Sex Show or Sex on Plywood or Penis de Milo, much less The Happy Cunt. The aesthetic of ensembles called Body Bag Productions or Le Freak C’est Chic was not a topic of conversation in the bars of Edmonton’s dusty Strathcona historical district, dotted with abandoned warehouses, derelict storefronts and lowball beaneries. No one importuned you to see Ibsen at noon or early Sam Shepard at midnight. Or Iranian puppets any time.

True, for a hinterland burg of middling size, Edmonton had a mysteriously disproportionate number of theatres, and of the kind of people who work in them. But after the Victoria Day weekend, they turned back into waiters or vanished into summer-stock productions of The Fantasticks in the east. These days, when you can “fringe” in Saguenay or Saskatoon or St. Louis, it takes a certain leap of imagination to remember a time that the whole continent was fringe-free and that particular f-word wasn’t a verb. Then came 1982, in Edmonton of all places.

“We weren’t busy at the time,” says the director/playwright Brian Paisley, a wry beanpole with a ponytail, who ran a children’s-theatre touring company called Chinook out of a former firehall in Strathcona. “Really, we had nothing better to do.” And his bright idea of A Fringe Theatre Event—as he dubbed it enigmatically, in homage to the Edinburgh Fringe where he’d been the year before—was more an offhand why-not? shrug of an experiment, as he tells it, than a visionary step into some golden age of limitless alternative-theatre creativity.

Paisley “just happened to be there,” in “use it or lose it” mode, when a city grant, unhinged from its original recipient, floated into view. “Give me the 50 grand, I’ll set up some spaces and people will bring shows.” That was the modest crux of the idea hatched from Paisley’s dank dive of an office under the Princess Theatre on Whyte Avenue.

Edmonton’s best idea and most contagious invention ever started small, but not that small. No one was more surprised than Paisley when 45 groups wanted in, lured by the non-lavish invitation to “come to Old Strathcona, do a show, collect the gate or suck up the loss… You might as well do whatever you like; it’s a waste if you don’t.” Paisley’s only concession to marketing was 1,000 posters: “Five theatre venues! Five shows per day in each venue!! Over 200 live performances!!!” Amazingly, 7,500 tickets sold, each for a fiver, tops.

The Fringe grew up, topsy-turvy, along with the funky but distinctly pre-hip Edmonton district in which it had been conceived.

Everything about A Fringe Theatre Event seemed off-the-cuff and unexpected. A troupe of Brazilian puppeteers mysteriously showed up, along with a four-actor Macbeth. Calgary’s Ikarus Theatre attracted an audience of 92 to the dingy alley behind the Commercial Hotel at midnight for the sole performance of their Titus Andropticus (Or Scrotum’s Revenge), a free adaptation of Shakespeare’s goriest play. In fact, Calgary disgorged fully a third of the artistic roster for Fringe number one.

Michael Green, co-artistic-director of Calgary’s One Yellow Rabbit, has often said the company identity and profile were forged at the Edmonton Fringe. “At the time, I was the stage manager of Stage Coach Players in Calgary, and the actors wanted to audition for Chinook in Edmonton, so I drove them,” laughs Green. “This scrawny, hairy guy in the Princess basement said, ‘Well, do you want to do a show? What have you got?’”

One of the country’s prize experimental performance theatre troupes was born in those casual, non-prescriptive questions. The soon-to-be-famous Rabbits brought Leonardo’s Last Supper (by the English playwright Peter Barnes) and slept in Paisley’s subterranean den. “After that, we wrote our own.” Green himself hung out at A Fringe Theatre Event, he recalls, as “a flying purple penis with golden balls and wings… Brian didn’t seem surprised.” It was the first of 10 straight summers of OYR appearances, both in theatre venues and on the street, at the Edmonton Fringe.

Born at that first Fringe too was Edmonton’s whimsically named Teatro La Quindicina, now 31 seasons old and still building a Fringe run into its seasons. “There was just no reason not to,” shrugs Stewart Lemoine, a university record-store clerk at the time and now Teatro’s award-winning resident playwright. “We just thought it would be fun; the Fringe made it possible for me to be a playwright…. We had no idea who would show up to see it.”

