Atlantic Fringe Functions but it Doesn’t Work

I had a fun time at the Atlantic Fringe Festival. I saw nineteen plays in eight days, many of which I felt privileged to have gotten the opportunity to see. That being said, it is difficult to believe and, to be frank, a bit embarrassing that the Atlantic Fringe Festival is in its 19th year. This festival suffers from a massive lack of advertising and in general is disorganized and gives off the impression of being amateur and apathetic. The following is a list of issues I encountered while attending the 19th Annual Fringe Festival this past August, all of which I hope will be addressed in the extremely near future:

1. While there were posters scattered around downtown Halifax and around the Fringe kiosk at the Neptune Studio Theatre, and there were a spattering of reviews in the Halifax newspapers and mentions in their “What’s Happening?” sections, the general public was not adequately informed about a. the fact that the Atlantic Fringe Festival was happening b. what the Fringe Festival was all about and c. why Fringe Theatre is a cool thing to check out. There are those who will argue that people in Halifax don’t want to see theatre, or people in Halifax aren’t interested. I don’t buy that for one second. People in Halifax go out to support the local music scene because the writers at The Coast continually write enthusiastically and passionately about the need for Haligonians to support their local bands. These bands are featured on Breakfast Television and posters are plastered everywhere you go. If there was that much of a presence in the press for Halifax theatre, they would always be packed as well. The Coast can perceive Neptune Theatre as being stuffy and old fashioned, boring and white bread all they want, but they have no excuse for not showing a strong, passionate commitment to the cultivation of dynamic, raw, avant-garde, controversial, independent theatre. Plus, if they miss Rick Miller’s Bigger Than Jesus at the Neptune Studio Theatre this spring, they forfeit their right to claim that theatre in Halifax is always conservative. The reality is, Fringe theatres across the country are continually packed and the best shows usually sell out. It’s embarrassing how small the houses were on most of the nights I attended Atlantic Fringe, and what’s more, many shows were cancelled due to a complete lack of audience. This is absurd and outrageous! Fringe Theatre Festivals are committed to bringing affordable, assessable theatre to the people. Why is the Busker Festival so successful, year after year after year in Halifax? Thousands of people cram into the Waterfront, tourists come from all over the world, performers also come from all over the world and they tout our festival as being one of the best. The Buskers and the Fringe are not very different; both provide a theatrical experience for a small contribution, and I know Atlantic Fringe could be just as successful if only the Festival would put a little effort into their publicity campaign.

2. One of the most professional, well-written, well-acted, overall fantastic pieces of theatre offered in the Fringe Festival 2009 was a show called Dale Beaner and the Turtle Boy. Since these performers came to the Festival from Toronto, they did not have the bevy of friends and family members to rely on to ensure that they had an audience each night. Since these actors did not know anyone in Halifax, they received some of the smallest audiences in the Fringe. This proves to me that the Atlantic Fringe Festival’s publicity campaign is not the reason that people are finding their way into the Fringe. The performers are doing the work instead of the Festival, by creating Facebook Events and Groups and encouraging their friends and family to come and support them. The theatre community is performing for the theatre community. But, where is the general public? Why have they been left out of the equation? I saw so many people walk past the Neptune Studio Kiosk and wonder aloud what was going on, but not one stopped to find out. At the same time, word of mouth is still carrying a great amount of weight because artists rely on their audience to act as publicists because they are not getting adequate support from the festival.

3. Dale Beaner and the Turtle Boy performed in a venue called the Living Room. The Living Room recently changed its name from The Theatre Nova Scotia Space, which was confusing. It is also the venue the farthest away from the Neptune Studio Theatre kiosk and the downtown center of the Fringe. It is the most difficult venue to find, and the most obscure one to remember. For this reason, the fact that it was entirely omitted from the map included in the Fringe’s printed brochures also proved disastrous for the shows that played there.

