On the road again


Travelling Fringe artists share the highs and lows of touring a show

Thu, Aug 15 – Sun, Aug 25
Edmonton International Fringe Festival
Various locations

Edmonton’s Fringe Festival has had plenty of monikers since its beginnings in 1982. Some are classics, and some forgettable: names like “Frankenfringe” and “Home on the Fringe” stare out from threadbare T-shirts worn with pride by longtime Fringers, while it remains to be seen if this year’s 007-themed “From Fringe with Love”—which echoes 2007’s “Live and Let Fringe”—will join the pantheon of classics. Classic or not, there has perhaps been no more fitting a moniker than 2000’s “Cirque du Fringe” in the way it posits the Fringe as a travelling circus you can run away with.
The parallels between the Fringe and a travelling circus are nearly endless: not only are there tents and gravity-defying feats, you’ve also got junk food, bright lights and handbilling artists beckoning you into their shows like barkers outside a big top.

Then there are the travelling performers themselves, the ones that hit the road, plying their trade from one side of Canada’s vast expanse to the other. Starting in Montréal in June, Fringe artists can move westward until they finish in Vancouver in mid-September.

Adding a travelling dimension to a Fringe run makes it exponentially more difficult: thousands of people flock to the Fringe grounds each day to eat green onion cakes and walk away from street performers just before they pass the hat. Enticing people into venues is hard enough for a local whose friends and family are willing to help spread the word: for touring artists, it’s that much tougher. With no more than a few days to get posters up and handbills into hands, hustle is key.
“In those first five days you’re on your feet talking to people, talking up your show, handbilling, trying to get people into your show—especially if you’re at an ‘away’ Fringe,” explains Christine Lesiak, co-artistic director of Edmonton’s Small Matters Productions who will tour a total of seven Fringe festivals this summer, bringing a new work to Edmonton called Ask Aggie—the Advice Diva. “Unless you’ve been there a lot of times, nobody knows you—you don’t have the home field advantage.”

Beyond hustle, travelling Fringe artists need to be adaptable. Most Fringe shows are small, quirky things in and of themselves, but for touring artists you’ve got to go even smaller. As sometime-Torontonian Bruce Horak, the man behind Fringe hit This is Cancer, explains, his latest show Assassinating Thomson—which recounts the mysterious death of influential Canadian painter Tom Thomson while Horak paints the audience—is nearly devoid of technical needs.

“We develop the Fringe shows to be really versatile. We can pretty much take them into any venue and get them up and running without having too much fuss or bother. This show in particular there’s pretty much no tech: no sound cues, no lighting cues—we kept it as simple as possible,” he says. “If you can get it down to a performer with a very minimal set and technical elements it ultimately makes your Fringe experience that much easier.”

“As an artist you have to be really adaptable to your space,” echoes Lesiak. “When we design a show, if we know we’re going to tour it, we know it has to fit in a car.”
That’s a lesson Edmonton’s Good Women Dance is learning as it tours for the first time. The company’s latest work, entitled Fracture requires an elaborate set piece the foursome has had to cart from city to city.

“That’s actually been quite a pain,” laughs company member Ainsley Hillyard. “We knew that we were taking [Fracture] on the road, but we didn’t want to compromise the integrity of what we were producing just because we knew that it had to travel.”

It’s a decision she’d make again. “In a heartbeat,” she says.
“If the work was something we believed in we’d bring three times the amount of set pieces we have right now,” she says. “In the end you’re touring your work and going outside of Edmonton to show the world what Edmonton is doing, so you don’t want to compromise on that at all.”

While all that handbilling, postering and reimagining your show for different venues might seem like undue hardships to undertake, for Fringe performers the benefits of touring outweigh the challenges.

“I get to do what I love,” Horak states unequivocally. “It’s an adventure. My life is never boring.”
“We love performing our work and we want to perform our work,” Lesiak says. “It allows us to do what we love and most of the Fringes help bring you audience just by virtue of the fact you’re part of this festival.”

Then there’s the camaraderie between artists, perhaps the Fringe touring circuit’s greatest benefit. With so many solo shows criss-crossing the country, performers grow tight-knit, meeting up in city after city and supporting each other from the highs of good reviews and packed houses through to the lows that go beyond a bad run.

When Antony Hall of Edmonton’s Black Sheep Theatre was hit by a car and broke his leg at this year’s Ottawa Fringe, touring performers banded together to fill the company’s slots with a variety show. All the proceeds went toward sending Hall home and helping to pay for the cost of his injury.
“That stuff is heartwarming,” Lesiak says, “and I’ve seen it happen before.”

“You don’t often find that in other fields where everybody’s in it for themselves,” Horak says. “But we support each other and look out for each other—it’s really a special thing.”

That level of support would come as no surprise to Hillyard, who has found her own Fringe “guardian angel” on the road—none other than spoken-word artist and Fringe legend Jem Rolls.
“I run into him everywhere I go—every 10 minutes. We’ve built this rapport and he always helps me and always has advice for me,” she says. “Essentially we’re competing for the same audience, but he just said, ‘I’ve been doing this for years and I’ve made some really stupid mistakes so why should you have to make them too?’ That’s a really beautiful sentiment. And everyone’s been like that.
“That’s the sentiment between all the Fringe artists—we’re not sharing an audience, we’re sharing a festival.”

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