I Heart the Fringe

For some people their yearly stampede moment happens when the fall fashion magazines arrive. For me, it is the day the Edmonton International Fringe program is released.

I got my copy yesterday (thanks, Mack!), and everything about it – the smell, the texture, the weight – infuses me with anticipatory glee for ten days of glorious theatre.

Mack just contributed a piece to Edmonton Stories centering around his discovery of live theatre in the city. It got me thinking about my own history with Edmonton’s theatre scene, which happens to be tied very closely with the Fringe Festival.

Back in high school, I was offered free tickets to a show by Marty Chan called The Bone House. Never being one to turn down anything complimentary, I accepted, and headed down to the Arts Barns for my first theatre experience. Centered around the hunt for a serial killer, The Bone House blew me away. The chills I felt were real, enhanced by the intimacy of the venue and the script’s dexterous ability to exploit the audience’s imagination. I couldn’t believe live theatre could be so exhilarating.

Actor Chris Fassbender was a standout in that play, so it was natural that when his name appeared in the cast for a Fringe show the following summer, I wanted to see it. That same year, I decided to volunteer for the Festival – it seemed like a great deal, the trade-off of time for Fringe dollars that could be redeemed for show tickets. Well, there wasn’t a better way to get to know what would soon become my favourite festival of the year – I volunteered for the next five Fringes. My fellow volunteers were fantastic, and I gained an appreciation for the festival as a whole as I worked through several teams over the years, including KidsFringe, Information, and Front of House.

I did stop volunteering a few years into stepping full-time into the workforce; it was easier to find the time when I was a student in high school and university. What didn’t stop, however, was my presence in Old Strathcona in mid-August, a time I look forward to every year.

Let’s not overlook the shows – my first Fringe show, Esther’s Hands, included a deafening gun shot, which left an indelible impression of tools available on stage to heighten tension. Or how about Stewart Lemoine’s Cocktails at Pam’s, for which I dragged a poor friend of mine to wait in line for nearly three hours, only to be faced with joke after joke involving 70s references that we did not understand. A year later, I gave Lemoine a second chance (Shocker’s Delight!), and by golly, I fell in love. I’m a Teatro la Quindicina subscriber now. And I will always remember Nighthawk Rules, the first Fringe play I took two of my good friends to – and believe me, they will never forget it either.

This year’s theme is Stage a Revolution – Executive Director Julian Mayne wanted to draw attention to the relative affordability of the Fringe when compared with some of the other festivals in the city, and is encouraging all Edmontonians to embrace live theatre by taking in at least one show. Though festival attendance numbers have been good (with the street performers, craft and food vendors, and vibrant atmosphere attracting crowds), our ticket sales have levelled off and seemingly reached a plateau at around 77,000. The Winnipeg Fringe, which has always been second to ours, just broke the North American Fringe ticket record this year, selling 81,565 tickets.

So for those new to the Fringe – I encourage you to explore the shows on the website (a program is handy, but I understand paying $6 for the guide isn’t economical for those seeing just one or two plays). A few to watch for:

Of course, the fun of the Fringe is to pick based on instinct. Recommendations are a place to start, but taking a chance on something different is what the Fringe is all about.

And on a side note, The Bone House – where my love of theatre began –  is returning to an Edmonton stage in the fall – it will run at the TransAlta Arts Barns October 22 – November 8, 2009.

See you at the Fringe!

The 28th Edmonton International Fringe Festival runs August 13 – 23.

The Big Kahuna: Day 7

My final show at this year’s Fringe was the second of my two wild cards. Big Winner is about one woman’s quest at winning the grand prize in Tim Horton’s Roll-up-the-Rim-to-Win contest, and enlists Jackson, her friend, to help her. Over the course of the play, Jackson uncovers a little-known alternative route to $20,000 in the contest rules – awarded to the person with the most “Try again” cups. Big Winner, besides being a tale of small town (Red Deer of all places) Canadian life, is also a romantic one, as feelings between the two are acknowledged. It was obvious that the two actors were having a blast, but the show just didn’t do it for me. A decent effort with likable characters, but not my cup of coffee.

