First in a new series of blog entries about my experi-ences at the Fringe festivals of Prague and Montreal in spring 2019. At left: me in Running to Saint Sebastian.
Photo: James Douglas Photography
For me, the Fringe is absolutely “where it’s at” for theatre in the 21st century.
Okay, let me just cut to the chase: I find most mainstream theatre excruciating. It’s over-intellectualized, institutionalized, dry and precious, focused more on the spectacle (staging, lights, sound effects, costumes, makeup, props—all of which are invariably excellently done) than on the essence (text, actors).
The problem, as I see it, for mainstream, “professional” theatre in this technological, mercantile, perma-entertained, hyper-educated, distracted era we live in is that it has gone from being a popular art form and has instead turned into an “event,” something that is somehow separate from real life, like a circus—except this is a serious circus. It’s Culture. It’s Good for You. It’s Worthy of Study. It’s Important. It reflects Who We Are.
But I think the key word for me in the phrase “theatre is a popular art form” is the word “popular.” Popular means that il popolo can easily go see it. They don’t need to book a month (or six months) in advance. They can be spontaneous (“Hey, wanna go see this show that starts in half an hour?”). It’s easily affordable. It’s not overly demanding of one’s time (an hour, you’re in and out). And you can drink beer during the show. And talk to the performer(s) after.
That’s what theatre—or at least the kind of theatre I feel passionately about, that is to say, popular theatre—should be. And the Fringe offers all of these characteristics, while most mainstream theatre offers almost none of them.
My first Fringe experience was not actually a Fringe. It was called Summerworks, and it was a smaller and more artist-oriented version of the Toronto Fringe. I performed there in 1998. I learned an important lesson that year: Don’t become so caught up in promoting the show that you forget the show. On opening night, I was so exhausted from running around all day putting up posters and handing out flyers and doing a radio interview that I left out an entire scene (and there were only five scenes). People said they didn’t notice, which was worrying in a different way.
My first official Fringe was Ottawa in 2000. In subsequent years, I performed in Toronto, Montreal, Thunder Bay, London (Ontario), Edmonton, Victoria, and Wakefield (Quebec). My first international Fringe was Prague, in 2009.
One of the interesting things about the Fringe is how the experience can be so different from one city to the next. In Edmonton, for example, oh how they loathed me! I got two of the worst reviews I think anyone has ever received in the History of Theatre. (I survived.) I loved the Thunder Bay Fringe (which doesn’t exist anymore) so much that I went two years in a row even though it meant spending 24 hours on a bus to get there (and another 24 hours to get home). I’ll never forget, the day I was leaving Thunder Bay, the guy on the payphone in the bus station (it was back before everyone had a cell) yelling into the receiver, “Mom, where’s the love?”
Where indeed? He should have come to the Fringe.
I’m worried about the state of our souls. (How’s that for a rude segue?) I'm concerned that people are becoming dehumanized by technology. In that context, I think it can only be a salutary thing that there are people who choose to sit in a small space with a performer—who’s also a human being—and listen to him (me!) talk. I honestly think there is beauty in that.
It’s an exchange of energy. It’s a ritual of sorts. It’s a communion of souls. It's keeping faith with the ancestors.
That’s what theatre can be. And it’s what you can find in spades at the Fringe.