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Performers from Late Night Cabaret during one of the 2012 festival’s more collaborative performance series. (Courtesy of Fringe Theatre Adventures)

Teatro’s debut comedy was set at a glamorous Paris dinner party where a socialite spoke only phrases out of a Hungarian phrase book (“Do you know where I can play ping pong?”), and the dining experience included an aria from Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito. The audience, who had bought $4 tickets on spec—except for people born in 1932, admitted for half price—and sat on cushions at the back of a Strathcona art supply store, had never seen anything quite like All These Heels. “It was our chance to simply do theatre, as opposed to selling it to a producer or artistic director; it cut out the middle man,” says Lemoine.

Long before year two, the Fringe’s destiny was clearly bigger than a weird one-off event. Even if people still regularly asked Paisley, “So, what’s this French festival?” the Fringe had already morphed, in its haphazard, word-of-mouth fashion, into a sort of loopy theatre party. In retrospect, says Paisley, the appeal to theatre artists was “a no-brainer. All artists have ever wanted, really, is a space and no one telling them what to do.” What could be more of an aphrodisiac to artists, both the practising and the manqué, than “the artistic mandate to have no artistic mandate?”

But there was the startling matter of the audience. What sane person would have predicted its crazily exponential, absurdly unreasonable growth? For the first few years, the audience doubled every time out. By the age of three, the Fringe had 100 shows, and queues to get into them—at midnight and beyond. Its 10th-birthday edition, Fringe Daze, 22 summers ago, had 150 shows in 15 theatres, and an audience pushing 350,000, with no signs of peaking. No wonder Edmonton Fringe poster iconography over the years has leaned to horror clowns and B-flick Frankenstein spin-offs: A showbiz free-enterprise monster had hatched. And it would grow up, topsy-turvy, along with the funky but distinctly pre-hip Edmonton district in which it had been conceived.

In fact, for much of its 32-year history, the Edmonton Fringe’s biggest problem was scrambling to shore up an ad hoc, freewheeling structure and casual, non-interventionist spirit against its own viral success. The archive is dotted with kooky, desperate, stopgap measures in everything from ticketing to allotment of Fringe berths, programmed these days by lottery.

“I’ve always thought that a big part of the reason the Fringe took off in Edmonton was Brian’s own charismatic personality,” says OYR’s Green of the Fringe founder and impresario, who embodies a highly original blend of hucksterism and passion. “He’s such a compelling character, with the ability to make the improbable seem totally possible! He’d talk the craziest idea and people would believe him!” People such as Green. “That’s fucking nuts! I’m in!”

The frontiers between chaos and order, supply and demand, the Fringe as street carnival and the Fringe as theatre festival, have always been shifting ones. The days of Old Strathcona as a dusty repository of promising empty spaces crying out to be temporary theatres are long gone, along with their alluring cheapness. Which at least partially explains why, in last summer’s The Village of the Fringed, of the 52 venues that housed the festival’s 215 shows, only 11 were “official,” while the other 41 (BYOVs, bring-your-own-venues) were acquired willy-nilly, and outfitted, by enterprising artists themselves, in the traditional Edinburgh free-enterprise style.

“I was in the right place in the right town at the right time,” says Paisley, a Victoria-based filmmaker and producer these days. In probing the great double-headed Fringe mystery—why? and why Edmonton?—he still says “location, location, location…. We had a historical part of town and we used it as best we could. We managed to catch Strathcona as it was surging up.” And the crazy alternative summer-theatre binge itself contributed materially, organically, to that surge.