4. Generally, the 19th Annual Atlantic Fringe Festival seemed disorganized. Volunteers arrived with the cash box to begin selling tickets seven minutes before the shows were about to begin, shuffling through a grumbling line-up of people who had been waiting outside in the cold for a half hour. I saw members of the company of one show, in full costume, standing outside a locked DanSpace a half hour before their technically challenging show was slated to begin, understandably stressed and irritated as they waited for a volunteer to show up with the key. Shows began late and ran overtime, and at least one show had to be cancelled because the show before it started twenty-five minutes late and was ten minutes longer than it was supposed to be. Part of this problem was due to the fact that the performers did not receive adequate Tech time in the performance spaces prior to their Opening Night. Most shows did not get a full tech run in their theatre before Opening. Fringe or not, that’s absurd, and it does affect the company’s perception of how long their show is, and it is important for the directors to be able to see the lights, and the sound equipment and anything else that may cause a huge glitch before they are in front of an audience. Many of these performers and directors are professionals and even for those who aren’t, Fringe is an opportunity to learn about how things work in the theatre, and in the theatre, at least one tech/dress in the space is not considered an indulgence.
5. Ken Pinto is the Atlantic Fringe Festival’s Associate Director. I attended the Press/Media Launch, I attended the Fringe Festival for nine days, saw nineteen shows, hung around the Neptune Studio Theatre lobby, shook hands, met an array of lovely people, but I did not meet Ken Pinto. I believe I saw him once, briefly, but I was not sure exactly who he was. I am sure that Pinto spent hours organizing the event beforehand, but the Festival needs a strong directorial voice throughout. Why isn’t his name in a visible place on the Atlantic Fringe Festival’s website? How do you contact him? Why is it almost impossible to find out who is in charge of this Festival? He should be at the hub of it all. I know who is in charge of the Toronto Fringe Festival. I know who is in charge of the Edmonton Fringe Festival. Everyone does because these people are the pulsing heart and the passionate soul of their Fringe. These people eat, sleep, sweat and breathe Fringe. I wonder why the Fringe never evolves, why it never develops or flourishes. It never expands, it never gets better, and from where I’m sitting, it seems like its attendance just gets lower and lower as a result. The King of the 2009 Atlantic Fringe, in my opinion, was Evan Brown, whose title was juggled around so much, I’m not even sure I know what it was. Brown was the saving grace for so many performers and so many shows. I think he deserves an award. He was eating, sleeping, drinking, breathing the Fringe, and I don’t think the Festival could have run without him. In general, though, Atlantic Fringe seems tired. Atlantic Fringe seems like it just doesn’t care anymore. I heard that Pinto’s philosophy is that he doesn’t want to do anything else about Atlantic Fringe because “it works” the way it is. But, frankly, I don’t think it does.

So… you’re all thinking, what a bitch, it’s easy to sit there in Toronto, or wherever she is and point fingers but that’s not going to fix anything. You’re right. So, here’s what I think needs to happen:

1. The Atlantic Fringe Festival needs to be run by someone who is passionate and driven and who wants the Atlantic Fringe Festival to be one of the greatest and most successful Festivals in Atlantic Canada. It needs to be run by someone who will be actively involved in the evolution of the Festival, from its initial meeting, to its Closing Night ceremony. This person needs to be the go to person for media personnel, for performers and for volunteers. He or she needs to be onsite at all times, and in a way that everyone, including the audience, knows that he or she is the director. This person needs to see as many shows as is humanly possible, reach out to the audience by making speeches to thank sponsors, and to tell you to turn off your gosh darn iPhone and generally needs to behave like any Artistic Director of any professional theatre company in this country.

2. The Atlantic Fringe Festival needs to have a publicity campaign, which needs to be stringent and dedicated. They need to look at the successful Festivals in Halifax, such as the Busker Festival and the Jazz Festival, and see how they run their publicity campaigns. It would also be pertinent to look at other Fringe Festivals in Canada, such as in Edmonton and Toronto. The website needs to be updated far earlier and far more often. The website should be more interactive. I would suggest checking out the Edmonton Fringe Festival’s website, it’s pretty great. The public needs to know that the Fringe is going on and they need to have reasons why they should come out and support it. There are so many advantages for the general public in attending Fringe Theatre; they just need to become aware of what those are and that they have this opportunity right here in their own city!