The Big Kahuna: Day 6

On Tuesday I introduced Mack to the manic energy of Charles Ross, aka the man behind The One Man Star Wars Trilogy. A sold-out crowd, packed into the cooker of a stage at the Strathcona Community League, provided ample enthusiasm to feed Ross’s one and half hour whirlwind tumble through Episodes four through six. There were a few differences between this version and the one I saw five years ago (notably, the “special effects” signifying the explosion of both Death Stars), and Ross this time wore a microphone, wise given the fact that he is performing two different shows this time around (his other, Sev, has nothing to do with a Hollywood film of any kind). Again, though the feat of cycling through the films is a testament to Ross’s personal zeal, much of the enjoyment of the show is provided by his character attributions (“schwing”, Luke’s whiny temperament), impersonations (I had forgotten how much I adore his imitation of R2-D2), and side commentary (“I’ll never work in film again!”). Like it did the first time, the show makes me want to watch all three movies over again. After the applause, Ross took a moment to implore the audience to follow through with any great ideas they may be sitting on. This is something he has done after every performance I have seen, so it was slightly less off-putting and seemingly more genuine to me than I have regarded it in the past.

I’m not sure if tickets are still available to the show, but there are, be sure to snap ‘em up.

On a different note, Fringe festival head Julian Mayne is optimistic about breaking the ceiling of the 77,000 indoor performance ticket sales tallied in 2006. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

Also, online ticket purchases are up 20% – definitely good news for Mayne, who took a lot of flack for introducing the system last year. Still, it’s hard to see why everyone who has access to a computer wouldn’t pre-buy their tickets – the “Will Call” line is always shorter and faster at the Central Box Office.

Food at the Fringe

  • Though Starbucks shouldn’t count strictly as food from the Fringe, coffee is such a festival necessity to me that it bears inclusion on that ground alone.


My Fringe ritual: Journal reviews and coffee

  • Annie bought a cup of IttiBitz ($3.75) at the Fringe over the weekend. I’d always been intrigued by the tiny rounds of pastel-colored ice cream, but had never tried it myself. Turns out, it is just frozen pellets of ice cream; nothing special at all.


Annie with the IttiBitz sign


Cookies and Cream IttiBitz (vanilla ice cream pellets and crushed up chocolate cookies)

  • Intrigued by Funky Pickle‘s idea of “Butter Chicken Pizza”, I just had to try it. At $5 for the slice, however, it wasn’t what I was expecting, nor was it worth it. A curry sauce was used in place of the usual tomato base, and though the chicken may have been cooked in a tandoori oven (it was dry as heck), everything else about the pizza was decidedly ordinary. Supposedly created in collaboration with New Asian Village, one would imagine a final product with more flavour and originality behind it.


Butter chicken pizza from Funky Pickle

  • The vegetarian samosas (2 for $3.50) from India Palace was definitely the better deal when compared with the pizza – fried to a crisp perfection, they were filled with a lovely concoction of potatoes, peas, and a hint of chili. Carbolicious, they were way more satisfying than the pizza by far.


Samosas from India Palace

  • I wouldn’t be surprised if all restaurants in the immediate vicinity of the Fringe grounds had festival-specific menus, but Packrat Louie‘s is the only one I’ve had the personal opportunity to test. They’ve added a few special entrees, including ostrich fan steak, a “Mushroom Steak Fringe”, and a Hawaiian pizza dubbed “The Kahuna”.


Fringe-themed menu


The Kahuna

Happy eating at the Fringe!

Notes from the Fringe

  • I remember complaints last year about the reduced number of vendor permits distributed; it seems they are back in numbers to spare. The layout, which they usually change every year, is very clean this year. The alley behind the Strathcona library is usually uncomfortably crowded, but this year, pedestrian traffic is alleviated with vendors distributed along with side of the library as well.
  • Unlike last year, the location of the ticket booths is absent from the map in the centre of the program. Because of this, I think many patrons who need to purchase tickets aren’t aware of the “satellite” box offices, and thus the log jam at the Central Box Office during peak times. The Fringe administrators need to do a better job of advertising alternative places to obtain tickets.
  • I love the idea of the Fringe midway. While I haven’t had the time to watch any of the shows, I have walked through several times and just drink up the atmosphere of carney-like hawkers peddling their shows to the public. It’s a wonderful thing, and like being flyered on the grounds, the most honest means for artists to attract audience members to their production.
  • Perhaps I hadn’t paid attention in past years, but the food choices on site (although expensive), seem to be better this year. I had the usual green onion cakes, but am eying the Butter Chicken Pizza from Funky Pickle for later this week.

