Get in the Van: A Primer for Touring the Canadian Fringe
Monday, September 15, 2014
By Nicole Gluckstern
Wonderheads. Photo: Sean Dennie
People whose knowledge of the anything-goes theatre festival known as Fringe begins and ends with San Francisco and Edinburgh may be surprised to discover that Fringe festivals are a worldwide phenomenon, and in no country are they more widespread than in Canada, whose four-month long, cross-country circuit provides an unparalleled touring opportunity for experimental ensembles, comedians, and solo performers of every nationality. Virtually unknown in the US, the Canadian Fringe has nonetheless been quietly attracting hundreds of performers and hundreds of thousands of audience members for more than 20 years.
Not only does the Canadian Fringe offer one of the most straightforward, plug-and-play platforms for touring cross-country, but it even has its bona fide rock stars, a coterie of performers who over the years have gained such name recognition that they can pack houses most independent theatre-makers can only dream of, and as 100% of the box office generally goes directly to the performers, selling out six to eight performances in 100- to 200-seat theatres in multiple cities can add up. Of course, as with rock bands, there's no guarantee that your show will be the one to generate attention, and just as swiftly as the Fringe can make kings and queens, so can it undo them; but in the free-for-all atmosphere of fringing there are no real losers. Everyone is welcome, and everyone finds some kind of audience, albeit some bigger than others. Some much bigger.
Here There Be Giants
One of the first things that struck me my first year working the Montreal Fringe in 2007 was how well known certain performers were. People didn't just want to know what shows you'd seen, they wanted to know of you'd seen the new Jem Rolls or TJ Dawe. And it wasn't just white-guy monologists who were generating this extra attention. Two of the most offbeat shows at that particular Fringe were being similarly touted: a duo of Japanese performance artists with a dada-tastic, extraterrestrialist performance art piece, Hanakengo, and a pair of actual rock stars, or rather faux German rockers (actually a very sharp and savvy pair of Australians) who billed themselves as Die Roten Punkte, a cheeky pisstake of the White Stripes in Brecht-face, who played carefully orchestrated keytar tunes in between moments of rowdily inappropriate audience interaction, both scripted and cleverly improvised.
Fast forward seven years later, and the names Jem Rolls and TJ Dawe still elicit the same reverence, and Die Roten Punkte stories are still a source of hardcore fringer cred, but in the interim a new coterie of kings and queens has coalesced, and names such as Sam S. Mullins, "Hot Pink" Penny Ashton, and the Wonderheads are generating significant buzz of their own. But quite unlike celebrities in almost any other profession, Fringe celebrities tend to be an approachable bunch.
"Be the artist that you want to see in the world," Mullins writes on his personal blog, reminding his fellow Fringe artists to support each other's efforts, even when some of them fall short artistically, a philosophy shared by even the old-timers, who eschew sleep to hang out in the late-night cabarets, buy rounds for newbies, and boost the work of fellow artists to their audiences as a matter of course, not as an exception.
"I never felt it was competitive," Nathaniel Justiniano of Naked Empire Bouffon Company affirms, when discussing his 2013 Fringe tour. "Anybody who had a success, it was high fives all around."
Naked Empire Bouffon Company at the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival. Photo: Nicole Gluckstern
A (Very) Brief History of the Canadian Fringe
All Fringes stem in spirit from the venerable Edinburgh Fringe, which dates back to 1947 when a group of upstart theatre artists gate-crashed the Edinburgh International Festival and later founded their own official organization in 1958. More than 60 years later, the Edinburgh Fringe has mostly subsumed the concurrent International Festival to become the single largest arts festival in the world, selling close to 2 million tickets for more than 2,500 shows annually. On the Canadian circuit, the largest festival is in Edmonton, which dates back to 1982 and attracts more than 600,000 people annually (about 100,000 of whom actually buy theatre tickets). As other cities began to adapt the Fringe concept on their own, a push toward unification began, and the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals, aka CAFF, was born, an umbrella organization with members in both Canada and the US who have all agreed to abide by four guiding principles, including that festivals will be unjuried, that all box office proceeds will go to the artists, and that the festival will not assert any artistic control over the content of the shows.
The San Francisco Fringe is the second-oldest CAFF Fringe in the US, preceded only by the Orlando Fringe, and there are several others besides (including Frigid Fest in New York, and the Boulder International Fringe). For international artists in particular (including residents of the US), the Canadian Fringe has the advantage of being so well established that there is a procedure for international performers to apply for a tax waiver in advance and be legally able to make money during their tour, while the reverse is harder to navigate, and as a result, many international performers at US-based Fringes wind up not being able to charge a ticket price at all, turning their Fringe tour into more of a busman's holiday rather than an income-generating tour.
