Highlights and Lowlights from the 2016 Toronto Fringe Festival
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Highlights and Lowlights from the 2016 Toronto Fringe Festival

We take stock after 12 days of frenzied theatre going (and blowout partying in the Honest Ed's alley).

The cast of Dance animal: Toronto. Photo by Katherine Fogler.

The cast of Dance Animal: Toronto. Photo by Katherine Fogler.

This year’s Toronto Fringe Festival’s club festivities were an extended farewell to its longtime home base the Annex more than anything. Next year, the festival will move to Bathurst and Dundas, setting up at Alexandra Park and the Scadding Court Community Centre, and artists and patrons didn’t hesitate to say their goodbyes, gathering in the “Fringe Club” set up in the alleyway and parking lot behind Honest Ed’s every night over 12 days. There, they compared notes on festival’s shows, and talked up the ones they were in, had friends in, really loved, and really hated.

The Fringe’s new ticketing and at-the-door system worked admirably well, and may even have decreased the number of turn-aways that so incense patrons who arrive moments before the doors are to close. The smooth experience and positive word of mouth about many shows all resulted in reports from the Fringe that they’ll be returning $485,000 in box office sales to the participating artists this year.

But no festival is complete without some controversy. This year, it was among the artists, when misinformation spread about a special category of shows exempt from the lottery system of entry. In their pre-show speeches, Fringe staff extoll the fact that 100 per cent of box office profits are returned to participating companies, selected in a blind lottery. They urge patrons to “tip the Fringe” to help the organization continue to remain fiscally solid. But there are a few shows each year that are invited to participate by the festival and given a slot and choice venue selection in exchange for splitting the profits (those putting on the show make 70 per cent, while Fringe takes in 30 per cent). The practice dates back more than a decade, and is authorized by the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals, to help the not-for-profit festival recoup its costs. The festival takes pains not to mention which shows are selected, however, so that patrons don’t flock to perceived “staff picks”; a “festival within the festival” that might also infringe on their curated winter fest Next Stage. (This year’s fundraiser shows were Wasteland, Bright Lights, and Pirate Queen of the Stars, all by companies with history and successful track records at the Toronto Fringe.) The festival, responding on social media, assured artists that they’ll be more transparent about the process of selecting these “fundraiser” shows in the future.

Left to right, Aleef Khan, Mary Getachew, Saad Ilyas, and Nirusha, from seXt. Photo by Fiona Saunders.

Left to right, Aleef Khan, Mary Getachew, Saad Ilyas, and Nirusha, from seXt. Photo by Fiona Saunders.

There are a few other exemptions to the lottery rule, too; the Toronto Fringe partners with The Paprika Festival, The Randolph Academy, and the Teen Fringe Initiative, which all produced shows this year (We are XX, A Glass Hive, and The Fence, respectively) intended to increase participation and attendance by teen and young adult audiences. The Fringe skews younger than traditional audiences, but still needs to actively court millennials that aren’t accustomed to attending live performance. It’s an outreach effort that the festival plans on doing to recruit more racialized performers and companies, too; we saw some fine work by young performers of colour this year, including the boisterous teen educators in seXt and Alia Etienne’s solo show YellowZoned. While the lottery system is theoretically open to all, the festival recognizes that it needs to bend the rules a bit to encourage the next, say, Kim’s Convenience.

Our focus during the festival was, of course, on seeing as many shows as possible. We continued to see plenty after our initial batch of reviews. Now, we’ve given some thought as to trends, issues, and how companies could improve or are innovating. (Many of these shows will soon receive remounts, at the Best of Fringe, or elsewhere.)

10   Pop Culture Pastiches

Cast of Romeo & Juliet Chainsaw Massacre. Photo by David Kingsmill.

Cast of Romeo & Juliet Chainsaw Massacre. Photo by David Kingsmill.

Fringe patrons are willing to experiment when it comes to their show-going, but many don’t want to take a complete gamble. So many savvy companies build their shows as homages to existing pop culture properties and put a spin on them. Women did a fine job of porting the cast of HBO’s Girls into the classic novel Little Women, while touring artist Penny Ashton, from New Zealand, brought a fine tribute to the work of Jane Austen, splashed with current pop culture references like the Kardashians, in the form of her solo show Promise and Promiscuity. But the biggest mash-up hit this year was Romeo and Juliet Chainsaw Massacre, which told audiences exactly what they’d get in their title, and then delivered, with campy performances and clever gore-ific costuming.

