Sunday, July 18, 2010

Yes Virginia, there is A star system in Canada, but only on the Fringe Circuit

The Fringe show I'm in this year, BREAST FRIENDS opened on Thursday night in Winnipeg, which is the main reason I haven't been blogging much lately,

I love the Fringe. I produced the first play I ever wrote FAMILY JEWELS on the Fringe and Alison Field was kind enough to agree to act in it. This year I have the great joy of appearing onstage with her. She was the person who introduced me to Fringe festivals and planted the mad idea in my head that I could make a living on the Fringe circuit as she and Alex Dallas did as SENSIBLE FOOTWEAR for many years.

The Fringe is markedly different from the counter culture theatre event it began as more than 20 years ago. Fringe festivals, at least the large ones which in Canada are Toronto, Winnipeg and Edmonton attract 100s of performing companies from all over the world and audiences in the tens of thousands. There's lots of corporate sponsors and a fairground atmosphere complete with some great street performers.

I've been associated with the FRINGE as a writer, performer and producer for over a decade now and I've toured a good chunk of the circuit in the past three years. The expansion of the big three brings more money to the table for the festival producers which enables them to provide better infrastructure and offer a audiences a broader selection of offerings. The expansion of the number of companies appearing at the festivals is a mixed blessing.

Die hard Fringers I know can see 50 plays in a week out of 150 or so shows on offer. That is still only one third of the shows in the festival. What this means is people tend to focus on sure bets. Sure bets are folks with good reviews and reviews in the Fringe run on a star system: 1-5.

If you get a 4 or 5 star review in Winnipeg, you are pretty much guaranteed a half decent week on the strength of that press if you use it to promote your show. If you get 3 star review and your word of mouth is decent ( what folks say to each other in line-ups) and you flier hard, you will still do OK. Any less than 3 stars and you're done.

I received the best review I've ever received in some respects today: 5 stars. Our company also had a great preview article in SANDBOX magazine and was a top ten pick by a daily paper and a weekly paper here. In short, the media gods have treated me and my show fairly well this week. We are working our butts off off-stage and on and it's paying off.

Other friends of mine are working just as hard but haven't been as fortunate. A young Ottawa actor I know got a 4 star and 1 star review for the same show on the same day. I saw him perform this play in Ottawa last year. It is not a one star play or a one star production.. The GG winning Daniel McIvor wrote it, for one thing. And here's the thing: my friend and his producer will go broke here this week because of that review which wasn't really a review at all, it was a rant about how crap the script is. There was no talk in the review about the acting or the staging. Sadly for him the only thing that will matter to most people is that dreaded rating.

Here's what I propose: we abolish this ridiculous, arbitrary ratings system. Let's have critics WRITE and audiences THINK about what they've read and then choose freely as artists who enter the festival are chosen freely on the luck of the draw. I guarantee you: if you chopped up your program, put it in a hat, drew out the number of shows you were able to see this week and went, I'd bet you'd have a fine week without ever reading a review.

In case you're wondering, some of my favourite shows in town this week and some reasons to see them are listed below in no particular order:

PITCH BLONDE: because Laura Anne Harris can write and act and the Judy Holliday story she's telling is poignant and politically timely.

SHORTS: Erik de Waal uses his lush voice and his incredible story-telling chops to transport us to South Africa through a series of beautiful stories. He stole my heart and left it in a fever tree.

SOUND AND FURY: because Richard and his talented and and charming cohorts synthesize HEART OF DARKNESS with DR WHO throw in hoary gags, double-entendres, bad drag and a lot of other inspired silliness in a smart and speedy trip back to the future.

GRIMMER THAN GRIMMER THAN GRIMM: fairy tales - not for kids. A wickedly dark and funny show from a cast of talented energetic performers.

DIE ROTEN PUNTE: KUNSTE ROCK: all the elements of a great show come together here: great performers, smart writing, great pacing, good staging and great lighting and costumes. Oh yeah - and they ROCK! I literally laughed - and cried today.

GIBBERISH: the very funny Mr. Gibbs does a largely stand-up show this time but his clown and acrobatic talents are woven in with his wonderfully clever observational humour to give us a great hour with a master at the top of his form.

THREE TIMES LUCKY: a down and dirty, sex-positive, moving, challenging and thought provoking comedy from Paul Hutcheson an utterly captivating performer. Leave Grandma at home and take your gay best friend. You will have fun.

SPIRAL DIVE III: because Ken Brown and his crew of bright young things from Edmonton can make a riveting aerial battle on a scaffold with a couple of flashlights, because people this age are currently at war and dying every day for the honour of our country and Theatre Public reminds us of the reasons for and the real cost of war. Epic theatre.

JEM ROLLS: ONE MAN RIOT: because Jem makes London come alive in the King's Head pub and because a week after the G20 in Toronto theatre doesn't get more topical than this. Timely and thought provoking.

FALLING PEOPLE: as poetic a piece of theatre as you are going to see by a lyrical performer. Lovely.

PUMPKIN PIE SHOW: COMMENCEMENT: you won't see a better performance in a better play this year anywhere, period.

I also loved SHELTER at the PLAYHOUSE STUDIO about a broke poet and a waitress who meet and fall in love and MORRO AND JASP: GIRLS GONE WILD the only show in the festival in a park. It was charming and very funny.

I'll share more Fringe favourites as the week unfolds.

Some shows I plan to see: Burlesque Unzipped, The Excursionists, Scar Tissue, Happily Ever After, Cabaret Terrarium,Recycled, Guitar Man, Man 1, Bank Zero,Tired Cliches, MISS HICCUP, Un ADULTerated ME, Psycho Bitch, Freud and His Ego,Grang Guiginol of the Prairies, Cactus, Gunpowder and FILTH with Frank Zotter who is a really fine actor. I tried without success to get in to see COUNTRIES SHAPED LIKE STARS tonight and hope to try again later this week. There's also Commedia at the U of W which really appeals.

Please feel free to share your favourites with me, especially smaller shows or companies new to Winnipeg.