On the Road
As smaller, newer festivals continue to join CAFF the circuit continues to expand, but the basic premise of the way they choose their dates is that the earlier festivals are located on the East Coast, and the further west you travel, the later the dates are staggered, giving the hardcore an opportunity to tour for four months straight. A billeting system, which pairs out-of-town artists with local volunteers, ensures that, while in town at least, Fringe performers won't have to sleep in their vans. In addition to organizing billets, Fringe festivals do their best to communicate to the last detail what performers should prepare in advance: from poster dimensions to number of light cues, to dates to register for the Canadian tax exemption, to mailing addresses of all the local media outlets that might provide coverage or reviews.
While to some the amount of organization that goes into a particular festival belies the term "Fringe," there's no doubt that the detail-oriented breakdown is helpful for first-timers in understanding just how much preparation goes into self-producing. For better or for worse, breaking big on the Fringe is not always about the show itself, but sometimes about how well that show manages to hit all the production bullet points and get itself noticed beyond the confines of the stage.
Fringe 101: A Primer
TJ Dawe. Photo: Diane Smithers
If you've made it this far, you might now be contemplating a Fringe foray yourself. But how to go about it? Fortunately for the novice self-producer, most Fringe festivals, particularly on the CAFF circuit, are set up to be as performer-friendly and intuitive as possible. While individual experiences of Fringe touring may vary, it's rare to hear complaints about the idiot-proof festival framework. Performers whose experience in show production has typically begun with an audition and ended with a curtain call get a crash course in the business side of show business, an invaluable lesson too often neglected by the majority of MFA programs and the like.
Step One: Have a Show
Don't wait to find out if you've made it into a festival to start deciding what to perform. Fringe audiences can sniff out an unfinished piece from a mile away, and seasoned fringers have more than one show in their arsenal so they can perform year after year in festivals they've already conquered. Have a show that has already generated its own buzz at home, and you'll have at least a modest leg up over the true beginners.
Step Two: Apply, Apply, Apply
Since every CAFF performer is chosen by lottery, your odds of getting into a festival improve the more festivals you apply to. Some performers luck out and make it into enough festivals to make a proper cross-country tour, others may get into just one or two festivals at a time. For those who want to have a shot at a full four-month run, the CAFF touring lottery selects just 10 lucky winners who get first choice of festivals, up to 10 in one summer. Applications for the touring lottery are due in October, applications for the latest festival (Vancouver) are due in November. After you find out which festivals you've made it into (usually in January/February), you can start considering the BYOV (bring-your-own-venue) route to fill in your gaps, though this is a strategy that works best for performers who already have a known following in a particular city.
Step Three: FUNdraising
You might be thinking you don't want to start hitting people up for money until you know you've actually made it into a festival or not. But as Nathaniel Justiniano points out, a large part of your expenses come out of pocket long before the tour begins, to pay for the application fees, which run between $250 CAD and $850 CAD depending on the festival, and are often due a mere 24 hours after acceptance of your spot. Justinano's strategy for raising application funds was to procure them as a loan from an "angel" to whom he guaranteed to make his money back, and did.
Once you're on the road but before you start to make money, you'll want to have a nice little cushion to get you going. Justiniano estimates that having a minimum of $3,000 on hand for gas, food and shelter will get you across the country, not exactly in style but at least without completely subsisting on instant ramen alone. Then once you start to make box office money on your tour, "you can start to play a little."
Though, as Kate Braidwood of Wonderheads cautions, "the hope is to make money on the tour, but if you count on it and you end up in the red, you're going to have a pretty miserable time." Be realistic, be budget-conscious, and be willing to subsist on that instant ramen after all in a worst-case scenario. The experience of touring can be reward enough if you play it right.
Step Four: Plug In
Want to have a successful show? Don't be afraid to ask the experts for advice. Despite ostensibly competing for the same audiences, seasoned Fringe performers tend to be generous with their wealth of touring knowledge. Want to know how many posters to bring to Toronto, what public transportation is like in Winnipeg, which offsite venue attracts the best crowds in Edmonton or which media outlet(s) in Vancouver to deluge with press kits? Find your fellow fringers on social media (including the performer-only Facebook group "Beyond the Fringe") and ask.
"You don't need to invent the wheel," Justiniano points out. The framework of Fringe is already solidly built, and it doesn't take much to get absorbed into it.
Step Five: Work Out Your Show Logistics
Once you accept your slot and pay your admittance fees, the festival(s) you'll be performing in will start to deluge you with information regarding your venue and your tech specs, including how much time you get to set up and break down, venue capacity and how many cues you can expect your technician to run during the performance. Pay attention to all of these, particularly as they will vary from city to city.
