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Pulp Fringe

What causes a young boy to kill his mother and grandmother for an inheritance he was soon to get anyway? How does a Vaudeville clown take control of a family’s destiny? Ever get a chance to look at the seamy underbelly of the puppet world?

by Rebecca Eckler

The Fringe Festival turns seven this year and the blood coursing through its veins promises to perk up community theatre along with those who are utterly disenchanted, bored, and cranky with the city. Approximately 30,000 people are expected to be “fringing it” from June 30th until July 9th. This pumped up little phrase is a rallying cry of the theatre community — a call to 78 theatre companies from across Canada, New York, England, Japan and Scotland. There are more than 460 shows playing between noon until midnight in the Annex area. It’s a chance for actors and writers to take risks, test drive new ideas and hopefully set a stage that will eventually sweep through theatre meccas.

The history and growth of the Fringe Festival is impressive. The Festival has expanded to an extraordinary degree since its founding in 1989, when only 140 works were performed and audience attendance barely pushed 5,000. Since then the Festival has become Toronto’s largest theatre event. Its mandate is the promotion and prosperity of the small theatre community. The spirit is rooted in how the plays get chosen. It is through a non-juried process (a simple draw); and the participants receive all of the box office receipts for each of the performances. 

But, for many of the participants who shelled out $428 to register, fringing is easier said than done. John Healy, who is producing Michael Stray’s Crazy, has been doing the Fringe show for four years. This is his first year as a producer.

“It’s kind of depressing. So many people want to get in. It’s just luck of the draw. No matter how much work you put in, you may not get in. It’s a shame because so many companies want to get in,” said Healy.

This year, the Fringe of Toronto Festival could only accommodate 20 per cent of the artists who applied. Ontario artists were chosen at a “tense and nail-biting” event at the Transact Club. Many thank their lucky stars if their box office sales total what they put into their show. 

To reach this goal, word must get out that your play is a must see. As many Fringers have learned, being pro-active is vital for survival.

Mary Clair Thompson, a member of Why Buy The Cow? Entertainment Company, and one of the actors in a Fringe production called Lunatic Rising, written by Lorraine Swanson, says publicity is very important. “You cannot expect to have an audience without advertisements. We had T-shirts made and that was a big cost. We feel like we’re a walking billboard, but the more the public sees the name the more they’re going to remember. You have to be very visible. We’ll frequent as many beer tents and pubs as we can to hand out our flyers,” she says. 

For second time Fringe participant David Runbinoff, whose romantic-comedy Tiny Addictions centers around gay bashing and the power of the imagination of two men in a bachelor apartment, the Fringe is not an ideal situation for play production. “You do the best you can. You have limited time and a limited budget and that’s part of the fun. You can be a hit or you can be one of the shows that’s not a hit. You have fun anyways and you do your best every show. Anything can happen at the Fringe.”

Healy bought a $250 advertisement in NOW Magazine at a discount rate to plug his play. “I decided it would be worth it because it comes out on Thursday and our show opens Friday. You have to do anything that will catch peoples’ eye.”

Above everything else, most companies agree that word of mouth is by far the best form of publicity. The buzz surrounding a hot show is tantalizing in its potential. “If you get 20 people and they’re standing in line for another show, that’s called fringing. People chat and exchange information. If they say ‘You gotta see this show’ pretty soon you have a hot show,” says Rubinoff.

The media also helps set the stage for success. “People read reviews in the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail and most reviewers try to see a cross section of shows. Reviewers like to discover the next hit,” says Rubinoff.

Thompson just plugged her play recently on Speakers Corner. “You can’t second guess the media. There will be those who have contacts and brownie points and they may get more press. What has to stand out is the show and the media will pick up on it.”

But interestingly enough, with approximately a hundred shows available for audience viewing, the Fringe participants act more like a happy family. There is no sharpening of claws between acts. “There’s no sense in stealing audiences from others. People who go to the Fringe usually see more than one show,” says Thompson. Aside from aggressive postering, competition is the furthest thing on the Fringe agenda. 

Federico Gonzalez, who along with Anne Hoselton is performing their collaborative creation Clockface, doesn’t sense rivalry. “It’s ideal,” says Gonzalez, “People encourage friends to see other shows as well. They spread the word about a good show. And for many, the drive comes from within.”

“You’re in competition with yourself,” says John Pattison, who shows puppets in various stages of mental decay in Puppets Who Kill. “If I can do the best job I can, everything else will take care of itself. You want self-improvement.”

Few, if any, are victimized by the unspoken pressure, so common in everyday life, to succeed. “It’s strictly for my enjoyment. It’s a show that can afford to take risks. I expect to learn something from doing this,” says Pattison.

Regular Fringe-goer and acting student Keira Loughran explains that this is part of the Fringe experience. “It’s not a matter of seeing amazing theatre. There’s always interesting work going on whether it’s good or bad — there’s always something to get excited about.”

The allure of the Fringe mostly lies in the chance to start over, without a reputation or a history. Healy thinks the Fringe is a wonderful opportunity for the performers.

“Any opportunity for an actor is a great thing. It’s very difficult for actors just coming out of school. A lot of times it comes down to making your own work. What the Fringe offers is the possibility for smaller companies to find out what works for them and maybe eventually form with other companies who are interested in the same form of art.”

The performers know that the Fringe is not a commercial venture. Few, if any, make a profit. In other words, it’s not money that motivates. “My goal is not to fill the house,” says Pattison. “It’s not about money. If I fill half the house with a good audience, then it’s a good thing.”

Thompson says she won’t be surprised if she doesn’t even break even. “We’re not doing it for the cash. When you’re in community theatre you live show to show. It’s really through excitement that you can put on your show the way you want. Having the audience appreciate what you do is the payoff.” 

Gonzalez is also realistic. “It would be exceptional to make back what we spent. But it’s a choice we made and we will do the best we can do.”

The Fringe offers the theatre community a platform that won’t destroy an artist’s creative edge. And it offers the audience a sense of finding what can be so elusive during the week — a few hours of entertainment and leisure. There are no bounds in the Fringe, therefore, it can never be exhausted.

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