||Inside The Fringe
by Kenneth Brown
THAT THE EDMONTON Fringe Festival has been phenomenally successful is now obvious. From its modest beginnings in 1981, when about 7,000 tickets were sold, to its present status as an international theatrical event, with theatre and streettheatre attendance of something over 150,000, it has played host to a variety of theatre artists creating shows that have diverged widely in theme, style, and, of course, artistic merit.
Boasting about the numbers is not my point here. There is another significant fact about the Fringe Festival: it represents a structural change in Canadian theatre. It has brought theatre to audiences in a new way, introduced a new administrative structure, and, most important, it has changed the way money is spent on and by the cultural industry. Most of the creative force has come from an element of the theatrical community that had no outlet in the general scheme of the theatre before the Fringe was founded.
A decade ago the terms mainstream and alternative actually had some meaning with reference to Canadian theatre. On the one hand there were the big festival companies devoted to the work of two British playwrights, along with a string of regional theatres devoted to "international" plays. This was the first stream of Canadian theatre. On the other hand, there grew up during the 1970s a group of second-stream theatres: low-budget companies strung out across the country, which brought Canadian plays and working-class values into the Canadian theatre for the first time.
Sadly, what those now well-established second-stream theatres have failed to do is find any grassroots support. The working classes haven't come to the theatre; they watch TV. Worse, the administrative model that places a single artistic director at the head of the company, and hires artistic personnel on short contracts has become the usual working structure for smaller theatres, effectively disenfranchising the artists from the creation of their own work.
These theatres are supported by a growing system of government subsidy, and so have developed symbiotic relationships with the Canada Council and various provincial and civic agencies newly created to oversee cultural concerns. In recent years economic recession and the privatization drive of the Tory government have created a sense of doubt about the future of this very Canadian system of half-subsidy, and artistic conservatism has been the result. We see more timid work being done by second-stream theatres as their administrators and boards of directors become cautious about losing their hardwon audience. Spending cutbacks have also forced theatres to turn to corporations for sponsorship, and this has also had an inhibiting influence on their work.
But there is a large work-force of energetic, idealistic young theatre people out looking for work, and where they have found none they have made their own. Their major outlets are the fringe festivals that are springing up across the country. They operate for the most part outside the system of public funding. Their work is done without -- and in some cases in spite of -- any judgement passed on them by a government-funded agency whose responsibility for disbursing money makes it an arbiter of taste.
In 1981 when producer Brian Paisley and the Chinook Theatre of Edmonton decided to put on a summer theatre festival, they knew that, in Paisley's words, "Artists should lead, not be led. The Fringe represents, perhaps for the first time in Canadian theatre, a large-scale attempt to give the stage back to the creative artist. Writers, directors, designers, and actors can choose what they want to do and the festival administration will take care of all the basic technical facilities, general publicity, and audience amenities that are necessary to get their work in front of an audience."
At the Edmonton Fringe Festival, the artists pay an admission fee and in a sense "hire" the services of an administrative infrastructure and the use of an equipped theatre space. The traditional arrangement is turned completely on its head. No artist is told what he or she can or cannot do. What it creates is a kind of artistic free market, since the artists are paid directly from their own box-office take. Popular shows make money, and the artists put it in their pockets. Artists and audiences make contact without bureaucratic go-betweens.
The system has its disadvantages of course. Theatre design, for example, must be so simple as to be capable of being mounted cheaply and instantly. Casts tend to be tiny, so that shares between participants can be larger. Also, the general content of Fringe shows tends towards a certain amount of playing to the gallery. This has not prevented good shows from being well attended, whatever their content. I have seen three-hour lineups at the Fringe for a show like Michael Burrell's Hess, an intense, rather gruelling two-hour spectacle.
Whatever else may be said about the Fringe, it must be added that audiences are flocking to it. Maybe it's because they like the party atmosphere, or because the shows are cheap, as some scoffers say. Or maybe it's because there really is something about the quality of artistic expression that only happens when the artists are in control of their own fate.