Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The 25th Toronto Fringe: The Site and the Shows in a Wet and Wild Year

The last time I lived through a summer this wet in Toronto was 1993.  It rained every weekend for two straight months.

One night I awoke and the top of my head was wet.  A big chunk of the ceiling above my bed had collapsed and fallen on my pillow while I slept.

The exterior concrete on my apartment building could not withstand the amount of rain we received that summer.  Water had seeped through the exterior walls into the building and was causing the interior ceilings to collapse.

The festival has suffered under a similar record-setting deluge this year.  The beer tent, which is so nice this year and really feels like a wonderful summer party and art space again was shut down Sunday night and Monday due to the rain.  When I walked through the grounds on Monday to try and find out which theatres were still up and running, many of the roofs of the tents had collapsed under the weight of the water.

By  Tuesday,  the intrepid festival staff had the site up and rocking, looking as if nothing had happened.  There was art, music, alley shows, food, laughter:  eating ,drinking, theatre and art-making, sharing, socializing and fun.  Well done!

The same festival staff magically turned  Honest Ed's  underground garage into a club on Saturday night - a hot, steamy dance club with bartenders mixing  Fringetinis, curtained walls, vintage festival posters, fancy coloured lights and a DJ.  Thanks guys - that was the most fun I've had working up a sweat in a while:)

The Factory Theatre, Theatre Passe Muraille and the Annex Theatre lost power in Monday night's  rainstorm.  A board member told me last night that the Factory remained closed for much of Tuesday as staff struggled to restore power.

This is financially devastating to both the festival and the performers in the shut down venues.  They need every minute of every day to make back their costs.

Bridget McIntosh, one of the Toronto Fringe's many brilliant former administrators, made a great post on Facebook yesterday, encouraging festival patrons and supporters to "buy the festival a beer".

The Fringe is literally financed in large measure on revenue from the sale of alcohol (and other beverages) at the bar in the beer tent.  If every person who would have had a drink on Sunday or Monday night on the site put that $10 in a "tip the Fringe" can, we could all help finance what has, to date, been one of the best Toronto Fringes in years.

As to the performers, help them sell out this last Fringe weekend and make up their lost revenue.

Some shows I've seen this week and enjoyed include:
JEM ROLLS ATTACKS THE SILENCE!:   the circuit's poet laureate in fine form at the George Ignatieff. At least five seasoned Fringe goers have come up to me and said they thought it was his best show yet and that's a high benchmark.
THE HOMEMAKER:  Laura Anne Harris is closed now, but she did a delightful, then devastating turn as a 1960s French-Canadian Saskatchewan housewife married to both her husband and the bottle.
YARN:  Alex Eddington, in probably the nicest BYOV I've ever been to, inventively tells a story of a voyage of personal discovery in the Scottish Highlands.  I particularly loved his imaginative use of both a sheep puppet and a ball of yarn and his fabulous live soundscape.
ASSASSINATING THOMSON:  Incredibly talented Bruce Horak explores, art, creativity, ways of seeing and the death of Tom Thomson in a unique, engaging, and understated performance.
THREADS:  my favourite script so far this week by Tonya Jones Miller.  Miller's mother taught English at the Buddhist University in Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War, while living with her Vietnamese partner's family.  Miller's mother's history is fascinating, gut-wrenching, and completely unforgettable. She's in a 50 seat venue.  Get there before she totally sells out her run.
GOD IS A SCOTTISH DRAG QUEEN:  Mike Delamont may not be God, but he is a gift from God to comedy.  The last time I laughed that hard at a Fringe show was the year I saw HOOPAL, Chis Gibbs' former comedy duo. Delamont riffs on everything from homophobia to the afterlife with such pointed wit, candor and insight that he had the audience in stitches the entire time.

Stuff I'm planning to see before the festival is over:
THE ADVERSARY by Andrew Bailey, who is one of the best writers on the circuit
LOVE IS A POVERTY YOU CAN SELL:  Weimar cabaret always floats my boat.
KUWAITI MOONSHINE: I want to see what the charming Tim Murphy does with a tale that evolved out of his time spent teaching in Kuwait.
TEACHING HAMLET:  no Fringe experience is complete without a Keir Cutler show.
KIN: I know nothing about the script but I've heard great things about the acting
WEAKSAUCE:  I have tried twice to get into this show, and am hoping three is the charm. Sam Mullins isn't in the program but his last show, TINFOIL DRAGON was a hit, and I want to see his new work.
THE SOAPS:  National Theatre of the World takes on the Ford Nation.

I have seen the Dora-award winning MORRO AND JASP: GO BAKE YOURSELF, but if you haven't, go see Toronto's favourite clown duo in a BYOV.  

I am going to lose most of my Thursday night sitting around waiting for Bell to show up and fix my internet connection. After that's over with,  I will come down and party like it's 1989 at the festival's anniversary party.  Hope to see you there!

Happy Fringing and remember to tip the Fringe generously this week.  They've done a great job and they need the money.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

As the 25th Toronto Fringe Opens, let's toast the guy who got the party started!

Tonight, the 25th Toronto Fringe Festival opens.

The largest theatre festival in Toronto will have 148 shows in 35 venues, site-specific performances, an art alley, rocking parties, bands and a beer tent.

There will be new plays, revivals of classic texts, poets, clowns, musical theatre, dance, street performances and hybrids of some or all of the aforementioned.  It is a feast of theatre that is central, accessible, inexpensive, and a ton of fun.

Instead of previewing shows I think you might enjoy this week ( I'll do that in a day or so), I'd like to invite you to stop and thank the person who initially made the Fringe festival in Toronto possible in the first place.

As audiences and performers experience the large, (relatively) well-financed festival we have today, it is hard to believe this started with a few venues, 25 shows, very little money, and a guy who was crazy enough to give bringing the Fringe festival concept to Toronto a shot.

While he was still in his 20s, Gregory Nixon, a musician, producer, and actor got together with a few friends and decided to create an artist-driven theatre festival in Toronto.

Edmonton, Winnipeg, Victoria and Vancouver already had fringe festivals.  Bringing an unjuried and uncensored theatre festival to the largest centre for theatre production in the country (and one of the more conservative) was a gutsy and risky move that has brought enormous benefit to theatre practitioners and audiences alike.

In large measure, I write plays because of the Toronto Fringe.   I know I'm not alone in owing an enormous part of my career to the festival.  DA KINK IN MY HAIR, ONE MAN STAR WARS, THE DROWSY CHAPERONE,  Rick Miller, Mump and Smoot, Sandra Shamas:  the shows and performers who started at the Toronto Fringe are legendary.  

Commercial hits were never the point of the festival however.  The point was to give artists a venue for absolutely free expression.  That fine and laudable tradition continues to this day.  As long as you don't go over your time, you can do anything you want at the Fringe.

After five years at the helm of the festival, Gregory went on to contribute to the growth and development of other important cultural events, and institutions in Toronto including Nuit Blanche, Harbourfront Centre and the Toronto Arts Awards. He has made over 20 films about art, and artists from a range of disciplines, exhibited his photography, and served on the boards of directors of many arts organizations.

As we get our party on for the next twelve days, and celebrate all the great theatre we'll see this week, the generosity of the sponsors, and the hard work of the administration and staff of the festival, past and present, I think we ought to pause, and take a moment to thank the man who made all of this possible in the first place. All of us who have ever attended or made work at the Toronto Fringe owe a debt of gratitude to Gregory Nixon.

Gregory, we are all richer for your vision and your commitment to the arts community in the city.  Thank you.