Fringe Theatre Hits Guelph Again

By Jane Litchfield

Where can you perform your solo show if you’re tight on cash and you’ve never produced it before? Where can you see a play for only $10? Or see seven shows for $70 all in one weekend? Fringe, of course.

Fringe is now a Guelph thing as the second annual Guelph Fringe Festival ran October 13-16, with seven shows in three downtown venues. Director Kevin Nunn says some Guelphites still don’t know what fringe is, but the festival is growing and the response from performers and attendees was good.

So what makes fringe, fringe (besides the low ticket prices)? Fringe shows are unjuried and uncensored, with all door money going to the artists. There are no auditions. Names are simply drawn from a hat until the slots are full. All kinds of productions are welcome. “We don’t care what you do on stage as long as it’s ready for the next person,” Nunn says.

And settings are intimate. For this year’s Guelph Fringe, the main venues were Heritage Hall and Silence, both on Essex Street. As Nunn says, there is nothing like “being in a room with someone acting their heart out in front of 10 people.”

Guelph Fringe staff is all volunteer, including Nunn, and the festival’s entire budget was $1,500. “There is this misconception that you need to fundraise $20,000 to start a festival. Everything is doable if you work hard enough.”

Nunn is a big believer in the power of small theatre to teach actors and audiences how to be better listeners. “People forget that being an audience member is a skill. The bigger the spectacle, the less we use that skill.” He points out that learning how to listen well is a valuable skill in many careers – and relationships.

“When people come up to me and shake my hand and say how important this is, how they can’t afford other shows, or how they didn’t know what fringe was and then they caught four shows – this is why we do it. This is our mission.”

Nunn was inspired to start Guelph Fringe while helping with a show at Winnipeg Fringe. He invited a construction worker who had never been to a play, and watched him immediately fall for theatre. “It reminded me what the grassroots can do: it can make a deep personal connection. Seeing someone pretend to cut their finger on a small stage is more real than seeing Rambo get his arm cut off in a movie. For less than the cost of a movie, you can fall in love with the theatre.”

Fringe started in 1947 with Edinburgh Fringe, which now bills itself as the world’s largest arts festival, and states it isproud to include “anyone with a story to tell and a venue willing to host them.” Some shows travel from fringe to fringe and Nunn says people who meet at one fringe might offer to direct each other’s shows at the next. Many fringe shows have gone on to bigger things. The much-talked-about new TV series Kim’s Convenience got its debut as a play at the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival.

Several of this year’s Guelph shows were veterans of other fringes, such as SAOR, performed by Carlyn Rhamey, and written from her “embarrassingly true real-life experiences.” SAOR also appeared in Toronto, Hamilton, Montreal, and Ottawa. Life as a Pomegranate, written and performed by Dawna Wightman, first appeared in a Toronto mattress store, and went on to be produced off-Broadway.

Guelph content this year included writer and performer Jay Wilson (The Elocutioner), playwright Catherine Frid (Dead Cat Bounce), and actor Shaun McComb, who was riveting as a hired thug telling a tale of a job gone horribly wrong in The Good Thief by Conor McPherson.

Low barriers for performers

Nunn’s goal is to keep Guelph Fringe as accessible as possible for performers. The fee this year was $280 for four shows, which means they would only need seven paying audience members at each show to break even. (Performers from other shows are usually allowed to attend free.) Although he didn’t have final numbers yet, Nunn says he thinks all the performers at least broke even this year.

Fringe organizers provide the venues and a printed program and handle tickets and ushers. They also promote the festival itself, but performers are expected to promote their shows. Other than that, performers can simply show up at the venue an hour before their first performance and play on.

That ease of entry is key, Nunn says. “Someone who has never been on stage before can say ‘I’ll take a shot.’ They might bomb, but then they’ll try again and bomb less, and they’ll try again…..” Similarly, an audience member might see a show they didn’t like, but they only spent $10 and they can cross the street to see another one. “They know they can’t fail at fringe.”

Another option is “bring your own venue,” which gives those who didn’t win the lottery a chance to perform. It also allows those who would like a different sort of venue to take part. “If someone said, ‘Hey we know this great alley where we want to do scenes from Romeo and Juliet,’ we’re on board for that,” Nunn says. This year, Dead Cat Bounce performed at Red Papaya Grill in the Old Quebec Street Mall. The action in the play took place on a busy street and in a bar, while people in the real restaurant came and went.

Larger fringes have more specific rules. The 2016 Toronto Fringe had 150 shows and more than 30 venues. “We’re a bit of a rebel fringe,” Nunn says. “Some become a bit corporate and machine-like. We’re at the edges of fringe.” Guelph is also on the edge of the fringe calendar, which starts with Ottawa in May and winds up here the weekend after Thanksgiving. “No one had done October before,” says Nunn.

Apply for 2017

The Guelph Fringe will start accepting applications for 2017 on Dec. 1. Nunn wants to add a kids’ fringe on the Saturday and Sunday morning. And fringe welcomes donors and volunteers any time. Contact Guelph Fringe through their website or email [email protected]

Guelph Fringe also offers a couple of other ways for people to test their acting chops during the year. The Cat of Nine Tales is billed as an “open mic without the mic.” People sit on couches and read stories while cats wander around at My Kitty Café, 117 Wyndham St. N., on the first Sunday of the month at 7 p.m. For the more adventurous, there is Beer League Theatre, the third Sunday of the month at DSTRCT Lounge from 7-10 p.m. All are welcome to watch or participate, PWYC.

As Nunn says in his program notes: “Theatre teaches us to communicate. It teaches us to listen. It teaches us to empathize and imagine. Oh yes…it’s also ridiculously fun.”

David Jordan, president of the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals, adds: “In a world of global chaos, we need the happy chaos of the fringe, to tie us to our community and remind us that everything is all right in the world.”

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