WARNING: This post is aimed mostly at those who have not experienced / know little-to-nothing about the Toronto Fringe and Fringe festivals in general. So, Julian Munds, you probably should read no further on pain of boredom. You have been warned.
I sustained some minor war wounds from my encounter with the official Toronto Fringe opening today, which involved well over 100 people dashing madly at an 80-foot wall designated for poster display. The rules? No covering someone else’s poster and no more than 8 posters all in the same spot. Nothing in the rules prohibited violent use of poster to inflict paper cuts!!!!
Despite my flesh wound complaints, the spirit of Fringe was in full force at the Fringe HQ behind Honest Ed’s today. I spotted more than one company wearing bikinis made out of their show’s postcards (as CYB cast member Laura said, ‘Why didn’t we think of that?!’ ), several exotic headpieces with feathers and neon colours and so on, and one very conspicuous version of Stephen Harper! I discovered at least half a dozen shows to add to my “must see” list and even found a few to add to my “avoid at all costs” list. If anyone cares which are which, I can send you my super-secret lists 🙂 And no, my standards for gauging good Fringe do not adhere to those of Mr. Bruce DeMara, despite my recent Facebook post. (Although I still think that the word ‘dramaturgy’ is overused and incorrectly used all-too-often in Fringe theatre).
I’d like, however, to ask the same question as Mr. DeMara, but in its positive form: how does one spot good Fringe? The free Fringe program’s advice is to 1) start at Fringe HQ behind Honest Ed’s to catch the buzz there, 2) ask the volunteer ushers at shows, and 3) take a chance on something that’s been poorly reviewed.
Not that I in any way object to beer tents, but Fringe HQ is not necessarily where I’d start my hunt for good Fringe shows. It’s definitely a fun spot to catch up with artists and audiences and check out what’s being talked up (or down!) on any given day. There’s also cheap food/beer and free entertainment. But in terms of separating the wheat from the chaff, I’d trust the volunteers over the ether at the beer tent.
The volunteers are an awesome source because they see so many shows. For every show a volunteer ushers, he gets to see another show for free. There are also designated Volunteer Appreciation Nights for most shows in the festival, and so the volunteers can, if they want to, see an awful lot of theatre for free…the good, the bad, and the ugly! Nothing wrong with pulling out the ol’ Fringe program and asking the usher at your current show which of the shows you’ve highlighted as potentials are actually worth it.
The last bit of advice from Fringe is a double-edged sword. Let’s be honest, people: it’s Fringe! Shows are selected via lottery and a great many shows are underrehearsed, miscast, misdirected, unedited, or otherwise unprepared for an audience. Don’t get me wrong–some of the best theatre I’ve ever seen has been Fringe. But so has some of the worst. I recall on particular production of The Jew of Malta in Edinburgh… I shudder at the memory. But I also saw my favorite production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Edinburgh. The lesson is: you never know at the Fringe. You just never know. Even if the critics loved it, it might not be your cup of tea. The shows the critics smash are often audience favorites, and vice-versa. There’s also the issue of self promotion…some people are just better at it than others. I’ve seen awful, awful shows that had beautiful posters and intriguing descriptions and amazing shows that seemed totally boring based on their advertising. Remember the trailer for Stardust? It was vomitous. (Yes, that’s a real word. I think.) And yet the film was incredible. I challenge you, therefore, to see at least one show at the Fringe whose advertisements make the show seem totally unappealing or snore-worthy. We can’t all be good at everything, after all.
And now, the mandatory shameless advertisement for the Fringe show that I’m involved with: Can You Believe? starts Friday at 5:15pm at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse (walking distance from Fringe HQ!). See you at the Fringe!