Thursday, June 18, 2009

Top Ten Reasons Why I Love the Ottawa Fringe Festival (and Why I Think You Should Too)

On Monday the Ottawa Citizen published this article by Patrick Langston as a preview to the Ottawa Fringe Festival. While I enjoy the fact he briefly profiles a few of the artists participating in this year's Festival, I did not enjoy that this was another article about poor artists struggling to make money. The subtle (and I'm sure unintentional) implication is that these artists could not get work anywhere else - and not only that but it smacks of desperation: please buy tickets or these artists will literally starve!

There are so many positive reasons to see shows at the Fringe, it is beyond me why a journalist, especially one with the kind of reach the Ottawa Citizen has (The Citizen, unlike other smaller publications, is sure to reach people who may not know what a Fringe Festival is and I would argue this is not a good introduction), would choose such a narrow and somewhat negative angle. (The only quote from the article that really resonated with me was from Emily Pearlman, ""You don't do it to make money," she says. "You do it to get your work in front of an audience and develop it and to see work from other cities." Right on, sister! This is much more to the point. )

As an enthusiastic patron of this year's Festival, I have been thinking a lot about how incredible, from an audience perspective, the Fringe really is. And I know that if too many people actually figure this out, it will be a lot harder for me to get into the shows I really want to see, and the Courtyard will be way too crowded, so in a way I guess I am relieved that the Ottawa Citizen doesn't quite get it...

So, partly in response to this article I have decided to present my own preview of the Fringe. Of course the popular way of previewing is do a list of "Fringe picks" as Jessica Ruano and Nancy Kenny have done. As a twist on the top ten must-see list, I submit to you my Top Ten reasons why I love the Fringe, and why I think you should too:

1. The Fringe Courtyard. This is something the Ottawa Fringe does really, really well (props to Kevin Waghorn who has spent years perfecting the formula). Never been to a Fringe Festival before? Start in the Courtyard. There is great food, great music, great beer and all in an outdoor patio-type setting. In fact, it is entirely possible to hang out in the Courtyard and never even see a show. However, each night Bradriona (read: Chats with Cat, hosted by Brad) presents previews of what is on offer at this year's Festival, and I dare you to watch these previews and not feel curious enough to see at least one show. This is the see and be seen centre of activity and with Bradriona running the show, you never know what might happen. Good times are a certainty. So are awesome giveaways...

2. Access. Having trouble deciding which show to see next? No problem, while you're waiting to get into a venue, chances are there's an artist there ready and willing to tell you about their show. Love something you've seen? Chances are, the performer who was on stage earlier will be in the Courtyard later. And in such a casual, fun atmosphere, there's no reason to be shy about chatting with a performer about their show. It's really easy to feel isolated from most theatre: you sit in the dark house and it is presented to you but all you have for context is whatever the company has chosen to put in their program. And if you're not the kind of person who religiously attends the fancy opening nights or the scheduled talk backs, you rarely get a sense of the people behind the shows. But with the Fringe, it's all right there in front of you (warts and all), and this makes for a much more overall satisfying experience.

3. Influence. A product of this all-access environment. Your influence as an audience member can help to make or break the experience for a particular company. Your recommendations will convince others to see (or not) a particular show. Your vote will determine who gets to put the "Best of Venue" tag line on their poster. At the Fringe, the audience is king. Oh, the power...
(just remember, with great power comes great responsibility...)

4. New work. As Ms. Pearlman pointed out in the aforementioned Citizen article, the Fringe is an excellent venue for testing out new work. A Fringe production is a step above a workshop presentation; as it can be the first public presentation of a shiny new show where not only is the script being tested, but it's the first chance to try out the related technical elements. What is really cool about this is you can watch Canadian work as it develops and then be able to say "I saw it when..." Also, and this goes back to #3, as a kind of test audience you have a direct impact on how that show might change - based on your honest reactions to it (and maybe that conversation you had with the director in the Courtyard...)

5. Touring Shows/Artists. I don't know about you, but I don't often get the chance to see what theatre is happening in Victoria, or Albuquerque or Winnipeg or Australia, so the fact that artists from all over the world are brought to me, and I can see them for only $10 - that is an incredibly great deal.

6. The Game. With only ten days and 57 shows on offer, the Fringe Festival is kind of like the Amazing Race of theatre. How many shows can you see? How many must-show sees can you get into? How many days into the Festival will the passes be sold out? Who will emerge as the person who has seen the most stuff while retaining the most sanity? This is a fun game, but be forewarned: like any smorgasbord , the Fringe can inspire an overindulgence of stuff you love so just remember to pace yourself.

7. The Danger. This goes along with playing the game: sometimes all you have to go on is a brief description in the program or maybe a 30-second pitch from an earnest artist. So let's face it, you are taking a risk when you choose what shows to see. But doesn't this add to the intrigue? The danger exists that you may see something you really don't enjoy - but without the risk, where would be the joy when you stumble into something you love? Let's be honest; danger is sexy.

8. The Conversation. While on site at the Fringe, whether you're running into people you know or strangers waiting outside a venue; there is a running conversation that bonds all Fringe patrons together: "What have you seen?" , "What did you think?" "What are you seeing next?", "What are your picks?", and my personal favourite, "Do we have time for a beer before the show?"
At the Fringe, there is no need for boring small talk. It is all business. Well, business and beer.

9. Fringe Crushes. Ever heard of this phenomenon? Anyone who attends the Fringe regularly will tell you, the Fringe Crush is real. And it's hardly surprising if you think about it. The Fringe Festival attracts some beautiful people. And when you see these talented amazing performers strutting their stuff on stage (or in the Courtyard, or maybe both) I dare you not to fall in love with at least one of them. And as long as this doesn't lead to a boom of Fringe babies or Fringe-related divorces, it's all good.

10. You know where your money is going. Okay, I know I started this post by saying I didn't want to focus on the economics of the Fringe, but it wouldn't be fair to do a top ten list without at least mentioning ticket prices and the unique box office philosophy. Part of the accessibility I was referring to earlier when it comes to the Fringe is economic accessibility. At $10 a show (or $70 for 10 shows with a pass!) most people can afford to at least test the waters of this Festival. But the best part is, you know when you lay down that $10, it is going directly to the artists involved in the show. How often when you see theatre are you paying convenience fees or facility tickets can be prohibitively expensive and sometimes you get the feeling you're supporting the 'institution' rather than the work. Well, not at Fringe. A one-time $2 pin is your pledge to the organization, and the rest is for those who have worked their butts off to bring you something that makes you laugh or makes you think or leaves you with that little lump in your throat. It's a beautiful thing, don't you think?


  1. GOOD sum-up, Heather-Marie!

    One question, though: how come I'm not on your blog list? Eh? I think I might cry!


  2. How did I not know you had a blog?

  3. Jessica: I receive the OA news via e-mail/Facebook so I hadn't (until now) subscribed to your blog. I sincerely apologize for this most egregious error.

    Nancy: Surprise!

  4. Excellent post HM and you are officially on my blogroll!

  5. I thouroughly enjoyed this post, HM. I may have a Fringe crush on you!

  6. When's your next post coming HM?