Thursday, August 5, 2010

after the party's over, it's time to go down gambling

The touring Fringe crew has moved on down the road to Saskatoon and Edmonton, the tents are packed up, the shows are over, and dinner at the King's Head tonight will doubtless be more quiet than it was last month, during the Winnipeg Fringe.

This was a bittersweet festival for me. Sweet, because I was in a hit show, and got to feel the love from audiences, sweet, because people love comedy in a way they seldom love drama, sweet, because the marketing strategy we devised for the show worked REALLY well, sweet, because our numbers moved up every day, culminating in a sold-out closing night.

I saw some old friends, and went to a few good parties, and saw a lot of great shows. I got to be "in nose" for the first time in my career. I was onstage with the friend who got me into the business of Fringe touring in the first place: Alison Field. My fellow cast members all shone in their unique ways, and mostly, we had fun.

The weather was warm. Laura Anne Harris who billeted with me, five starred in the Free Press, and on CBC, and sold out her run, and I got to share in her joy in a critical and financial hit for a play about Judy Holliday and the McCarthy hearings. I can't tell you how that heartened me, because it means there's a Fringe audience with an appetite not only for comedy, but for serious drama. Muriel Hogue won the Harry Rintoul Award! Yah! Barb Popel and Brian Carroll were back in town, seeing 50 shows, and reminding me what a great, engaged audience this Fringe draws.

And there's the bitter part of the thing: money. At the end of the day, being in a five star show with four other people paid (barely) for about a month of my life. Because there are so many people in our cast, and because a number of my fellow actors are the parents of young children, touring our hit show is a near impossibility. We may do Edmonton - next year. We could get picked up by a regional theatre in a year's time: but until then, a girl's gotta eat.

At the end of this Fringe, after our critical and box office hit, I realized I could no longer afford my apartment. Everything I own, that won't fix into two suitcases, is going in storage this month, and I join the ranks of the itinerant.

I'm not alone in this in my profession. A number of performers I know on the Fringe circuit have no fixed address. Touring cost $5-700 per festival up front, in fees paid to the festival for the theatre, tech support, and a listing in the catalogue. Those fees get paid between October and December, mostly. Add in a director, any design elements, posters, fliers, photos, press kits, a website, costumes, rehearsal space, travel from town to town (some people come here from New Zealand or Los Angeles) and figure a minimum of three months on the road, but more likely four or five where you need to eat, and sleep (thank you billets!). I figure my COSTS to tour for the previous 2 seasons amounted to $ 5 - 6k per tour. 100% of ticket revenue is turned over to performers but at an average price of $8 a ticket you need to put a lot of bums in seats to get to 6K.

Given I'm not going to be in my apartment for at least three months next year, and given that some incredibly generous friends are willing to let me house-sit and crash out this winter, I decided, in the interests of actually being able to afford to mount a show next summer, I would give up having an apartment this winter.

I resumed performing in a serious way three years ago, after a long hiatus. It's going pretty well. I have an agent, I've been in two films this past summer, I'm on my way to a union card, and each play I've done on the circuit has fared better critically than the last. In spite of that, my income is half what it was three years ago. Yes, I do other things for money besides acting, but even with that factored in, expense reduction was a necessity, and rent is a huge expense. When my irreplaceable room mate returned to France to pursue HIS career as an artist (and a really cute French girl) I knew I was going to have to let my beautiful home on the river go.

Now I love touring on the Fringe circuit, and it is my personal and professional goal to write and perform in that most elusive of creatures: a critical and box office hit. If I'm lucky, and I work really hard, and I make good choices, maybe my gamble will pay off, and I'll get that hit show next year. If I'm really lucky, I'll get one of the grants I'm going to apply for this month, and I'll have some cash to hedge my next touring bet.

I know I'm incredibly lucky already. I have friends who will just give me a place to live, while I write my next play. Not everyone is so fortunate. And I know this is a precarious way to make a living, but that's what I do. Theatre is not my hobby, in my spare time.

I also know that the in-town hit, as great as it was, did not satisfy me the way touring does.

When my friends left town last week, I knew that next year, I had to join them again on the road. To be able to have the experience of taking a new play across the country, to see over 100 shows in 5-7 cities, to spend months living with other people who are willing to make their art their life's work: and to know, if the show goes REALLY well I can take it to New York or Australia, that's worth taking a gamble for.