With more than 130 shows and additional programming, the Toronto Fringe Festival can be overwhelming. And since the shows are picked mostly via a lottery system, finding one that will be worth your time and money can be a crapshoot—though the best shows can and have gone on to eventual Broadway runs and major film adaptations. We’ll help you get the most out of your Fringe experience with a rundown of the festival’s promising and potentially can’t-miss shows—and we’ll be back with reviews as the festival progresses.
The festival begins with opening ceremonies behind Honest Ed’s at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, July 4, and features some afternoon and evening premieres that day and Thursday, July 3. The festival really kicks off on Friday, July 5, and there’ll be programming every day from noon to midnight until Sunday, July 13.
Some general advice for the novice Fringe attendee: the best way to pay for Fringe shows is with a pass, because the more good shows you see, the more you’ll want to see. You’ll hear about shows generating great word of mouth from other patrons (the best place to do this is at the Fringe club behind Honest Ed’s). You may even get recommendations from the artists themselves, some of whom will shout out to great shows they’ve seen right after they take their bows. A pass knocks the price down from a high of $14 for a single advance ticket to as little as $8.50 per show with a 10-show pass.
Day-of “rush” tickets are a few dollars cheaper than advance tickets, but be prepared for lineups—they can grow to huge lengths for popular shows as the festival progresses. On the final day of the festival, each regular venue will re-stage its best-selling show, but we don’t recommend counting on catching a must-see show that way—those tickets are available 100 per cent in advance, several days before the final Sunday.
You can plan your Fringe experience on your smartphone: the Toronto Fringe app works for Android, iPhone, and even BlackBerry devices (make sure you turn your phone off before the lights go down, of course). And the usual tips for being a smart festival-goer apply: bring water, wear comfortable shoes, be prepared for both cool and warm venues and weather. Finally, plan for lots of travel time between different venues, because there are no latecomers admitted to Fringe shows, and no refunds.
Now, on with our preview picks, and 10 very good reasons to check out lots of shows at this year’s Fringe.
10: Local Ladies (& Gents) Who Make Us Laugh
Our annual Local Ladies Who Make Us Laugh feature went up earlier this week, and three of the five featured women are in Fringe shows, as are alumnae from past years. Allana Reoch is in a dark sketch show called Everything Is Fine; Kat Letwin’s Rulers of the Universe troupe’s show is called A Love Story; and continuing the love theme, Hannah Spear is in Bad Dog Theatre’s Toronto, I Love You. Evany Rosen, a 2013 Lady, is in the Bad Dog cast, too, and a fellow 2013 Lady Kat Sandler has written and directed Punch Up, about a kidnapped comedian. (2011′s Kathleen Phillips has sadly had to pull her one-woman show Trust Me, It’s Fine, I Figured It Out from the festival—but it’s been replaced by Fringe favourites 2-Man No-Show, in 4-D!)
9: Head out on the Frontier
A number of shows have a Western theme this Fringe, and three of them come from companies whose work we’ve enjoyed in the past. We loved watching Kaitlin Morrow brawl with the Sex T-Rex guys at the 2013 Fringe, so we’re glad to see she’s starring as a gunslinger in their new show Watch Out, Wildcat! Fringe champs Peter n’ Chris return with their fifth full-length show, Peter n’ Chris and the Kinda OK Corral, and Keystone Theatre, which employs a unique style of silent-film–inspired physical theatre, is back with its third full-length show, Gold Fever.
8: Sports! On Stage!
The World Cup continues until July 13, but between matches you can catch these athletically inspired solo shows. Nancy Kenny’s hit show Roller Derby Saved My Soul has already toured extensively for several years, and is finally making its Toronto debut. Meanwhile, Lwam Ghebrehariat, best known to Toronto theatre audiences for his role in the controversial 2011 SummerWorks show Homegrown, has spent the ensuing years working in both law and stand-up comedy, but he’s mining his sporting childhood for Lwam Is Eritrea’s Greatest Hockey Player.
7: Swell Site-Specific Shows
There are quite a few site-specific shows in the Fringe (partly because they’re selected through a separate lottery, with better odds than the one for regular venues), but not all of them use their location to its full potential, as we suspect these three will. Chasing Margaret Flatwood takes place in the elegant rooms of Campbell House, and features Julia Lederer (With Love and a Major Organ) as its slightly altered titular literary icon. An Afternoon in July seems similarly high-class, though sketch duo Templeton Philharmonic have moved their party to the church venue’s garden (and will have a bar). And Small Wooden Shoe’s Summer Spectacular is also outside, touring Frankel Lampert Park and interacting with giant puppets.