The Big Kahuna: Day 4

My Sunday began with the third instalment of Maggie-Now. I hadn’t seen either of the two previous parts at the last two Fringes, but I remembered the stellar reviews, and vowed to see what the hype was all about this year. The summary on the back of the program neatly caught me up on what I missed, though even without the background, one would be able to stumble right into the story without difficulty. Part 3 focuses on the disappearance of Maggie-Now’s husband, Claude, and the affect of his absence on the family unit. There was nothing ground-breaking about the show, but there doesn’t have to be for a solid, enjoyable production. I loved the simple staging (plain wooden chairs supplied the backbone of the audience’s imagination), and Kendra Connor as the titular character was a vision. My only criticism was the rather abrupt ending (so much so that it took the audience a few seconds to take the cue for applause), likely an arbitrary one to ensure that Part 4 could stand alone as well. If not for my upcoming trip to Vancouver, I would definitely be returning to the venue to find out what would become of Maggie-Now and her family.

Afterwards, I sauntered over to B-Scene Studios (an awkwardly-arranged BYOV) to wait in line for TJ Dawe’s first Edmonton Fringe show in four years, Maxim & Cosmo. I loved him in Canadian Bartender in Butlin’s, the only show of his I have ever seen. For someone who prefers group productions, it surprised even me that I enjoyed Dawe’s standup shtick as much as I did. Maxim & Cosmo is Dawe’s diatribe on gender stereotypes, expectations and fears. As I hoped, his performance was witty, insightful and intelligent. If insuring body parts are the norm these days, Dawe should buy insurance for his tongue – his lightening quick delivery keeps audiences on their feet, listening for the next pun or joke around the corner. Seemingly tailor-made for the Fringe, Dawe’s relatable observations about life make the hour vanish into a cloud of laughter, self-reflection and appreciation for his inherent talent.

My last show of the day was one of two wild cards this year. The program description for Sylvie sounded interesting, but unlike most of my other picks, I had no knowledge of the company, director, writer or actors involved. As such, this play about a chance meeting between a naïve Canadian and a homeless man in Edinburgh turned out to be a nice little surprise. I was immediately drawn to Elisa Benzer’s energy, and her character Anna’s willingness to jump (sometimes recklessly) into new experiences. As a writer, Anna had a tendency to see everyone as a character, including this poor street soul. Their connection and unlikely friendship, supplemented by flashbacks into her homeless companion’s life, and Anna’s struggle to maintain her devotion to a loving boyfriend back home, made for an interesting seventy five minutes. My only quibble was with the uneven lighting, but that could be excused given the student/recent graduate status of everyone involved. Not pretending to be more than what it is, Sylvie provides an intriguing lens into a moment when two divergent paths crossed.

The Big Kahuna: Day 3

I opted to sleep in on Saturday, which was a pro-active way to avoid being outside in the scorching heat longer than absolutely necessary. My first play of the day was Wayne Paquette’s A Body of Water. Madagascar, my favourite production at last year’s Fringe, was put on by the same company, so I knew I would be confronted by an engaging, thought-provoking drama. Coralie Cairns and John Sproule as a woman and a man without memory of themselves or the place they awaken in, were perfectly confounded, and sustained their energy throughout the twists and turns as they endured numerous “truths” of their supposed identities. Beth Graham, however, was the definite standout – besides having to act in a long-sleeve shirt, pants, and a sweater to boot in the furnace of the Telephone Museum, she was chilling, fluidly moving from one story to the next without pause. She was exhausting just to watch, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of her, attempting to catch something – a wince, a blink, a nudge – that would betray her true nature. Even now, two days later, I still have no idea which of her accounts were ultimately “true” – but perhaps that isn’t the point – it is the revelation of how susceptible we are without our personal narratives and remembered experiences, and how much at that point we have to rely, naked and blind otherwise, on others.

