The Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival – the longest-running Fringe theatre festival in North America – is back this August at (almost) full scale after cancellations and downsizing because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
From next Thursday until Aug. 22, locals can experience live theatre and outdoor performances from artists across the world in the heart of Old Strathcona, and enjoy food and artistic vendors.
Since its first festival in 1982, Edmonton’s Fringe has featured more than 40,000 artists. At this year’s Fringe Street Party, Indigenous hip-hop group Halluci Nation and American violinist and vocalist Sudan Archives will perform as headliners.
Megan Dart, the executive director of Edmonton Fringe Theatre, shares what “fringers” can expect.
What does this year’s festival look like in comparison with 2020, as you’re saying it’s a little bit more back to normal?
We’re lovingly calling it an “Almost Fringe.” This year we are 160 shows in 27 venues. We have international representation from about a dozen countries. The festival site itself is returning back to our open-access, free-flow sites, which means folks can come and go, take in the outdoor performers, the buskers, grab a bite to eat, have a nice cold beer in one of our beer tents. It’s going to look and feel a lot more like the festival in 2019 but, by comparison, we were 250 shows in 52 venues.
How has the last two years of pandemic disruptions affected the festival?
Cancelling the festival in 2020 was a devastating $3-million loss in potential revenue for us as an organization. But more than that, it meant that our community went without. We employ more than 200 arts workers every year to support the festival. We have 1,600 volunteers who in that year couldn’t immediately get back to their community. We support 1,600 artists in a normal year who had no immediate way of connecting with their audiences, who couldn’t propel their career through box-office sales.
The silver lining of the pandemic is it’s provided us opportunity to innovate and invent and adapt. We launched tools like Fringe TV, which is our digital platform where we can live stream and host digital content. Looking forward, we’re really excited about where that intersection between live theatre and live stream might take us as an industry.
Understandably, we’ve lost a lot of skilled artists and arts workers to other more stable career paths as a consequence of the pandemic. And it’s not just the performers on stage. It’s our technicians, our directors, our designers, our stage managers. We’re really anticipating it’s likely going to take three to five years for us to close that gap.
In this almost normal capacity, what does that mean for local artists, local performers and the city of Edmonton?
I think the most important thing to know about a Fringe festival is that 100 per cent of the ticket sales go directly back to artists. When you buy a ticket to a Fringe show, you are supporting the career of an artist performing that show for you in that moment. It is one of the most incredible drivers of creative industry out there. And, of course, Fringe has pretty incredible impact on our local community. We are so blessed to call Old Strathcona home. We’ve been here for all 41 years of our festival. We are so thankful that we are situated among some of the very best businesses, restaurants, retail shops – you name it – in Edmonton, and Fringe really adds to the vibrancy of that district. So to be able to come back after three years in a more meaningful capacity, we’re just so excited about how that’s going to bring the community together.
There’s a lot of more commitment to diversity and to racial equity, especially with the street party. Its headliners are Halluci Nation and then Sudan Archives. Why was it so important to have more diverse representation? Is this more diverse representation than past years?
I think it’s actually wonderfully representative of what Fringe is as an unmarried, uncensored theatre festival that supports aspiring and established artists alike. Barriers to access are lower than in other traditional theatre festival models, so that means we see greater representation from historically marginalized communities. We are so excited to celebrate works featuring Indigenous artists, artists of colour, the queer community. We say it a lot but we really mean it: Fringe is for everyone and you are welcome here exactly as you are.
We have what’s called our pêhonân series that’s curated by our Indigenous director of strategic planning, Josh Languedoc, that celebrates the work of Indigenous artists local to Treaty Six. It is an opportunity for them to try something new and through mentorship and artistic exploration, pêhonân sort of serves as this incubator. What starts at pêhonân could grow into a full-time touring show next year. It’s an opportunity for us to have eight unique Indigenous lead performances and creation opportunities in the festival.
We’re also raising a tipi in the heart of our site. We’re just really excited to honour that as a community gathering space where folks can come together in circle, smudge, enjoy some bannock, have a conversation.
What can Fringe fans, theatregoers, Edmontonians look forward to the most this year?
I think we can look forward to all of your favourite Fringe elements coming back again. We encourage you to take a risk and see a show that you wouldn’t normally see. Come on down to the ground, take in that outdoor performance. Bring the family for a day of creative, interactive play at Kids Fringe, grab a bite to eat at one of our food vendors, go and check out what our local artisans have to offer. All of our best Fringe ingredients are here this year.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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