Toronto’s first Fringe Festival in 1989 ushered in a new age for indie theatre

As the Digital Fringe continues, we look back at the beginnings of the fest, which helped spawn The Drowsy Chaperone and Kim’s Convenience


31 years ago, Toronto’s very first Fringe Festival launched in the Annex. Just over 40 theatre companies took part. There were only four venues: the now-defunct Poor Alex Theatre and the Palmerston Theatre, along with (hard to believe) Sneaky Dee’s and Lee’s Palace, plus a few busking areas. All tickets were $5. And the festival covered 15 days from Friday, July 21 to Sunday, August 6, in effect covering three weekends (Mondays were dark).

NOW’s late theatre writer, Jon Kaplan, previewed that inaugural festival with a cover story about where the Fringe fit into Toronto’s theatre ecosystem. (He began a tradition of NOW Fringe covers that would continue for more than a quarter century.) One of the subjects on that first cover was Sally Han, an emerging director who was helming a production of David Demchuk’s disturbing family drama If Betty Should Rise at the Poor Alex.

“I think that Fringe was one of my first times directing a play in Toronto,” recalls Han, who’s now manager of Cultural Partnerships at the City of Toronto.

Han says the NOW cover likely helped with the show’s popularity and box office. Producer Lorne Perlmutar chose the play as one of four productions to receive a week-long extension at the Annex Theatre later in August in Fringe Choice ’89, a precursor to the festival’s Best of the Fringe series.

The experience also helped Han’s career. Before the Fringe she had focused mostly on producing and stage managing, including some productions at the Edinburgh Fringe. She would go on to work successfully for a couple of decades as a producer and director of theatre, radio and TV.

“It gave me some visibility in the theatre community,” she says. “I think afterwards, people looked at my letters begging them for a meeting and took them a lot more seriously.”

The list of artists taking part in that first Fringe reads almost like a who’s who of the exciting indie scene: the Augusta Company, Mump and Smoot, James O’Reilly, Sky Gilbert, David Craig, Claudia Moore, Modern Times Stage, Pea Green Productions.

Han remembers sharing a dressing room with the Augusta Company’s Daniel Brooks, Tracy Wright and Don McKellar.

“Our show came on right before or right after those guys, and I remember thinking they were so cool and smart,” she says. “Their show was in this Wooster Group style, deconstructing some plays by David French. And I remember thinking, ‘That’s the kind of theatre I want to do.’ I had seen some of that style in New York and London, but it was relatively new to Toronto.”

Jon began the article talking about the rise of indie theatre as a sort of reaction to megamusicals like Les Miz and The Phantom Of The Opera. Han also sees the Fringe as part of a second wave after the rise of nationalist-founded theatres in the late 60s and early 70s.

“Theatre Passe Muraille, Factory and other theatres had been started by 21- and 22-year-old folks straight out of university,” she says. “Back then, there was a lot more money available. They were able to bring out these voices that defined a generation. And then soon they all became caught up in operating funding and stuff like that. So the opportunity for fresh, self-owned, self-directed art, without a corporate or management structure, needed a place to be expressed. And I feel that’s what the Fringe tapped into.”

Han feels there’s a comparable wave happening right now.

“Every so often, art tries to renew itself and renew the forms in which it takes place,” she says. “I think now this fantastic movement towards equity and diversity and bringing in new artists and new organizations is so important. You’ve got a group of artists now saying, ‘Hey, we need to do things on our own terms, not everybody’s else’s.'”

As both a former participant and a current audience member, Han loves the continued DIY spirit of the Fringe.

“I actually like the fact that you don’t have to be very good. You have the utter and complete freedom to fail. That ability to risk everything allows for there to be a Drowsy Chaperone, or a My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding or a Da Kink In My Hair or a Kim’s Convenience.”

In his article, Jon prophetically wrote “the real thrill of the fringe is to see work by little-known artists who may become the most important forces to forge the future of theatre in Toronto.”

