It's summer, time to enjoy long days and balmy nights. And time of course to head off to the hippest part of town for avant-garde theatre at the fringe festival. For artists, the play's the thing. For audiences, squeezed into tiny makeshift theatres or gathered under the summer sun, enjoying regional cuisine and sudsy drinks, the fringe is all about fun. The story of how this playfully anarchic theatric genre came to be dished up annually in extravagant portions to eager holiday-makers in cities across the country has a Canadian flavour.
This well-loved tradition was inspired by the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which arose from rebellious protest in 1947. Eight disgruntled theatre groups, performing artists dissatisfied with theatric elitism, descended on the Edinburgh International Arts Festival uninvited. All the venues were full, so the interlopers produced their work wherever they could - in empty stores and church basements - and promoted their work with posters and handbills they handed out in the streets. Their work was a resounding success. The next year Robert Kemp of the Evening News coined the name that now describes the world's largest and most famous festival: "Round the fringe of the official Festival drama there seems to be a more private enterprise than before... I'm afraid some of us are not going to be often at home during the evenings.
Canada's fringe theatre tradition began in August 1982 in Edmonton with Brian Paisley, an artistic director frustrated by the dearth of venues for the abundance of theatric talent that sat idle over the summer months. Using the Edinburgh festival as a model, Paisley created a theatrical venue that promotes artistic freedom without creative interference. The Canadian approach to fringe festivals differs from its international counterparts in that it takes the administrative worries away from the performers. Fringe theatre elsewhere offers only space to its performers, but Canadian fringe events provide all the necessary resources and require performers only to bring their shows to the festival site. Canadian audiences differ as well in their open-mindedness and - dare I say it? - sophistication.
Canada's first fringe festival event had a few moments of concern over how productions would be received. Some of the titles and the plays themselves were a little racy and occasionally theatric expression was pushed to the edge. One of the performances that first year was a British play about safecrackers titled "Blow Job. Audiences merely laughed at the title and went to see the play. Another production was staged at night in an alley and people leaving a nearby bar sometimes drove their cars onto the "stage in the middle of the performance. Audiences and performers took it in stride. Canadian fringe audiences are wonderfully receptive; they arrive ready to be entertained. At the fringe, performers have to work to lose their audience unlike the atmosphere often present in traditional theatre where performers have to win their audience.
Fringe theatre is global, but only Canada has a fringe circuit. From Victoria to Halifax, fringe theatre supports artists, stimulates new work and entertains an expanding audience in what has become a vacation option and trendy tourist attraction. Festival theatre in general, such as the Shaw, Stratford and Charlottetown Festivals, promotes regional tourism and maintains dramatic tradition in an appealing light-hearted format. Fringe theatre differs from traditional theatre in its eclectic collection of productions and carnival atmosphere of artistry and spectacle. You don't have to be a theatre buff to enjoy the fringe.
The plays presented at any festival are generally chosen by lottery, sidestepping hierarchy and agenda-grinding, offering audiences a diverse mixture of performances. Theatric purists and critics may question the proliferation of fringe companies and fringe festivals' non-juried venues, fearing that they aim at the lowest common denominator and that they will become simply a competition for the biggest laughs. Paisley's reaction to juried fringe theatre is that it would be impossible to judge the range of performances of any given festival and besides, who wants it? Fringe is for fun.
Canadian fringe theatre is often political, sometimes risqué and you never know what you'll see, but you always know you'll have a good time. Like Kemp, we are not often at home during the days and evenings of the fringe festival!