It seems like an idea that never should have flown.
Take a bunch of people with plays, monologues and comedy sketches – some of them green as Granny Smiths, others seasoned pros – put their names in a hat, literally, and randomly choose dozens of them to perform at a major festival mainstage over a two-week period, with little to no curation or even time to prepare.
But 30 years later, the Vancouver Fringe Festival has not only survived, it has become one of the most popular stops on the city's cultural calendar – and what began with opening ceremonies in an IGA parking lot in 1985 now features over 700 performances and attracts more than 30,000 adventure-loving theatregoers every year. At the same time, some Fringe artists have made entire careers out of travelling from one fest to the next.
"People like Tara Travis, Ryan Gladstone, Jem Rolls – they have been doing the Fringe circuit for over 10 years now, some of them even 15, which is half the time the Fringe has existed. That's quite the feat," says Vancouver Fringe executive director David Jordan. "These people are living history in terms of shaping what Fringe culture is."
And that Fringe culture continues to evolve. Mr. Jordan says that, with the proliferation of storytelling-based podcasts such as The Moth, and more stripped-down, Web-based TV series, there is more crossover than ever between the Fringe and other media. In fact, Martin Dockery from The Moth, Canadian actress Beverley Elliott, Lesley Tsina of Community and comedy favourites Peter n' Chris and Sam Mullins all have shows this year.
To beef up the Fringe's drama content, the fest has added a series at the Cultch featuring previously published dramatic plays, with professional mentorship from veteran Vancouver actor and director Scott Bellis. They also streamlined the opening night, offering a powerhouse double bill: TJ Dawe's new show Marathon and a live set by favourite Seattle band the Cave Singers.
Looking for more insider tips? Mr. Jordan's top picks include Tara Travis'sThe Unfortunate Ruth, which tells the story of twin sisters with the help of shadow puppetry by Mind of a Snail; The Greatest Monkey Show on Earth, which SF Weekly called "a comic marvel"; the intriguingly titled Aiden Flynn Lost His Brother So He Makes Another; and the family folk musical The Chariot Cities. He also recommends Anatolia Speaks, which won raves in Edmonton last year, and Cannibal! The Musical – a Trey Parker musical put on by the Awkward Stage, which he says out-of-school teens would love.
Also on the schedule is an open-mic night hosted by former Vision Park Board candidate Trish Kelly, who will perform a follow-up to her controversial 1999 play The Make Out Club, which resurfaced on various blogs and forced her out of the race.
"Shared experience is what the theatre always delivers, and it can't be replicated by film or television," says Mr. Jordan, explaining the enduring allure of the Fringe. "To be in the room with somebody who has told you a story, or brought you an idea, is exciting in a way that nothing else can reproduce."
The Vancouver Fringe Festival runs Sept. 4-14. The Pick of the Fringe runs Sept. 17-21 (vancouverfringe.com).