(Steve Fisher)

9 Site-Specific Shortcomings

Shari Hollett and Lucy Earle (left to right) at Kops Records. Image courtesy fringetoronto.com

Shari Hollett, left, and Lucy Earle at Kops Records. Photo by ‎Nick Ullrich.

Site-specific shows at Fringe are often a chance to make the location as much a part of the performance as the actors themselves. Unfortunately, that sort of experimental effort doesn’t always pan out in practice—especially for those of us three apples high or less, and not able to put a lot of forceful oomph or ninja maneuverability into jostling around. The idea of situating a show like For the Record within an actual record store is a clever one. The play makes heavy and moving use of music as the vehicle for the ups and downs of a life story and family relationships. There’s a promise of being in the middle of a staging of High Fidelity. But crowding the narrow aisles of a vintage record store is not exactly audience conducive, as it turns out. Being on the shorter side of things made for not being able to see much of the performers, for much of the performance (full disclosure, I’m 5’5 on a good day when I don’t slouch). While there were periodic efforts at crowd repositioning, the issue remained. There was something singularly frustrating about being able to hear the music, but not being able to see the emotional impact and investment it brought out.

Less an issue of height and more pure placement choices, many audience members were left to stare at the back of one cast member’s head for the first act of The Unending. We did love the second and third acts all the same when they took us to a garage mocked up as an outpost of Hell, and a backyard oasis in the Annex.

(Mark Kay)

8 Improv, Improved

Cast members of Songbuster - An Improvised Musical. Photo by Connor Low.

Cast members of Songbuster—An Improvised Musical. Photo by Connor Low.

There needs to be a clever justification for improv shows in the Fringe: why should audiences opt to see performers in the festival that they can find improvising regularly at comedy clubs year round? The best improv offerings enthralled audiences with large first-rate casts and clever premises. In Songbuster—An Improvised Musical, performers used an audience suggestion to create a musical off the top of their heads. And in True Blue, an improvised police procedural, the cast had to come up with a murder, suspects, and leads—and the murder wasn’t always solved. As usual with accomplished improv, audiences found it hard to believe it all wasn’t planned, but the songs and plot twists clearly hinged on impromptu interactions. The best part: both shows will be remounted in the near future at Bad Dog Theatre.

(Steve Fisher)

7 Hadouken! 2D Fighting Tournaments at Fringe

Mother Earth (Emma Tse) vs Humanity (Mimi Warshaw) in Bite Sized. Image courtesy of Rion Chow.

Mother Earth (Emma Tse) vs. Humanity (Mimi Warshaw) in Bite Sized. Photo courtesy of Rion Chow.

Friends fighting in a fit of temper, delusional daydreams, and the brawl to end it all between humanity and the planet took shape via the medium of classic arcade combat depicted in live performance and projected images. Finding that styling once is quirky. Twice is amusing. Three times in three separate shows raises all sorts of strange questions. Was there a workshop one weekend? Did a particular theatre school instructor really try to instil the value of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat as life metaphors? Would Best of Fringe be determined by the winners of each fight from each play facing off? Must you really defeat Sheng Long to stand a chance?

While the choices to go all live-action 2D fists of fury reflect a widespread generational impact right in the formative years by those games, the underlying reasoning was diverse enough. “When you beat up the Earth, the Earth beats you up right back,” says Kevin Matthew Wong, director of Bite Sized. His show had the most technically deft handling of fighting game as medium for a message; a note-perfect Street Fighter skit recreation through projected images and fight choreography, down to a redone character select screen that we should probably not mention to Capcom. Director Micah Champagne of Waiting for Waiting for Godot was looking for a surreal contrast to an abrupt and ugly fight between friends, going for a Fighter/Kombat mashup of backing effects and prop life bars. William MacKenzie, director of Exit, wanted to portray the desensitizing, disconnected fantasies of violence in a technological age, hitting on the notoriously brutal Mortal Kombat as a brief vehicle.

These were all solid attempts to connect imagery, themes, and demographic, but they probably did fall a bit flat with anyone in the audience who landed outside the related age range. It was still the most curious case of parallel thought at Fringe.