3. The Atlantic Fringe Festival has the potential to reach out beyond the theatres and to spread into the city. This will draw people in to see the shows and will redefine for many their preconceived notions of the theatre. In Edmonton, Fringe is a street party that takes over all of Old Strathcona for eleven days. Buskers and musicians are playing everywhere, people are on the streets promoting their shows, interacting with the passersby, shows are going on in alleyways, at midnight, late-night Improv shows play at the Varscona Theatre… there is a giant beer tent in the parking lot of one of the Fringe venues which has become the hub of the festival and there are parties and people stay out all night having a grand old time of it. Halifax could do the same thing. I think that the whole Fringe Festival should be moved to August (labour day weekend was an AWFUL idea!), with a few days overlap with the Busker Festival. This will capitalize on the street theatre flavour that our city already has, that will hopefully transcend into bringing people inside to see theatre as well. I think that the Fringe Theatre should look into more venues closer to the waterfront as well, and to encourage theatre artists to perform outside (I know our weather is precarious, but if Shakespeare By the Sea can do it…) I would love to see a show performed on Citadel Hill, or down by the wave or in the Public Gardens, or at the Commons, in the Skate Park, in Cows ice cream parlour, the possibilities are endless). Atlantic Fringe should be like a gigantic, extended party, with tents like they have at the Jazz Festival, and live music, and entertainment that extends into the wee hours of the morning. These should be events that are expressly about the Fringe Festival, rather than all the actors dispersing at 11:00pm to various places around the city. Theatre is fun, but I don’t think enough Haligonians see it that way. I think there are too many who associate it with school, with thinking too much and being far too serious. It’s called a play for a reason. Let’s play.

4. Neptune Theatre needs to be more supportive of the Atlantic Fringe Festival, and of all independent theatres in Halifax. The regional theatre should not be a monolith but instead should be focused on fostering all the indigenous talent that Nova Scotia has. As artists like Christian Barry and Anthony Black emerge from the Fringe Festival into the independent theatre scene, it won’t do any good for Neptune to hoard its resources or make Black or Barry struggle to survive in its shadow. They will do what many others have done before them and they will leave. They will go to a place that will foster and support them, and that will encourage their creativity and see them succeed and flourish. Eventually, like Daniel MacIvor, they will become “Torontonian” playwright Anthony Black and “Torontonian” director Christian Barry. Whenever this happens, it is a great loss to Halifax. Neptune Theatre then no longer has as many talented local actors to hire for its shows, because they are all in Toronto, so they either have to hire those with less experience and/or training, or to bring in artists from Toronto, which sparks controversy and outrage within the Halifax theatre community, and is also increasingly expensive. In my opinion, Neptune Theatre could use some competition. I think it would benefit greatly from it, as it would ensure that the Artistic Director never becomes complacent in his or her choices. If Black and Barry’s show Invisible Atom were the smash-sensation it should have been in Halifax, maybe it would have inspired Neptune Theatre to look into staging some work as dynamic, unique and visually stunning in order to maintain its position as Halifax’s regional theatre. Neptune Theatre (through its General Manager) needs to create a partnership with all those who are independent and work in the arts, so that the theatre is remembered for helping to advance the growth and the flourishing of theatre in Nova Scotia, rather than being a frustrating impediment for everyone.

The Atlantic Fringe Festival has the potential to be just as successful as any other Fringe Festival in North America; it just needs to be reorganized and to be directed by a person who cares enough about theatre in Atlantic Canada to want to make this Festival the best that it can possibly be, rather than being content with it simply functioning. If the festival continues in such an apathetic and disorganized manner, I would advise the performers and creators of independent theatre to create their own independent theatre festival. In Toronto, the Toronto Fringe Festival runs in the summer along with the Summerworks Festival and the Luminato Festival. Their mandates are very similar, and each one is successful and well attended. If a new festival was properly run and received adequate publicity and appropriate funding, I believe that within three or four years it could become the Festival that Halifax- albeit all of Atlantic Canada- really, truly deserve.

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