I met up with Annie and Andres for 25 Plays About…Love at the (yay!) air-conditioned Arts Barns. I remember seeing advertisements for the original production, 50 Plays About…Love, a few months back at Latitude 53, but didn’t have a chance to make it out at that time. Like most plays comprised of short, unrelated vignettes, there were some that were better than others. In this case, I found that the majority were a miss rather than a hit. We saw representations of very different kinds of love – of the hockey game, of one’s body, of routine, but my favourites were of the romantic kind: the snippet involving the man who could see into the future, the old couple sitting in the park, the young couple bickering in the car on the way home from a dinner party. The “bad dancing” portion of the show was amusing, but seemed somewhat misplaced. Though not wholly disappointing, I’ve seen similar shows executed much better than 25 Plays, so I can’t recommend this one.

The Big Kahuna: Day 2

On Friday night I went to see Happy Toes, Teatro la Quindicina’s return to the Fringe. Stewart Lemoine’s piece on friendship, possibilities, and happiness was poignant, and even more so in hindsight. There were a few moments of awkward pauses and odd pacing, but I chose to think such things would improve themselves over the course of the festival. For the most part the cast did a great job – Jeff Haslam was en pointe with line delivery that milked for laughs, and Leona Brausen was her usual delightful self on stage. It was nice to see Ron Pederson again, though Mack thought he was dialing in his performance. My favourite moment was the tender one between Haslam and Pederson’s characters – a lovely space of understanding and appreciation. The show has likely sold out for its run (it received five stars in the Journal today), so get tickets quick if you still can, or wait for the holdovers August 26-30 at the Varscona.

The Big Kahuna: Day 1

The first of my nine shows this Fringe was a reliable David Belke. Perhaps because I didn’t expect much from a radio serial, I found The Adventurous Times of Kevin Grimes just fantastic. It was deliciously seductive, soap opera-esque, and for a show where the voices and sounds of the actors were so much more prominent than the actors themselves, I had a hoot watching the group ham it up for the microphone. All of the performers mimicked the body language of the characters they were trying to portray, whether it meant hunching over menacingly or tensing their fingers up into claws. My favourite was the incredibly versatile Andrea House, who was sufficiently creepy as the villain’s second-in-command, among other characters she voiced. Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull was also pitch-perfect as the narrator, with a voice as smooth and trustworthy as spun cotton candy. It’s a shame I won’t be able to see the other live-to-air performances, but I will do my best to catch the remaining episodes on CKUA.

I was glad we were actually able to reach the Belke BYOV on time – after finding a parking spot, May and I had to wait in an aggravatingly-long “Will Call” line at the Central Box Office. I am hoping it was just first day kinks they were working on, and hasn’t been a problem for any other patrons.

Two Days to the Fringe!

For those who watch the critics’ every move, the reviews from the Winnipeg Fringe are sometimes a good indication of what will make a splash at Edmonton’s own festival (though again, you never really know what will strike the fancy of a particular reviewer on any given day).

The Winnipeg Free Press lists the following shows (who will be making their way to Edmonton) as top-drawing acts: Die Roten Puntke, Kenneth Brown’s Spiral Dive (awarded 5 stars), The Official Napoleon Dynamite Dance Class, Killing Kevin Spacey, and Keir Cutler’s Teaching the Fringe. On a side note, I loved the theme of their 2008 festival, Viva Las Fringe, and the accompanying “What happens at the Fringe, stays at the Fringe” slogan. Cheesy, but effective. Though new Executive Director Chuck McEwen wanted to surpass Edmonton’s 2007 attendance of 74,963 indoor show tickets, they were short, reaching a paid attendance of 72,699, up 774 from last year’s record of 71,921. If you’re an Edmonton Fringe die-hard, you’re breathing a sign of relief right now.

Some news: the Frequent & Double Fringer passes have sold out. They only made 200 of each available; I seem to remember more being offered in past years, but I could be wrong.

Also, the website lists some schedule changes. Good news for those that missed Charles Ross’s sold-out One Man Star Wars Trilogy three years ago – he’s been given a full slot as a result of a show cancellation. I remember being in the front row at the Legion, watching the sweat just drip off the man’s face – he is a tour de force, and his imitations are spot on. Check out a clip here.

If you’re still not sure what show you’d like to see, the Free for All, an annual event that allows artists 5 minutes to showcase their production, takes place in McIntyre Park from 8-10pm on Thursday, August 14.

See you in Old Strathcona!