(Mark Kay)

6 Exceptional Ensembles

Kaitlin Morrow and Conor Bradbury in Wasteland. Photo by Sharon Murray.

Kaitlin Morrow and Conor Bradbury in Wasteland. Photo by Sharon Murray.

One of the cliches of the Fringe is that it’s full of trite or self-absorbed one-person shows. There’s a few of those, yes (and also, some truly exceptional storytelling), but more and more, the festival is becoming a vehicle for well-produced ensemble shows from artists at various stages of their careers. The ensemble of seXt, featuring teen performers from the Flemington and Thorncliffe Park neighbourhoods, impressed us with their talents and material putting a spin on Ontario’s updated sex-ed curriculum. We were also taken with Elektra, which had a bloody and intense staging by recent graduates from University of Windsor’s theatre program. And Fringe regulars Sex T-Rex earned their third five-star review from us with their post-apocalyptic comedy Wasteland. The physically inventive theatre troupe won the Second City Comedy Award, which comes with a remount offer—and if Second City is smart, they’ll give it a run of boisterous late-night showings on their main stage.

(Steve Fisher)

5 MVPs

A scene from True Blue. Left to Right: Kevin Vidal, Shanda Bezic, Anand Rajaram, Jon Blair, Colin Munch, Danny Pagett, and Mikaela Dyke. Photo by Michael Meddik.

A scene from True Blue. Kevin Vidal, Shanda Bezic, Anand Rajaram, Jon Blair, Colin Munch, Danny Pagett, and Mikaela Dyke. Photo by Michael Meddik.

This year, many of the performers who most impressed us did so as part of ensembles, sometimes more than once. Kevin Vidal lent his charm and smooth dance moves to Dance Animal, and also took at least one turn as a beleaguered detective in the different-each-show True Blue. Seth Drabinsky’s death solo aboard an exploding spaceship in Pirate Queen of the Stars earned sustained cheers; so did Mary Getachew’s singing in seXt. Alyssa Minichillo shone in Eliza Blue Musselwhite’s #MannequinGirl: The Musical, earning comparisons to Ellie Kemper. And in one of our favourite individual performances, Anika Johnson broke hearts as a teen grieving the sudden loss of her father in her sister Britta Johnson’s new musical Life After.

(Steve Fisher)

4 Shed Show Superheroics

Jeff Dingle as the Professor. Image courtesy fringetoronto.com

Jeff Dingle as the Professor. Photo courtesy of fringetoronto.com.

It was a sweltering, muggy July this year at Fringe. The heat could be a struggle for performers and theatregoers alike, especially when the air conditioning conked out at the Tarragon that one day. The Shed Shows at Fringe didn’t even have that luxury to lose. Their performers only had wit, charm, and talent to draw their audience past the heat haze of a tiny, eight-by-eight space, for successive show after show across what could be a very sweaty hour and a half. It was impressive that they tried, impressive that they succeeded, and even more impressive that we didn’t lose any of the actors to heat stroke. Let’s Travel In Time kept up a fast, unflagging pace of energy, humour, and personal audience engagement across repeated, same-day performances. The Professor needed to discard some costuming pieces as the shows went on, but that’s called a survival choice. The sense of fun didn’t waver remotely and created a sense of reward for braving the conditions of the show. We hope the actors felt the same way.

(Mark Kay)

3 Dance Done Differently

The cast of Exterminating Angel. Photo by Adam Sakiyana.

A scene from Exterminating Angel. Photo by Adam Sakiyana.

There’s something for everyone at the Fringe, and there were certainly dance shows for those who are aficionados. The shows we most loved, however, were those that used dance as a vehicle to do something a little different. In Dance Animal: Toronto, talented local comedians were given a new set of skills by producer and choreographer Robin Henderson, and showed off their movement chops in between comedic monologues as totem animals. And one of the most affecting shows of the festival, Exterminating Angel, told a story, through dance, of a dinner party that turns into a savage massacre. These crossover successes have us hoping that more dance artists will consider using the Fringe to experiment with form, rather than technique.

(Steve Fisher)

2 Fringe Loves Meta-Narrative

Catherine Fergusson in The Stage Manager's Guide to Dating an Asshole. Image courtesy fringetoronto.com

Catherine Fergusson as Mother Stage Manager in The Stage Manager’s Guide to Dating Assholes. Photo by Alex Cassels.

