And so, with the announcement of the 2008 Pick of the Fringe, the curtains fall on yet another Fringe season, and the overarching humor in the air seems to indicate a general feeling of success amongst its perpetrators. Just how successful was it? How do we measure the success of this festival in today’s theatrical climate? This, of course, depends entirely on what you consider the purpose of the Fringe to be, and what you hope to get out of it.
According to the party line, most Fringe artists are innovators who want to throw some new stuff against a black box wall to see if it sticks. This is the value most commonly touted by its defendants as the core ideology behind the invention of the thing when someone dares to criticize performance quality at the Fest. While this is certainly true for some of the artists that got served first because they came first, there is no large body of evidence to support the thesis that much of the fare on offer is edge-cutting, out-on-a-limb theatre being taken out for a low-risk test drive. Pity.
Most of what is on offer these days is a) solid, tried-and-true material that is proven to be road worthy – and indeed is out there on the road making a tidy living for its Fringe-pro neo-minstrels. Or b) small-cast shows that have some material they want to do but are without time, money or an administrative team to handle the workload involved in mounting their piece outside of the finance-friendly production machine that is the Fringe organization. Which is great, it really is, it makes for an interesting enough menu to choose from, but how does this affect our indie theatre scene the rest of the year? Does the Fringe, with its soft cushion of low fiscal risk, actually hurt the city’s theatre scene in the broad view?
Short answer, of course, is no. That’s ridiculous. Any vehicle that raises theatre in the public consciousness and celebrates the form is a positive force on the industry as a whole. But how much potential from that annual high-profile are we squandering? How can we be better using the Fringe as a springboard to bounce the medium deeper into the collective consciousness of a city that just doesn’t think about us that much, if at all?
Like it or not, there is a large percentage of the Fringe audience (not counting the artists supporting each other in said audience, who make up a mighty big percentage themselves) that only see live theatre during Fringe time. They are secretaries and baristas and accountants who love to be part of the buzzy ‘scene’ of the thing, then brush their hands together, say ‘that’s that’ and put theatre out of their mind for the rest of the year. (It’s easy to do, indie theatre hasn’t exactly perfected ‘in-yer-face’ marketing yet.) This condition is directly proportional to our du Maurier Jazz festival here in Vancouver, can’t get tickets to the big shows, gotta stand in line for most of the rest, but when that circus ships out, how many rooms here sustain year-round live Jazz? Two? Three if you count that one Robson hotel lounge on the weekends? Those Fringers are our target audience, and they just need to be finessed, coaxed back out into a black box every other month or so, with an uninitiated frind in tow. Did we talk to them? Or more importantly, listen to them? Did we get some contact info from them to keep in touch? Give them something to remember us by? Did we make them feel like they were part of something, as opposed to making them feel like they were watching some people who are a part of something?
Now, if you’re entered into the Fringe as an exercise, as something to do to feel artisty between Battlestar auditions, then none of this applies to you. Likewise if you’re a performer who has chosen to parlay the Fringe experience into a steady touring income. (Both of these, I would like to note, are fine objectives, and I do not deride you for them nor ask you to reconsider.) But if you’re a theatre artist with any aspirations towards developing a self-sustaining and local industry around your craft, I ask you this: are you taking full advantage of the little bit of hip that the Fringe Festival generates in town every year? And this is directed at the indie companies that have moved beyond the need to Fringe their work as well. Should the Fringe simply exist to give a leg up to a few artists who managed to make the cut that year? Or can we, with a little bit more effort, transform it into an Expo for selling ourselves as the must-have accessory to the urban lifestyle?
I think we can. We will, however, have to do it as a community. And we’ll have to make a little more noise.