The plays and the rainfall weren't the only things about the 25th annual Toronto Fringe Festival that were impressive.
The Toronto Fringe Festival turned 25 years old this year, and what a birthday party it was. As 10 days of celebrations came to a close Sunday night at the Fringe Club, located in the parking lot behind Honest Ed’s, the time came for some reflection (as is common when marking a quarter century of life): reveling in the highlights, fretting over the lowlights, and pondering the future of Toronto’s favourite unjuried theatre festival.
As far as the immediate future is concerned, there’s plenty to celebrate. The fourth annual Best of Fringe mini-festival will take place at the Toronto Centre for the Arts from July 17 to 31, giving audiences a second chance to catch Adopt This!, Death Married My Daughter, It’s Always You: The Musical, Polly Polly, Stealing Sam, Stop Kiss, Tales Of Whoa!, and The Truth About Comets before they’re potentially remounted elsewhere. But those are only a few of the theatrical gifts we received this year. (You can check out reviews of some of the plays we loved.) Many shows, including some of the Fringe Club’s AlleyPlays (particularly AV Sideshow and Shakespeare M.D.), left us thoroughly impressed.
At 25 years old, the Fringe has significantly expanded its scope. This year brought new and improved programming and events. But, like any 20-something, the festival is nowhere near its peak yet. As the Fringe continues to experiment, here’s a little feedback on how it’s progressing.
Don’t Rain on Our Fringe
According to numbers from the Fringe, ticket sales during the first four days of this year’s festival were record-breaking. Plays earned a combined $433,027 and packed over 200 performances between Wednesday, July 3 and Saturday, July 6. Then came the rain, a very unwanted attendee. While Sunday’s weather was just a bother, Monday’s flooding cancelled shows at Factory Theatre, Randolph Theatre, the Annex Pawn, Theatre Passe Muraille, and some site-specific locations. Tuesday’s rolling blackouts made it even harder for the show to go on. Luckily, the Fringe kept ticket holders afloat by providing up-to-date info on cancellations on Twitter and Facebook, and there were full refunds (which was unusual for the Fringe). Meanwhile, casts of shows like Kill, Sister, Kill and The Musical of Musicals: The Musical staged impromptu pop-up performances when their original venues wouldn’t do—K,S,K in the Factory Theatre courtyard, and MoM:tM in the Mirvish Rehearsal Hall/Yoga Studio using chairs donated by surrounding offices. The only remaining missing piece is lost revenue for the companies whose attendance was affected by the weather. But, as always with Fringe, that’s the luck of the draw.
In the Club
The Fringe Club was easy to miss.
What looked at first like a nondescript alley behind Honest Ed’s was actually a passageway to some of the best experiences to be found at this year’s festival.
At the Fringe Club, you could find actors connecting with small audiences in intimate shows that embodied the very essence of theatre. It was also possible to sit in on a Tent Talk and learn about the creative process, or the financial side of mounting a production. More than just a hub for theatregoers to compare notes between shows, the club was a bustling nerve centre—and a free one, at that.
Still, the best time to appreciate the spirit of the Fringe Club was late at night, when all of the shows had let out. With the beer flowing and festival patrons and performers congregating, it became a large outdoor bar where creative folk could mingle. Where one might have expected an air of pretension, there was nothing but an inviting camaraderie. The relaxed atmosphere made it possible to bump into an actor in the beer line and discuss the particulars of his or her performance in a show you had just attended. The Fringe Club even took things underground by playing host to a sublime dance party in a parking garage.
More Cheers, More Beers
The free-flowing taps at the Fringe Tent have long been a beloved staple of the festival, but this year’s edition saw an even greater intermarriage between theatre and booze. Several site-specific shows partnered with local watering holes, ensuring that audience members could hoist some beers. From Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment at Pauper’s Pub, to Much Ado About Nothing taking over the Victory Cafe, there were plenty of options for a theatrical tipple.
Shows like Kat Sandler’s We Are The Bomb went above and beyond, not only staging their work in the historic Paddock Tavern but also forming the story around the bar. The beer in your hand became not just a refreshing bonus, but the lynchpin around which the story unfolded. Also, Bite, a new College Street venue, partnered with Soup Can Theatre to create authentic German food and refreshments for Love is a Poverty You Can Sell 2: Kisses For a Pfennig, including a delicious Berliner weisse, made with wheat beer and raspberry syrup. Historical accuracy never tasted so good.
Send in the Clowns
At last year’s Fringe, clown duo and “sister act” Morro and Jasp earned our highest rating. This year, they returned with another consistently sold-out and entertaining show, Go Bake Yourself. But there were other clown and clown-influenced shows that Fringe audiences embraced too, including a pair of British Pochinko clowns called James and Jamesey, in 2 For Tea, and Parisian-trained locals making their provocative Bouffon debut in Death Married My Daughter. Red noses or not, the highly physical performances and immediacy of these clever clown turns thrilled audiences, and that trend will probably continue.
Lottery Equality, Gender-Blind Quality
We’re big fans of female performers getting more stage time, particularly in comedy, and the gender-blind aspect of the Fringe’s lottery system seems to enable more and more women to punch in the same weight class as the boys. Kaitlin Morrow played a love interest, but also brawled fiercely with her male castmates as a series of doomed henchmen in Sex T-Rex’s delightfully kinetic Callaghan! And The Wings of the Butterfly. Leigh Cameron and Lara Johnson of novice sketch quartet Not Bad Abe starred in some of the raunchiest and most inspired bits in Tales of Whoa!. And in a Fringe chock full of stellar solo shows like Assassinating Thomson, Weaksauce, and The Adversary, the funniest and most accomplished was Jessica Moss’ Polly Polly. (Both Polly Polly and Tales of Whoa! have been selected for the Best of Fringe Festival.)
Double-Duty Players Jeni Walls and Gavin Williams
Appearing in one successful Fringe show is an accomplishment; two is commendable indeed, not least because of the time-management wizardry required. Gavin Williams played an immoral motivational speaker in Bad Guys Finish First, and a more principled public servant for half of the run of the improvised City Hall edition of The Soaps (until he was killed off). Jeni Walls appeared in the largest ensemble of the Fringe in Soup Can Theatre’s Love Is A Poverty You Can Sell 2: Kisses For a Pfennig, but also dazzled audiences with her Liza Minnelli impression in her solo show, Liza Live!
O(h): Los Angeles duo casebolt and smith impressed both dance and comedy aficionados with their hybrid deconstruction of the tropes of modern dance. They also endeared themselves to Toronto with appearances at local musical theatre cabaret Sing Sensation, and other shows outside Fringe. Hopefully they’ll be back next year.
Stop Kiss: Leads Melissa Hood and Kate Ziegler had exceptional chemistry in this slow burner about two women who fall in love with each other before a brutal attack threatens their bond. (This show has been selected for the Best of the Fringe Festival.)
Strolling Player: Veteran actor Richard Willis, who’s spent decades in London’s West End theatres and touring the world, had to detail his career from age 18 onwards for his Canadian residency application. With the help of his new wife, writer Heidi Reimer, he turned said application into an autobiographical yarn with stories of working with Richard Burton, Harvey Fierstein, and many other actors. We hope he’ll remount it soon.