“It’s no surprise shows like [Drowsy Chaperone and Kim’s Convenience] emerged from the Fringe rather than the country’s larger regional theatres,” says Han. “The risk is held by the artists rather than a corporate entity. You can fail. And because you can fail, you find out through the audience whether you’re good or not, whether your show will have legs.”

And while the Fringe allows artists to take artistic risks, it also lets theatregoers take a risk too – albeit a smaller one.

“It’s very hard to risk $150 to $200 for tickets on a big show you have no idea you’re going to enjoy or not,” says Han. “You’re going to make those choices because you already think you’re going to like it. But the philosophy at the Fringe is that, even if you hate it, you didn’t spend much time or money, and you can move on and see something else.”

Glenn Sumi

Below is Jon Kaplan’s cover story, Fringe Theatre Festival: Taking theatre to the edge, republished from NOW’s July 20, 1989 issue. Note: I have tried to adjust two paragraphs under the subhead “Chance-taking,” where I believe lines were transposed.


Fertile Fringe: The Toronto Fringe Festival breaks barriers by combining truism with terror

By Jon Kaplan

Fringe theatre is stalking the mainstream. As cities like Toronto grow increasingly hungry for big-budget stage extravaganzas, the next wave of fringe theatre is gathering a strong following of its own.

The challenging productions of alternative theatre provide the contrast and create the tension that keeps theatre vital. And just as the arrival of Les Miz and The Phantom in town serves as one indicator of theatre health, fringe festivals highlighting independent and small-budget productions have become another sign of a vibrant theatre scene in cities around the world.

This week, following cities as diverse as Edinburgh and Edmonton, Toronto finally gets its own fringe theatre festival – a risk-taking, mixed bag of productions that should both delight and challenge Toronto audiences.

The new festival features over 40 productions, and with most shows running less than one hour with a five dollar admission, it will be a fast paced theatre binge with less than daunting financial or time commitments – the perfect environment for both performers and audiences to take a chance.

Chance-taking

And chance-taking is a big part of fringe theatre festivals. Beginning this Friday (July 21), Toronto audiences will have an opportunity to see the newest work from over 40 fringe companies, as the Fringe of Toronto, a 15-day performance festival, plays at four venues in the Annex as well as at selected “busk” stops on the street.

Artists who may be the dramatic forces of the Toronto stage in the 90s – those with a strong social and political consciousness, who deal with mental health, institutions, sexuality, drugs and the homeless.

Unburdened by the need to please massive audiences to earn back huge upfront investments, fringe theatre allows artists to develop unique shows for limited but often gratified audiences. A whole different group of viewers may be drawn to see theatre, dance, comedy, storytelling, performance art, and clown and puppet shows (for both adults and children). Content is consistently controversial, focusing inherently on risky themes – take risks with their work – have a chance to polish their craft. They may even make a name for themselves – and offer some exciting theatre surprises in the process.

In the past several decades, Toronto’s alternative companies have nurtured a number of artists who have made major contributions to Canadian theatre – and often, even with their success, these artists have maintained a connection with the alternative scene. Among them are directors Richard Rose (artistic director of Necessary Angel) and Paul Thompson (former artistic director of Theatre Passe Muraille and now in charge of Montreal’s National Theatre School), playwrights Judith Thompson (Crackwalker, I Am Yours) and John Krizanc (Tamara) and actors Clare Coulter, R.H. Thomson, Saul Rubinek and Fiona Reid.

Fringe producer Gregory Nixon, a co-artistic director of Flexible Packaging Plant and producer for Crow’s Theatre’s controversial La Ronde and Serpent Kills, says the fringe is happening because it was inevitable. Over the years a number of people involved in the small-theatre community have tried and failed to establish such a festival. Now, with support from a number of established and new companies, the fringe has gotten off the ground in Toronto – in a very big way.