There were plays within plays. There were plays within plays within plays. There were stories about storytelling. There was self-aware fourth-wall breaking, subtle nods and winks, blatant nods and winks, and even repeated, very pointed looks to an audience while the performer actually said twice over, “Keep watching, maybe you’ll learn something.” There was “play-ception,” to gratefully quote Twelfth Night…A Puppet Epic! Fringe really loved to go all meta self-commentary this year is what we’re saying—maybe a bit too much.

To be fair, there’s a strong history of meta-performance in theatre. Plays completely lack a fourth wall, generally speaking. And in a few cases, what can come as a natural result was also a fantastic one.

Peter vs. Chris took the audience along for a shared hilarious ride that could have only happened by inviting them into the debate of just who really is funnier. By having its company of puppet players react to the material they were performing, Twelfth Night made a teachable moment for children about bullying feel real—even natural. Bite Sized was a set of mini-plays that was falling down on its mission statement of raising environmental awareness without feeling like a lecture. But when the entire company stopped to talk about their failure in finding a viable way to portray the Attawapiskat water crisis, it was an honest, moving experience. It was a failure we could share feeling with the performers and thereby accept our collective failure on that issue. None of those moments would have otherwise been possible.

But some experiments in meta-narrative had less encouraging results. We get it, Silk Bath: you don’t need to literally tell us to keep watching your play about a dystopian reality show for immigrants. Waiting for Waiting for Godot had a lot of moments that largely felt clever just for the sake of being so. The apex was in The Stage Manager’s Guide to Dating Assholes, where members of the audience were called up to serve as actors in their play within a play, that was itself a comedic take on plays. Whether intentionally or not, in the showing we attended, the people called up were themselves other actors. It was very serpent eats its own tail.

Fringe has every right to have elements of being a celebration of the theatre community, for the theatre community. But too much of this stuff can feel artificial, or just insular and unwelcoming to anyone not in on a joke or device already. Meta was well done, meta was less well done. Done less next year wouldn’t be a terrible thing all the same.

(Mark Kay)

1 #FringeFemmeTO, FTW

The creative team of Bright Lights, with a fan. Photo by Erin Birkenbergs.

The creative team of Bright Lights, with a special fan. Photo by Erin Birkenbergs.

This year, the #FringeFemmeTO hashtag, created to promote female creators at the festival, got a real workout, as it become apparent that the majority of the shows in the festival featured female creators or co-creators. And the best new plays were products of women who have developed as playwrights at the Fringe. Jessica Moss, who starred in several successful solo shows at the Festival in past years, brought a new ensemble show to the festival, Cam Baby, that she’d been working on in the Juilliard playwriting program. Britta Johnson, who started out writing for KidsFringe, brought to the festival Life After, a musical that she began working on years prior with the Fringe’s partner program Paprika. And Kat Sandler, fresh from a Dora Award win for Mustard, earned raves for her play Bright Lights, a hilarious comedy that subtly included a dark metaphor, and possibly addressed an even darker incident.

(What follows are spoilers for Bright Lights, so you can stop reading now if you intend to see it at the Best of Fringe or in the future.)

Plenty of audience members left Bright Lights thinking it was about a belief in aliens, the power of belief, or finding community. But many also picked up on subtle cues that Heather Marie Annis’s Zoe had been the victim of sexual assault. Her jumbled memories could be the result of having been drugged; her statement, repeated several times, that she’d woken up with her clothes on backwards, is a red flag for women who’ve been drugged and assaulted. And her emotional reaction upon meeting Colin Munch’s Ross face-to-face could be the result of repressed trauma at coming face to face with the man who drugged and assaulted her.

Sandler cleverly kept these clues vague, so that the play could be interpreted various ways, and not seen as a polemic against those who don’t believe sex assault survivors. But to our minds, the repeated phrase “we believe her” (which was also the tagline for the show) rang like a bell. The saddest truth might be that the members of the alien abduction support group, who are used to people giving no credit to their claims, may be the only people who’d believe something truly horrible happened to Zoe.

(Steve Fisher)

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled Heather Marie Annis’s name, as well as “Kardashian.” Torontoist regrets the errors.