Until recently, Fringe theatre, for me, evoked images of a tall, intimidating woman in a druid’s black robe screaming in Yiddish while some local Goth industrial tune decimated everyone’s eardrums. Or better yet, Feather Hat Guy performing a one man show where in ninety minutes he asked every person in the audience for change while never accepting a cent. Fringe theatre, for me, was theatre (however broadly applied) that was shocking and uncensored, if not necessarily political. That was before.
The original Fringe started in 1947 as a critical response of eight theatre companies faced with exclusion from the Edinburgh International Festival. There was no official organization and no central booking – artists had to find their venues, market their shows, find billeting, and raise the money for said expenses. Today, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the largest of Fringe festivals organized under Fringe Society Limited. And although it has admittedly changed from its roots, it is now able to provide broader exposure to artists and a greater chance for profitability, while still upholding the Fringe principle of taking no part in vetting the festival’s program.
In Canada we enjoy a large number of Fringe Festivals across the country with Edmonton’s being the largest. The Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals (C.A.F.F.) is the members organization for these festivals that ascribe to a common mandate and set of principles, including most notably the lack of any censorship or central artistic direction of shows. Membership in C.A.F.F. pays off too, providing artists with a venue, a technician, marketing, guidance, and a chance to tour amongst the many other Fringes across the country.
Yet the Fringe Festivals are not without their critics, who object particularly to the fact that the C.A.F.F. has trademarked the name “Fringe” (Fringe Society Limited has also trademarked the respective “Fringe” in the U.K.). Perhaps the most vocal critic of the (now “St-Ambroise”) Montreal Fringe has been former Fringer Donovan King, who founded the Montreal Infringement Festival in 2003 – since expanded to Brooklyn, Buffalo, Hamilton and Ipswich in the U.K. – to protest what he saw as the Fringe’s abandonment of its mission. The Infringement Festival claims to more truly embody the concepts of the first Edinburgh Fringe, namely no official organization and no sponsorship: a true grassroots Do-It-Yourself.
So what does it really mean to be ‘Fringe’? Amy Blackmore is a producer, director, dancer and choreographer, and the new Festival Director of the Montreal Fringe. She described to me what the word ‘Fringe’ evoked in her own mind’s eye: an “infinite area of possibilities, unpredictability, excitement […] it is about diversity, accessibility and artistic freedom.”
Clint Earle of Psychic Puppy Productions is a current participant in this year’s Fringe with the show Beat the Percentages. He had this to say about what ‘Fringe’ is to him: “Transitory, hyper-personal and unpolished are probably the terms which can accurately apply to Fringe events. Its differences lie primarily in the absence of those commercial entities and infrastructure that foster, support and package `mainstream’ theatre.”
Yet it was clear that Earle’s ideal of Fringe was not without its criticism of the festivals. “Very few shows at Fringe are mounted in an effort to redefine, inform or expand the aesthetics of theatre,” he complained. “Shows are rarely confrontational or provocative from a textual or performing perspective. They do often seek to provoke or stimulate reaction as a collection of marketing techniques devoid of poetry and nuance. This is actually the most conservative of artistic aims in my view.”
For James Brown and Jamesy Evans, writers and performers in this year’s Fringe show 2 for Tea, ‘fringe’ evokes “the intricately detailed fringe of a crocheted table cloth. Sideshow circus, freakshow. Poor, unkempt artist. The edge of a doily” in terms of theatre. Yet for Brown and Evans as well, it seemed that Fringe was perhaps not living up to its ideals.“I don’t feel that the festivals are particularly fringy because for many of the artists, it’s an opportunity to step into or toward professional theatre, and others try to do well financially. Both reasons have artists hold onto many conventions that keep their work from the fringes.”
King, in defining ‘fringe’ in a general sense, wrote: “It also signifies outside the mainstream; e.g. a radical fringe party, on the fringes of society, etc. In my opinion, it is on the fringes of society that the possibility of social change exists.” Specifically pertaining to performance, King argued that “in a nutshell, Fringe theatre is activist, independent, inclusive, artist-run, and do-it-yourself… Fringe is and always has been a political space, no doubt about it.”
So how many ‘fringes’ must creation reach for to be ‘Fringe’? What, if any, is the true measure of ‘fringiness’? Is it an aesthetic impulsion or a social and political one? And can it be all, or any, of the above?
To Blackmore, “Fringe is a movement expanding to dance, music, comedy, visual arts […]protected by four points: on a non-juried basis, on accessible ticket prices, artistic freedom, and accessibility” – all similar points outlined in the C.A.F.F.’s four “ideals and principles.”
And to a first-time volunteer in the Montreal Fringe such as myself? ‘Cheeky': that’s how I describe Fringe. Shocking names and bizarre but entertaining acts. Shows like Earle’s Beat the Percentages about Mitt Romney coming to take the Canadian electorate, or Leslie Baker’s Fuck you! You Fucking Perv!, a solo performance on the damaging effects of premature sexualization. Or events like Infringement’s Dumpster Art Drive creating art through garbage, or the Red Light District Walking Tour, investigating St. Laurent Boulevard’s seedy past.
Maybe there is no monopoly on Fringe. As an audience member these performances all speak to me, of a fringe representing those neglected or hurt from society, or a fringe on the outskirts of consumerist culture. One festival has a corporate sponsor and trademarked name while the other does not, but both are Fringe in their own ways, achieving a result that both combined as a single entity could not.
Or maybe Clint Earle put it best when he said: “the effort to define “fringe” is a theoretical exercise easily likened to shadowboxing.”
The St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe runs until June 23 at venues across town, and Fringe Park opens tonight at Parc des Amériques. To view the program and learn more, click here.
The Montreal Infringement Festival runs in parallel, from June 13-23. To view the program and learn more, click here.