“The single thing that makes the Toronto fringe different from other theatre festivals is that it is non-mandated and non-curated,” says Nixon. “We had no overview of what should or even might represent the fringe. We think of this first year as a small-scale version of the festival, and initially we only wanted 25 companies involved. But the submissions were so good that we found another venue and took 40 applications. There’s no reason that future festivals couldn’t accommodate 100 or 150 companies.”

Artistic stake

The applications were accepted on a first come, first served basis. Unlike other fringe festivals, there is no registration fee. The only money that companies have to put up is a deposit fee, based on the number of shows they’ll present, that is refunded at the end of the festival.

The Toronto fringe will return 75 per cent of box office revenues to the artists, giving them a financial and artistic stake in a production. With attendance of 40 per cent, the fringe could conceivably earn more than $16,000 for the Toronto arts community.

“What we’ve done,” notes fringe coordinator Jennifer Ross, managing director of the Poor Alex Theatre, “is to provide companies with technical facilities, resources and personnel for administration and publicity. We’ve even been able to provide free rehearsal space. It’s realistic to say that companies needed no money to be part of the fringe. All they had to do was apply and work on their shows.”

The diversity of applications and huge interest on the part of theatre groups shows the real need for the fringe. But Ross points out that the nature of alternative theatre arises from specific conditions within a theatre community. In Toronto, that situation is presently determined by a lack of funds, a shortage of venues and an elitism that arguably undermines the creative impulse in both alternative and commercial theatre.

It’s obvious that with just four festival venues and 40 slots available, only a percentage of the city’s theatre groups can be part of this year’s fringe. But it is gratifying that some of the shows in the fringe are new, and some have been awarded their very first opportunity to perform in public.

But the real thrill of the fringe is to see work by little-known artists who may become the most important forces to forge the future of theatre in Toronto.

One new company is As Fast As Productions, which will present David Demchuk’s disturbing If Betty Should Rise, a play about three sisters caught up in a family history immersed in child abuse. The show is directed by Sally Han, an apprentice director on Canadian Stage’s recent i.d. project, who also worked at fringe theatres in England as producer and stage manager.

Other groups are made up of recent university graduates, like Theatre Offal, which is presenting Laura J. Forth’s comedy God Is Dead As A Doorknob. Forth, who directed five of her own shows in Australia during the two years she lived there, thinks the fringe will give the more eclectic companies in town a chance to show their stuff.

Her comedy deals with two existential heroes, Jean-Paul Sartre and Prometheus, who must account for their crimes against humanity. The author, who also directs, compares the piece to Waiting For Godot. The first act spoofs performance art, while the second plays with Greek comedy in its rapid-fire, unconnected scenes.

“We’re not trying to shock with the play,” says Forth. “But we say things about the nature of existence or reality – things people ignore while they work toward getting a BMW or a Mercedes. I hope audiences will leave and think about what they’ve seen.”

An important aspect of the Toronto fringe will be the premiere of several dozen new scripts. Two of them, presented by Shack at the Back, are by Randy Maertz, who worked for five years as a director at Factory Theatre’s Brave New Works but only had one of his own works read there. He’s also worked in Edmonton, at Theatre Three and the Citadel.

Gone mainstream

“Eight years ago,” says Maertz, who considers himself outside of any recognized Toronto theatre circle, “the city offered varied and multiple theatre experiences. Most companies have now gone mainstream. There’s little that’s weird and wacky.”

Ultimately, the most important aspect of the fringe shows is the vast spectrum of performance disciplines that it encompasses. Everyone should find something to enjoy. That’s been the hope of the festival’s organizers, who look on the fringe festival as an accessible and populist event.

“We want people to be drawn in by a title, a photo or word of mouth to try a show,” says Nixon. “They might spend a day in the Annex, hanging out in cafes, drinking cappuccino and sampling the theatre around them – either on the street or in a space. The ideal attitude toward the fringe is to be easy-going and check out something that sounds interesting.”

Check back every Monday for a new 40 at 40 cover story marking NOW’s 40th anniversary year. More on this year’s Digital Fringe here.

@glennsumi

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