Toronto artists react to Fringe Festival cancellation

From festival vets to emerging talents, everyone's sad the Fringe won't be happening – but they're definitely making plans for later


For many in Toronto’s theatre community, the Fringe (July 1 to 12), the province’s biggest performance festival, was something to look forward to after things returned to normal. But this week’s announcement that the 12-day summer festival was cancelled took that away. 

Here are some reactions to the news by artists who were going to be wowing us, racking up Ns and holding court at the Fringe club.

Jon Blair

It’s obviously very disappointing, but it’s definitely the responsible thing to do. The sketch festivals I was set to perform at in the spring and summer had been postponing one by one, so I did have a feeling this might happen next. This would have been my first year doing my own show in the Toronto Fringe, which felt like a big step up, so I’ve been doing a lot of work in anticipation of that. For myself and I think a lot of artists, we’d been keeping Fringe in our heads as like a “Won’t that finally be great?” thing, something to look forward to and work towards. I’m still going to keep working on the show in the meantime, just because it’s helpful right now having something to work on.

Kat Letwin

Kat Letwin is sad about the Fringe’s cancellation because “it’s one of the few times comedians and theatre artists co-mingle in the same space and all are excited about the same things.”

Kat Letwin

My BYOV application to the Paddock Tavern was approved for the collectively created Spooky Cheers (our placeholder name for the show until we found a better one). It’s a horror-comedy that starts like a typical Cheers-esque sitcom, but devolves into existential dread after my character I’ve been calling The Stranger appears and disrupts said typical sitcom narrative.

We planned on using The Paddock to its full potential moreover, when it was announced The Paddock is slated to be demolished for condos in the next year or so, we pivoted the horror of the show further toward being a metaphor for the destruction of not only space, but the lives of those who have managed to find home and culture in a place of their making.

How do we survive in a space that was once yours, but now seems to be actively trying to kill you? Where do we go when inevitability is nearly eldritch in both scope and power? These themes feel more resonant than ever.

I was excited for this for a couple reasons. Firstly, I was finally taking the reigns on a production: the idea is mine, I hand-picked the cast/crew and the ideas we were generating for characters and plot points were deeply exciting. We all drew on our respective backgrounds in theatre and comedy (sometimes both), and I was ready to take a financial and creative risk that would live or die by my decisions. I’d been afraid of doing this, but finally thought, “Fuck it, I know what I’m doing, it’s time.”

Secondly, Fringe is, simply put, Theatre Christmas. It’s the only time of year I get to see friends from the touring circuit I can always count on a visit to the Tent for boosting my mood with drinks and laughs and conversation it’s one of the few times comedians and theatre artists freely co-mingle in the same space, and all are excited about the same things. More than just a festival, Fringe is a generator of connection and possibility.

That said, I’m not letting my idea and my team of people go just because the festival had to be shut down. Seeing the writing on the wall a couple weeks ago, my team and I started looking at ways for this story to be told through a different medium. We no longer have the benefit of a live audience and visuals, and we won’t get to send off the Paddock in style, but we have an idea that can be refracted just as spookily through a narrative podcast. Our visuals turn sonic, our format turns episodic, our narrative is restructured but says the same thing: we survive or we don’t. There’s no middle ground.

Carson Pinch from Carson Fears Fear Itself, SketchFest 2019

Carson Pinch, here seen in a promo pic for Carson Fears Fear Itself, which he performed at Toronto SketchFest 2019, was involved in two cancelled Fringe shows.

Carson Pinch 

I was going to be a part of two shows at Fringe. One as a performer of a sketch team (The Wow) and the other a solo sketch show.

The cancellation is incredibly depressing and tragic, but it’s also, and most importantly, the right call. It is time to be gentle and kind to ourselves. Not only is the festival looking out for the health and safety of patrons, industry, volunteers and artists, but also the mental health of all involved.

Over the past month I have had countless conversations with fellow artists discussing the stress and downright panic of trying to fully realize their shows during a global pandemic.

Would I love nothing more than to be working on a silly solo sketch comedy show exploring masculinity through the eyes of a very “soft” man? Absolutely. Would I relish nothing more than to hang out in that weird hockey rink, drink a beer and congratulate everyone I can on their shows? Sure! Would I delight in the sheer anxiety of waiting on those Ns (1 through 5)? You better believe it.

But right now I’m going to use this time to email and call my MPP and MP to call on the expansion of the CERB to cover my fellow artists who are currently being left behind. Then I’ll play a little Animal Crossing, as a treat. 

Also, now I have zero excuse not to have the best show ever by the time we get Fringe 2021. Oh god…

Grace Smith for Fringe cancellation piece, 2020

Grace Smith 

I was going to be a part of two Toronto Fringe shows this year. One was Spooky Cheers (a placeholder title) with Kat Letwin (see above). The other was a show business farce called Us Against Everyone, which was to be directed by Leigh Cameron (who I was excited to work with again after Generally Hospital) and written by Josef Beeby (of the award-winning web series Canadiana). This show will be part of the 2021 festival.

I wrote a Twitter thread about my very self-centred but hopefully relatable sadness at the festival cancellation. But there is part of me that is maybe slightly… relieved. I had built myself an aggressively packed summer, consisting of doing my solo show at Ottawa Fringe, Kingston Fringe, and BYOV at Edmonton Fringe, plus the two shows as Toronto.

Maybe this pause of theatre and comedy activities will cause me to rethink my tendency to overcommit to things? Fingers crossed. 

Sebastian Biasucci, 2020

Emerging artist Sebastian Biasucci says carving out a place for himself in the Toronto theatre landscape was challenging enough before a global pandemic.

Sebastian Biasucci

I was dramaturging and set to co-direct my friend and fellow Ryerson theatre graduate Katherine Cappellacci’s Fringe Show The Sum Of What Remains, a look at the relationship between a Sugar Daddy and Sugar Baby in ways we haven’t seen before.

We were set to do our first read through the week that social distancing really took off. Preproduction got moved to phone calls and through all that was the looming expectation that the Fringe would most likely be cancelled. And even though we expected it and know it is the right and necessary call, it was still heartbreaking to get the news.

I’ve been going to the Fringe since I was a kid, and have participated a few times in the Fringe Shed Show series with Shed No More: Two Dudes of Toronto, an immersive Sleep No More-inspired retelling of Two Gentleman Of Verona, as well as assistant directing Port Albert Production’s White Wedding.

The idea of a summer without a Fringe is a weird thing to process.

I’ve also submitted to SummerWorks and I’m awaiting their decision but preparing for a similar scenario which will be equally heartbreaking.

As an emerging artist just a few years out of theatre school, carving out a place for myself in the incredible Toronto theatre landscape had been challenging enough before a global pandemic. As I speak to my peers in the same boat we worry that things will be even harder when this is over – whatever “over” means.

With even the most accomplished artists out of work, how will we all be able to get back to it? Maybe that will depend on what audiences look like when we do. These two festivals are some of the best outlets for emerging artists creating on the tightest of budgets and looking for exposure, and it’s such a shame that these launch pads can’t exist this year. 

I’ve been inspired by my peers finding new ways to connect and perform during this time. I’ve been commissioned by Convergence Theatre to create a short play for a donor that has generously sponsored an artist and is inspired by a real “COVID confession.” And on my good days I’ve been developing the piece I hope to do at SummerWorks one way or another.

I’ve always known that this is an incredibly difficult pursuit, but that’s okay because there is nothing I love more than this city and performing and producing live theatre here. I just didn’t know there was a way that pursuing this could become any harder. But, like many others, I’m up for the challenge.

@glennsumi

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