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On Friday night, against all odds, and with many safety precautions, the 2020 Vancouver Fringe Festival opened with a live show to in-person audiences. It was an outdoor, site-specific, physically distanced, carefully orchestrated participatory work co-created by Fringe stalwart T.J. Dawe and Ming Hudson. I watched in a mask and with a hunger I could not have anticipated at the Fringe festival a year ago.

In spite of the pandemic, the Vancouver Fringe has mounted a small-scale festival, with plans to do the same in October, November and December – the COVID-19 gods willing.

Fringe artistic director Rohit Chokhani planned his first Fringe from India, where he was stuck due to COVID-19 until a couple of weeks ago.

Raymond Kam

“Nothing can completely replace the live experience and human to human experience when there’s a body performing in front of you,” Vancouver Fringe executive director Rohit Chokhani said in an interview.

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In addition to planning a live theatre festival during COVID-19 – challenging enough – Chokhani, who is brand new to the job, had to do most of that planning from India. He travelled to his hometown of Mumbai to visit family in February and was unable to leave once the pandemic hit. He almost didn’t make it back in time for the festival, but he managed to find a flight, finally, in late August. He ended his quarantine on Wednesday, the day before the Fringe held its opening event – online.

“I’m extremely grateful for my staff who had to work across the planet and across the time zones,” Chokhani said during the digital kickoff.

When it came to deciding whether to go ahead with live performances, the Vancouver Fringe asked for opinions from stakeholders – donors, audience members, volunteers, artists. At the same time, for months during the pandemic, artistic leaders throughout the wider Fringe festival network held weekly calls, sharing information and ideas and cheering each other on. Being at the end of the Canadian Fringe circuit was a plus, giving Vancouver some breathing space to figure out what to do.

On Friday night, against all odds, and with many safety precautions, the 2020 Vancouver Fringe Festival opened with a live show to in-person audiences.

Diane Smithers/Handout

“We’re the first ones able to experiment with going live because of the timing of our festival,” Chokhani said. “And we see that moving forward as a victory for all Fringes.”

The kickoff event included congratulatory appearances from organizers of Fringe festivals in Victoria, Edmonton and Toronto.

“It’s so exciting to have an actual Fringe festival happening in real life,” Toronto’s executive director Lucy Eveleigh said.

Performances in Vancouver began Friday night with Art Heist. Directed by Dawe, it is being performed for audiences of 10 or fewer people, who move from one outdoor location to another. Start times are staggered by 20 minutes, so several groups can be accommodated in an evening or afternoon. It was a lot of walking and standing, but at least we were outside. And watching a show! Live! In person! (And chairs are available for people who need them.)

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Safety protocols are in place. We were asked the standard COVID-19 detection questions, signed liability waivers and provided information for contact tracing. The actors kept their distance – from us and each other. We were each given a number and had to find that number on the ground at each location and stay there to keep us distanced from the rest of the audience. The safety plan calls for no acting while on the move to avoid people gathering around to hear.

Behind the scenes, props, costumes and sets are kept in separate bins, one for each cast member. The bins' exteriors are disinfected every time they change hands between the actor and the production manager.

The show is based on the real life theft of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston; 13 works of art valued at half a billion dollars were stolen in March, 1990. The show offers up real-life prime suspects and encourages the audience to ask questions in order to help crack the case, which remains unsolved.

What a pleasure it was to think about something other than the pandemic we’re all living through, for 100 minutes or so – even if it was to consider a major crime. And even if the smoky air from the wildfires burning south of the border was a reminder of another current catastrophe.

Theatre fans have been robbed of so much; this was a joy.

This month, Fringe is also offering a series of dramatic readings of works written by Indigenous women; an outdoor variety show; and a one-man show, Hard 2 Kill, by Richard Lett, who has survived alcohol addiction, cancer – and now COVID 19. The variety show is outdoors, but the others are indoors, at Granville Island’s Performance Works.

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Programming for the remaining mini-festivals later this year will be announced at a later date. The staggered schedule is designed to be fluid and responsive in case anything changes – such as an outbreak, a change to British Columbia’s 50-person limit rule, or what have you.

“We thought chunking it down in a way where we do limited performances each month over the next four months would give us the ability to shift,” Chokhani said. “We are praying that none of that happens, but it does give us options.”

The Vancouver Fringe’s September programming runs through Sept. 20.

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