How will Canada’s popular and cheap circuit of uncurated and unjuried Fringe festivals continue to rebound from the pandemic this summer? I received two e-mail blasts from two different Fringes over the weekend, one day after the other, and the tone of each could not have been more different.
The first, from Toronto Fringe Festival executive director Lucy Eveleigh, was a plea for donations, owing to an operating deficit of $140,000, ahead of its coming edition running July 5 to 16. “We are hurting,” she wrote.
The second, from Montreal Fringe Festival executive and artistic director Amy Blackmore, was a celebration of the record advance ticket sales it had just set for its own approaching edition running June 8 to 18: $40,000. (That’s grown to an even-more-record $50,000, Blackmore told me over the phone Tuesday.)
Talk about mixed messages. Or is this just another chapter in the long-standing story of Quebec running while Ontario stumbles arts-wise?
In truth, the Toronto and Montreal Fringes – both of which create an affordable environment for the showcasing of self-produced theatre and comedy – are in similar places.
The Toronto Fringe is in the hole for a variety of reasons, most of with has to do with reduced attendance last year. In 2022, the festival sold slightly more than 33,000 tickets (for a lineup of 80 shows), a huge drop compared with the more than 70,000 it usually sold prepandemic (for a lineup with about 140 shows).
It’s a tenet of the Fringe movement that the full box office goes back to participating artists, so what the Toronto organization missed out on last year was half its usual revenue raised through $2 ticket and $1 online order fees, as well half the potential donations received at the door when volunteers ask patrons to “tip the Fringe.” (It also earned reduced profits from less beer being sold on its patio.)
At the same time, the Toronto Fringe was dealing with inflation in an increasingly unaffordable city – and a payroll that went up during the pandemic because of the desire to pay staff properly and having the means to do so thanks to to the federal emergency wage subsidy. “We had all this relief funding, so you can pay people a good wage,” Eveleigh says. “You can’t go back on that, but then you don’t have the same relief funding.”
Meanwhile, down the 401 highway in Montreal, though 2023 ticketed attendance at that city’s Fringe looks set to return to 2019 levels of around 22,000 – or even to surpass it – 2022 saw only 12,500 in ticketed attendance, according to Blackmore. That’s an only slightly less precipitous dip, and it led the Montreal Fringe to also end its fiscal year with a deficit, of around $50,000.
While its communications strategy may be cheerier, Blackmore says that the Montreal Fringe is, like Toronto, looking at how to fix its finances – re-evaluating how it spends money, for instance, by building its own website this year. She has, similarly, committed to paying festival staff better than before the pandemic and believes it’s important to rebuild the Fringe circuit in a sustainable way.
In Toronto, Eveleigh was happy to hear about advance sales in Montreal: The Toronto Fringe’s box office opens on June 14, and Montreal Fringe attendance has tended to be predictive of Toronto numbers.
But, ultimately, audiences are only part of the equation for any arts organization. The true challenge facing the country’s Fringe movement – which was born in 1982 in Edmonton, and is now entering middle age – is whether it can survive the raised employment expectations of the pandemic and a more expensive era of urban life in Canada.
The Fringe must turn its DIY ethos toward fundraising to helping amateurs and professional alike put on shows if it’s going to return to its prepandemic size without regressing to its prepandemic work environment. If you love your local festival, this year, more than ever, it’s important to tip the Fringe.
Luminato’s a go in TO
The Luminato Festival Toronto, which has become noticeably more casual in its communications strategy over its past couple of editions, begins today and runs to June 18.
It won’t be difficult to miss Little Amal, a 12-foot-tall puppet meant to represent a 10-year-old Syrian refugee, who has been travelling the world since 2021 and will be visiting all corners of the city (with side trips to Mississauga and Brampton). But blink and you might miss the rest of the interesting line-up for performing arts. Here are three I hope to see.
- Treemonisha is a nearly lost opera by African-American composer and “king of ragtime” Scott Joplin (1868-1917). It’s been rebuilt musically, by Jessie Montgomery and Jannina Norpoth from the surviving vocal score, around a new story and libretto by playwright and broadcaster Leah-Simone Bowen and Emmy-nominated co-librettist Cheryl L. Davis. Director Weyni Mengesha’s production plays at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts until June 17.
- Aalaapi is an Inuktitut word meaning “choosing silence to hear something beautiful.” This acclaimed live theatrical collective performance directed by Laurence Dauphinais is about the daily life of women in Northern Quebec, told through a mix of radio documentary and a soundscape of “creaking snow, whistling winds and voices in Inuktitut, French and English.” It is at the Daniels Spectrum from June 8 to 10.
- Loss, developed in residency through the Theatre Centre, was described to me by dramaturge Aisling Rose as “not theatre, not a concert, not a film – but also kind of all of those things.” It’s an investigation of loss and mental health – particularly in Caribbean communities – by novellist and songwriter Ian Kamau, and is co-written with his filmmaker father, Roger McTair. The “orchestration of memories” explores a family story about a grandmother who died after she stopped eating, and takes audiences to a great-aunt’s 100th birthday celebrations in Trinidad. It’s at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre from June 14 to 18.
A festival unlike any other
FOLDA (Festival of Live Digital Art) is another major festival unfolding this week in Kingston, from June 7 to 10. In addition to technologically innovative shows in both “beta” and “alpha” stages of development, there are workshops exploring robotics and artificial intelligence in live performance.
Among the offerings, I’ve heard intriguing and outrageous things about Patrick Blenkarn and Milton Lim’s asses.masses, a politically minded video-game performance that “follows the epic journey of unemployed asses as they navigate the perils of a post-industrial society in which they’ve been made redundant.” It’s on June 8 at the Isabel.