6: Strum That Six-String
Plenty of Fringe shows happen on a (shoe)string budget, so it’s common for performers to bring out a guitar here and there to enhance the experience. The better shows, though, have music throughout. We just saw Chelsea Manders’s Don’t Tell My Dad at the Ottawa Fringe in June, and roared with laughter at some of her songs—particularly the one involving a grown-up Anne of Green Gables as a table dancer. Alexis Taylor stars as Shania Twain in No One Needs to Know Shania and has an ace in the hole—a backing band led by her husband, roots rocker Matthew Barber. And if you just want to hear someone playing guitar, the Fringe even has that, too: British musician Jonathan Prag’s show is titled simply Classical Guitar Concert.
5: Up Close and Personal With a Clown (or Cthulu)
The Fringe’s Alley Plays category is a bit misleading, as there are daily busking previews in the Honest Ed’s Alley, and the Alley Plays now take place in a garden shed–sized booth in the Fringe Club enclosure. Monkey Man Production’s geeky shows have been highlights of the shed programming in previous years, and they’re back this year with Ask Lovecraft, where a few audience members at a time will be shut in with the legendary horror author. And if you’re really brave, you can squeeze into the shed for Some Clowns Do Not Do Birthdays, whose cast includes clown veteran (and mayoral candidate) Dave McKay. Added bonus: the Alley Plays are free.
4: Johnson and Johnston Write One for the Kids
Fans of the hit sci-fi BBC America/Space show Orphan Black, starring Torontoist hero Tatiana Maslany, loved the gruesome musical Blood Ties, in which one of her characters performed in season two. Some Toronto theatre aficionados recognized the in-show musical right away—writers Johnson and Johnston workshopped it at the 2012 SummerWorks Festival, where it was one of our favourite things. The dynamic writing duo have collaborated with Alison Daley on Elly’s Emotions, a G-rated musical debuting at the KidsFringe, and unlike Blood Ties, the suggested age range for this show is “1–100.”
3: Triple-Threat Producer Jeni Walls
As host of the weekly musical-theatre open mic Singular Sensation, Jennifer Walls sees a lot of talented performers on Statler Piano Bar’s small stage. There are probably dozens of Singular Sensation performers involved in the Fringe, but Walls agreed to produce just two solo shows. Confessions of a Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl, written and performed by Rebecca Perry, has already received rave reviews in New York and Edmonton. And we saw Baker’s Dozen at the Toronto Festival of Clowns, where creator Adam Francis Proulx impressed us with his 12 jury characters and their puppet quick-changes.
And as if her plate weren’t full already, Walls is also performing in the Fringe, singing and dancing in the Hugh Hefner biographical musical Hugh & I. (It’s her Bunny-suited derriere that’s in the show’s flyer.)
2: Shows We Already Know Are Good
The Fringe program contains a number of shows that we’ve seen before, either in previous or current incarnations. Nobody’s Business Theatre celebrates a decade of creating work by returning to the Fringe with a double bill of past hits, Redheaded Stepchild and Amusement. Paramedic and storyteller extraordinaire Morgan Jones Phillips brings The Emergency Monologues back to the festival with new stories. And while T.J. Dawe isn’t at the Toronto Fringe this year (perhaps he’s focused on the August 1 release of What If, a film adaptation of his Fringe show Cigars & Toothpaste starring Daniel Radcliffe), another early Fringe hit of his, 52 Pick-Up, is being produced by local group The Howland Company.
1: New Shows From Folks We Know Are Good
Rosa Laborde is debuting a new play, True, inspired by the cafe it’s staged in, and her exceptional cast includes Layne Coleman and Ingrid Doucet. David James Brock’s apocalyptic story of a near-future Toronto in ruins, Centre of the Universe, also takes place in a local resto. Alexander Offord’s Potosi, which won the Fringe’s new-play contest, concerns a Canadian official investigating alleged atrocities at a mine overseas. We haven’t seen these shows yet, of course—no one has—but based on their playwrights’ past work, we’re very much looking forward to doing so.