When the Vancouver Fringe Festival kicks off next week, it will mark 30 years of staging quirky, poignant, hilarious and sometimes very personal works of theatre. Stuff you’ve never heard of by people you’ve never heard of – fringe festivals operate on a lottery system – fabulous surprises and yes, flops too.
T.J. Dawe has been around for many of those years. The Vancouver-based playwright, director and performer is a fringe star, touring the circuit 16 times.
This year, Mr. Dawe, 40, brings his play Marathon to the Vancouver Fringe. The Globe reached him in Victoria, where he is performing his show Medicine this weekend.
What was your first exposure to the concept of a Fringe Festival?
My high school was on the same block as where the Vancouver Fringe was headquartered back when it was in Mount Pleasant. I was an aspiring actor at the time; I had big dreams of being a success on stage and in the movies and on TV. And yet I didn’t see one Fringe play. I was completely not interested. All I knew was at the beginning of the school year, a bunch of weird people came into the neighbourhood and put up posters. Some of whom would brag that they’d gotten good reviews from places like Edmonton or Winnipeg. And I scoffed at this. Who cares?
When did you finally experience the Fringe?
I went to UVic to study theatre and I was cast in a Daniel MacIvor play Never Swim Alone. We toured in the summer of 1994, from Toronto to Victoria. But we didn’t play the Vancouver Fringe. That came four years later. By then I had started writing my own stuff.
In 1998, I toured my play Tired Clichés across the fringe circuit. Financially, I did very badly in every city. And then I came down with mono so I emptied my bank account and came back to Vancouver to recover and then joined the road again. But I was literally starving and I didn’t know if I would ever be able to do this again. The Georgia Straight reviewer saw it in the Victoria Fringe and the review was a rave. So I showed up in Vancouver and there was a lineup around the block. I thought it was for the show before mine. It didn’t occur to me that that many people could want to see me. I came in after playing to single-digit audiences pretty much the entire tour and suddenly had 230 people to play to who were right into it. It was just this rainbow at the end of a very crooked and broken road. I felt like a rock star.
Because Vancouver is at the end of the fringe calendar, are the shows better by the time they get here?
I think shows are almost always better by the time they get to Vancouver. Mine certainly are. Because you’ve had 50 to 70 performances to work out the bugs or find new jokes. The other thing is: performers hang out a lot. Sometimes you’ll get an idea from a conversation with someone. Performers like jamming, and that can lead to other perspectives that make you see the show in a new way.
What can you tell us about your show Marathon?
Around the time [I was developing] my show Medicine I got into the personality types in the Enneagram – which is nominally a personality typology. And I took the concepts and applied them to my life. The framing device of the show is about having been a really [bad] long distance runner in high school track and field.
The new film, The F Word, was adapted from a Fringe play you co-wrote with Mike Rinaldi, Toothpaste and Cigars. What’s that experience been like?
I didn’t have that much to do with it, quite honestly. It’s kind of like giving a child up for adoption and 11 years later you find out oh, he’s made good. Because I didn’t write the script, I wasn’t involved in making the movie. Mike and I co-wrote a couple of very early drafts. But it was part of the option agreement from the start that Elan Mastai would write the script and get sole screenwriting crediting. It ended up being a very good movie. And now I’m going to try to get my foot in the door of that world. I was at TIFF [Toronto International Film Festival] last September for the debut and my agent set me up with meetings with producers, and my co-writer and I are creating TV pitches and shopping those around. The film opened on my 40th birthday, August 22.
How auspicious. What was that day like?
It was pretty cool. I also had a show on that day [at the Edmonton Fringe] so I saw a matinee in the theatre, and then I had some errands to run and I did a show that night. So it was kind of like the life that I’ve been living and maybe the life that’s ahead of me too, all in one day.