That is the most dramatic, perhaps indispensable, advantage the Edmonton Fringe narrative had from the start, and still has, over spinoffs elsewhere. It’s one thing to have a bunch of plays. “Toronto and New York already have a huge amount of alternative theatre,” as Lemoine says. It’s something else again to be a festival, in the crucial sense of a destination to get festive in: hang out, drink beer in a tent, rub shoulders with your fellow members of a critical mass, audiences and artists alike available for mutual consultation and provocation. And without that cohesiveness of Fringe as geographical destination—as Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary among others have at various times discovered—you might easily be in town and never know there was a Fringe going on.

In its pre-chai-soy-latte, pre-thin-crust-rapini-flatbread period, Old Strathcona’s plethora of cheap makeshift “theatres” had another bonus: sheer novelty. When you launch a sneak attack on mainstream theatre with its 8 o’clock curtains, its fancy subscription tickets and formal airs—mainly by inviting artists to do “whatever the hell they want,” as Paisley puts it—it can only enhance the fun of liberation to be making theatre, or seeing it, in an old flour mill or the grotty basement of a drag bar or the second floor of a defunct greasy spoon.

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Performers from Late Night Cabaret during one of the 2012 festival’s more collaborative performance series. (Courtesy of Fringe Theatre Adventures)

The experience could never be about fancy design; the venues enforced that. It was a down-and-dirty assignation between actors, writers and audiences who experimented with their (modest) cash and voted with their feet. Lemoine says he learned to write a 75-minute play “because that’s when the average Fringe venue would run out of air.”

Edmonton had, and has, the right dimensions—like Edinburgh, not too big, not too small—for a Fringe to make a palpable civic dent. And not only was the theatre community strikingly outsized, its actors and directors, writers and artistic directors fell in love with it from the start. Edmonton’s senior artists—Kenneth Brown, Trevor Schmidt, Darrin Hagen, John Hudson and the rest—have always wanted in. Every summer, in lotteried venues or BYOVs, they’ve been at the Fringe, trying out the bright ideas that are too outrageous or chancy or just plain bizarre for the subscription season, or getting rejuiced by collaborations with renegades from the Great Big Elsewhere.

Many things have changed since a perfectly simple crazy idea got dreamed up in 1982 and launched for 50 grand.

The world drifted into Edmonton in August on spec, lured by a grapevine with mysterious international tendrils: the English Suitcase Theatre, companies from Uruguay or Bulgaria, clowns from Paris, masked figures from Japan, puppets from Tehran. No one seemed to know exactly why, and no one paid them to come. When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Moscow’s Igroky Theatre was here, doing a murky stage version of Animal Farm in collaboration with One World Theatre from Seattle. Obscure exotic connections, yes; the Edmonton Fringe instantly grew those. But unlike some of the offshoot locales for fringing, where the festival offerings largely arrive from elsewhere, the Fringe in Edmonton has always been rooted, vigorously, in the local.

Many things have changed at the continent’s oldest and most influential Fringe since a perfectly simple crazy idea got dreamed up in 1982 and launched for 50 grand. No more dank dungeon: Fringe HQ is a snazzy post-industrial replacement for the old Strathcona bus barn, with actual theatres and studios within. No more ratty bits of coloured paper pinned to plywood as the method of programming; no more loony experiments with playing cards torn in half for audience hopefuls queuing for tickets.

These days, it costs the Fringe about $30,000 to rent and outfit a venue in Old Strathcona—if organizers can even find one in the liveliest scene in town, packed with smart eateries, bars, clubs, design studios and chic dens of exfoliation. Last summer, crowds exceeded 680,000, the festival sold more than 112,000 tickets—record-busters both—and for the first time artists took home more than $1-million from the gate.

But some things remain. The phrases “What have you seen?” and “You should see my show!” still perfume the Strathcona ether day and night. You can still start an argument, at will, by wondering aloud whether the Fringe’s manic street scene, with its wall-to-wall vendors and buskers, weighs down the theatre festival or boosts it. You can still get the last seat to see something austere by Harold Pinter at noon, right before you enter the “Loonatic Fringe Tent” to experience Temple of Chaos.

Edmonton in August still seems unexpected and fabulous. It’s what keeps us coming back.

Liz Nicholls is a long-time theatre critic in Edmonton.

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