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Alan Doyle stars in Tell Tale Harbour, a comedy about a struggling Atlantic Canadian fishing town that's hooked its hopes on french fries.Heather Ogg/The Canadian Press

I’ve been a little worried about how the Fringe Festival circuit was going to recover this summer, after two years where so many local editions were either completely on hiatus or took place in a smaller digital or hybrid form.

This cross-country network of uncensored, uncurated and inexpensive theatre festivals is where so many of Canada’s biggest hits (The Drowsy Chaperone and Kim’s Convenience, to name two) started, but cultural bureaucrats and donors don’t pay that much attention to them and their health.

While many professional artists began their careers on the Fringe (and return to it when they want to try something new out), the Fringe is also where many audiences get their first taste of new work. The Winnipeg and Montreal editions were certainly my teenage self’s gateways to the world beyond Shakespeare and musicals.

Will the crowds be returning once again this year – or will they have forgotten about the Fringe? The evidence is so far quite positive.

The Montreal Fringe Festival, the first major fringe on the Canadian circuit, just completed its first full-fledged festival since the pandemic began. Amy Blackmore, executive and artistic director, was still crunching the final numbers when I spoke to her on Monday, but said it looked like close to $110,000 in box office was going to be returned to the artists.

That’s very similar to the Montreal Fringe’s prepandemic box office numbers, which is impressive because ticket prices have stayed the same (maximum is $15.25) and there were only 76 productions this year (compared with about 110 a year leading up the pandemic. “I think it shows that our community was ready to come back to the festival,” Blackmore says.

Here’s hoping it’s the same story on the rest of the circuit. The Ottawa Fringe Festival is currently under way in the nation’s capital (continuing to June 26), while the Nogojiwanong Indigenous Fringe Festival, a welcome new take on the concept found in Nogojiwanong (or Peterborough, Ont.), opens today on National Indigenous Peoples Day and runs from June 21 to 26.

Some of the other notable Fringes back to business this summer include the Toronto Fringe Festival, which runs July 6 to 17; the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, usually the second-biggest in the country, is set to run July 13 to 24; and the Edmonton Fringe Festival, the biggest and oldest of them all, which is on from Aug. 11 to 21.

Almost every city of any size from Victoria to Halifax has its own Fringe – and you can find out when and where your local one is via the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals. Remember: The key to Fringing well is to see at least three shows – one by an artist you already know, one through a word-of-mouth recommendation (ideally from a stranger in a beer tent) and one that you’ve heard absolutely nothing about.

Speaking of artists who got their start on the Fringe: Playwright Steven Elliott Jackson, who won the 2017 Toronto Fringe Festival’s Best New Play contest for The Seat Next to the King, is back with another work set in the Civil Rights era in the United States.

Three Ordinary Men is currently onstage (until June 26) at the Theatre Centre in what is Cahoots Theatre’s first production since prepandemic times. Set in Mississippi in 1964, Elliott Jackson’s drama covers the last day in the lives of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner – a local Black man, and two Jewish men from New York – who had been working together to register African Americans to vote in what was known as Freedom Summer.

This is not a neglected story per se, having been inspiration for much contemporary protest art as well as the movie Mississippi Burning. Canadian journalists played a significant role in covering the case at the time – and, more recently, in getting justice in the related killings of Black teenagers Henry Dee and Charles Moore.

But the Freedom Summer murders seem worth revisiting at a time when voting rights are on the backslide in the United States – and allyship is often limited to posting online with the appropriate hashtags (and, frustratingly, Ontario just held an election with the lowest voter turnout in history). Cahoots artistic director Tanisha Taitt’s production is simple and effective – and, well acted, has the harrowing inevitability of Greek tragedy.

Remember La Grande Séduction, the heartwarming 2003 Quebec comedy film about a small fishing village trying to lure a doctor into putting down roots?

It spawned two remakes – an English Canadian version called The Grand Seduction in 2013, and a French one called Un village presque parfait in 2015.

Now two stage versions in each of Canada’s official language are about to make their debuts.

Tell-Tale Harbour, a musical version co-written and starring Great Big Sea’s Alan Doyle, is opening at the Charlottetown Festival at the Confederation Centre in PEI this week.

At the very same time, Sainte-Marie-la-Mauderne, a French-language stage adaptation of Ken Scott’s original script, is on at Théâtre Gilles-Vigneault in Saint-Jérôme, Quebec. Though it’s not a musical, it also stars a well-known singer: Michel Rivard of Beau Dommage fame.

Great minds think alike – or, as they say in French, les grands esprits se rencontrent.

Also opening this week:

Take the Moment, an intimate evening with stage star Cynthia Dale from the Musical Stage Company, is on at the Winter Garden Theatre from June 23 to 25 in Toronto.

Mission Totally Possible, Second City Toronto’s new revue, opens at the Comedy Bar – the new Danforth location. Don’t get them mixed up!

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