Whither the fringe?

This post has been planned for today all week. Then I heard the news about the cancellation of the Trade Routes and Prom Art programs and I'm completely outraged. I have a lot to say about it but I'd like to gather a little more information first. I will be posting about it, believe me. But for now, I'm sticking with the original plan.

So in honour of the opening of the granddaddy of the Canadian fringe circuit, the Edmonton Fringe, I'm posting an article I wrote for the Fringe Harold in 2004. Since the Harold archives have disappeared and since I think the question is still relevant, I'm republishing it here. But feel free to share your own thoughts on the questions, or even if it's still relevant.

Six months ago I heard a question that made me pause. Is the fringe circuit doing more harm than good for Canadian theatre?

My knee-jerk reaction was, “the fringe is a great thing!”, and I wondered why it was even being asked. Then I heard the argument. Instead of developing under a guided structure in established theatres, where training and financial remuneration were available, artists are now developing in the fringe where there is neither of the two things. And so, at least as far as I understand the question, is doing the fringe in the best interests of the artists? After considering the argument, my answer is still that the fringe is a great thing, but for a surprising reason.

I look forward to the fringe for two reasons. One is that wonderful chance to catch up with people I haven’t seen in a while and find out what they are doing. This truly is a rare and wonderful thing as we have too few opportunities to come together as a community. The networking aspect of the fringe tent cannot be overstated. The other is being able to see the touring shows and meeting the artists from other parts of this country and around the world. (Yes, it is mostly text-based stuff that we are seeing but I happen to like that kind of work.) I firmly believe that our one weakness is that we see so little of what other communities are developing and we need to see more of it. I believe both of these reasons have a strong intrinsic value for the artistic development of our community.

But I’ve come to believe that the greatest importance the fringe has is that it is a safe place to fail. Yes, I know, that’s the dirty secret we don’t like to talk about. We don’t want to talk about the bad shows because it scares audiences away from the fringe. But it’s vital that we acknowledge the value these shows have.

I can best explain this by my own experience. In 2000, I directed a show by storyteller Jean Bubba called Serendipity at Fifty. (If you can’t remember it, I don’t blame you.) The show was an experiment – Jean had never told in a theatre environment before and we wanted to explore the mixing of a traditional style of storytelling with theatre. It was rough but both of us learned a huge amount doing it. And in the end, despite our one-star review (at least Kevin Connelly had the decency to say up front he hated storytelling and he did catch the disasterous first show - just for the record), Jean got her money back and enough to buy us drinks at the tent. In a city where it costs $2000+ /wk for an established space that has a chance of drawing an audience, this is not something to be taken lightly.

The point is that isn’t the wild and wooly 70s in Toronto. Financial considerations are trumping art everywhere we turn. The fringe is the only place I can think of where unknown artists can plunge in and try something without being in debt for the next five years. And yes, a lot of the time it doesn’t work or isn’t as good as it could be, and it can be painful to sit through – but I’d hate to think where we would be without it.

MK Piatkowski is the artistic director of One Big Umbrella (www.onebigumbrella.com), whose mandate is to produce and promote plays from other parts of Canada and the world in Canada and to produce and promote Canadian playwrights abroad. The company produced The Kabbalistic Psychoanalysis of Adam R. Tzaddik at the Adelaide Fringe, Australia, in 2002.