A funny thing happened on my way to the Vancouver Fringe Festival this year: I wasn’t able to get media accreditation. Well, not so funny, in fact, for some artists who feel they were burned by the media comp system at the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, which was the root of my own press-pass denial.
I sent my annual e-mail requesting the pass to Vancouver Fringe publicist Debby Reis, who has been doing publicity for the Fringe for years. There was one production in particular I was interested in seeing, R’N’J: The Untold Story of Shakespeare’s Roz and Jules. I had a list of other shows I wanted to see as well.
But Reis was hesitant to issue Fringe accreditation for me this year without knowing about my coverage plans. Reis – who is very dedicated to her job and was looking out for the festival, the artists and me – told me there had been controversy over media passes at the Edmonton Fringe, a lot of concerns raised on a closed Facebook group about media attending but not writing reviews.
“You may know that the Fringe returns 100 per cent of the base ticket price to artists, as such, comp tickets come out of their pockets,” she wrote. She said that if I was able to provide social media reviews, she could probably swing it without too much pushback.
The chances of me writing and publishing reviews from the Fringe are slim. The Globe and Mail is a national newspaper and Vancouver is at the tail end of the Fringe circuit (so these plays have already passed through most of Canada), TIFF takes over Toronto and much of our arts coverage in early September, and time and space are at a premium. (Some local reviewers do a great job of covering the Vancouver Fringe, including Colin Thomas.)
As an arts writer, however, I like to see as many shows as I can – to find breakout talent, see work that might fit into future stories, inform my general view of the Fringe. The deal I had made with my editor about R’N’J was that if I was blown away, I would write a review.
I let Reis know all of this and did not push for the pass. I did, however, ask to speak to some of the artists about their concerns regarding Edmonton. Four of them told me stories about seeing media comps booked into their shows in Edmonton and then waiting for reviews that never materialized.
“We’re owed a review if someone sees our show for free under the umbrella of a reviewer,” says Melanie Gall. She was upset about a blogger who attended her show Opera Mouse in Edmonton with two children. “She got a free show for her family. Someone saying they’re media and getting a free day out for her children, that isn’t right.”
Gall says that if the Fringe gives you a media pass, it’s a sort of contract – you produce a review.
“I wouldn’t walk into a store, say I’m media and grab an arm-load of clothes and leave. That’s the equivalent of what it was.”
Lori Lane directed The Thin Grey Line at the Edmonton Fringe and was disappointed when media comps were issued for bring-the-house-down performances, yet no reviews materialized.
“What really … burned me was the fact that somebody from the media pulled a complimentary ticket to see our show and then gave us nothing in return,” says Lane, whose community theatre company the Red Deer Players is mounting the show, by Alberta playwright Blaine Newton, in late September (in partnership with Cursive Productions, which brought it to Edmonton). “If you want to go as an audience member and not write a review, then just go as an audience member and buy a ticket like everybody else. But if you’re using a media comp, I think there should be something in return for that.”
Catherine Bangel, who handles media and publicity for the Edmonton Fringe, told me that the loss last year of the local alt-publication, VUE Weekly, left a gaping hole when it came to reviews. Bangel sent me a copy of the note the festival sent to artists about the issue, which explained that 53 media passes were issued, and of those only a handful went to “social-media ambassadors that covered the festival from more of a lifestyle perspective and didn’t publish reviews for any show.”
Victoria artist Monica Ogden, whose show Monica vs. the Internet is currently at the Vancouver Fringe, says the issue particularly hits marginalized artists like her (she is Filipina). She was one of several people who expressed concern to me about the media attention Colin Mochrie’s show received in Edmonton, while Fringe shows desperate for publicity didn’t attract any coverage.
(I understand the frustration, but it is not the job of the media to promote an arts event or sell tickets. It is the job of the media to write or broadcast interesting stories for our readers/audiences.)
It must be so disappointing for a Fringe artist, operating on a shoestring with reviews essential to getting bums in seats and overseas festival bookings, to give out free tickets to media and not see any coverage materialize.
But I would have thought that Fringe artists would want an arts writer with a media publication to see their work – even if the exposure was not guaranteed or immediate.
“I think there is a line to be drawn between people who are abusing the system and [actual reviewers,]" says Kevin Armstrong, with Tommy’s Amazing Journey (one of the shows on my Vancouver Fringe wish list). “I would be more than happy to have press people come to the show … [as long as] I know that they’re not freeloading for the sake of getting free tickets.”
Lane had an interesting point: why are artists covering the cost of media comps? Maybe festivals, in future, could share that expense. (For media accreditation at the Vancouver Fringe, the festival covers the membership cost; the individual productions cover the tickets.)
I am a Fringe fan. I fell in love with it in the back of a car in the 1990s in Toronto, during a site-specific work for an audience of two. I did consider just buying my own tickets – which I know are a bargain and almost always well worth it. But it’s a slippery slope. As fun as it is, this is my job, and I’m already doing this work off the side of my desk – at night, often, maybe paying for a babysitter. And like pretty much everyone else I know, I cannot afford to pay to do my job.
I did get to see R’N’J; the show’s publicist organized the ticket for me. It was the ultimate Fringe experience: a brilliant concept (Romeo turns out to be a real Lothario, which Juliet finds out by scrolling through the text messages on his phone), very wonky, I was unsure what was happening at times, I laughed a lot, I was in and out in an hour. And that’s why I love the Fringe, its shows, artists and audiences – they are heavy and light, bright and dark, hot and cold, sick and healthy, asleep and awake.
I would love to hear from Fringe artists, organizers and audiences about this. You can reach me at email@example.com.