One of the biggest mistakes new Fringe performers make is to create a show way more technically complex than it needs to be, making it almost impossible to tech properly in the brief rehearsal time allotted. Don't be that person. If your show isn't good enough to succeed on its own merits, it's rarely for lack of fancy lighting or a projector. Every Fringe will tell you to
Barry Smith in his one-man show American Squatter.
Photo: Victor Des Roches
bring a stage manager to call the show and assist with the board op, and about 90 percent of touring fringers will show up without. If you're in that category, strip your show down to the very basics and hone your cue lines razor sharp. You'll be doing yourself, your audience and your venue techs a huge favor, and in the business of Fringe, small favors have a way of reaping huge rewards.
Step Six: Work Out Your Touring Logistics
How will you be getting to Canada and back, and once there, how will you get from city to city? For a longer tour, driving has a lot of appeal, right down to the fact that a vehicle provides emergency shelter for the truly broke, but if your tour begins in Montreal and ends in Edmonton, with just one or two stops in the middle, you might consider the relative convenience of cheap flights, the economy of slow buses, or the nail-biting adventure of ride sharing. Some performers even buy a van on the East Coast to drive west in, an option requiring advance financial planning, but one that could result in you breaking even by selling the van again before leaving the country.
Once you've figured out transportation, figuring out lodging is the next important step. Make sure you fill out your billeting info for each individual festival on time, and arrange your dates with your hosts as well in advance as possible. How early you can show up and how late you can leave will determine how many nights you'll have to fend for yourself. Fortunately Canada has no dearth of camping, Airbnb or Couchsurfing.com hosts, or cheap motels, so budget accordingly and don't forget the earplugs.
Kate Braidwood has a useful checklist for prospective tourers, including bringing along a small cooler for groceries, so you're not spending all your bank (and arterial capacity) on takeout, and buying travel medical insurance. "Just do it," she urges emphatically. As policies range from $20-$40/month to $200+ a year, it's an expense that can be easily included into your budget, and will prove well worth it if you do get unexpectedly ill.
Step Seven: Dot Your I's and Cross Your T's
There's a lot of paperwork to the Fringe, and it can be tempting to blow some of it off or postpone it to the last minute, but forgetting to fill out certain forms on time can result in dire consequences, from not garnering a billet to not being allowed to perform at all. Get a cheap desk calendar and highlight the due dates of each particular form for each particular festival, and then make room in your schedule well ahead of time to fill everything out.
Step Eight: Promote, Promote, Promote
Saving the best for last, if you haven't yet had to learn how to self-promote, the Fringe will teach you very quickly. You'll be called upon to draw on your every reserve of creativity and patience as you commandeer a killer publicity shot, design an eye-catching poster and postcard, compile a pithy press kit, hound the local media in each city, rejuvenate your online and social media presence, and stock up on packing tape for postering purposes. Signing up in advance for "pre-fringe" preview events will also be helpful for gaining recognition as an out-of-towner, so be sure to prepare awesome two-, five- and 10-minute preview bits that you can unleash at any opportunity.
The thing that you'll wind up doing the most of is also the hardest to prepare for. And that is the almost-constant working of the crowds lining up for other shows, or hanging out in Fringe locales such as the beer tents, festival grounds, or the central box office. For this you need a lot of internal fortitude, to say nothing of comfortable shoes, a steady supply of snacks, and a 30-second elevator pitch that makes your show sound like the purely unmissable sleeper hit that will remain revered in Fringe memory years after its debut. Because in what's perhaps one of the last remaining meritocracies in the arts, audience word-of-mouth is still the most reliable marketing tool on the Fringe, and connecting directly with your potential audiences is still the most reliable way to get them in the door in the first place.
Simply put, there is no other forum quite like the Fringe for theatre artists who want to be self-supporting and/or gain recognition and opportunity outside of the comfort zone of their hometown scene. Despite its drawbacks—the difficulty frequent fringers have when attempting to transition back to the mainstream theatre world, the sheer amount of hard work it requires to self-produce a new piece from scratch year after year, the oversaturation of a scene in which only a lucky few will stand out in a big way—all the artists I interviewed were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about their experiences.
Veteran fringer Barry Smith, who toured for seven years with his signature multimedia one-person shows, breaks it down best:
"It's the most amazing real-world artistic boot camp experience I've ever undertaken. Taking your art out into the world is invaluable, and the Fringe circuit provides tremendous opportunities for boots-on-the-ground art-making. And not just that hour when you're actually performing—it runs the gamut: management, communication, morale, inspiration, ego, promotion. It's the real deal, and I can't recommend it highly enough."
Our own local San Francisco Fringe Festival runs September 5–20 at the Exit Theatre. Visit sffringe.org.
Since 2000, Nicole Gluckstern has worked at and reported on Fringe festivals in San Francisco, New York, Edinburgh, Montreal, Edmonton and Vancouver. Some of the people interviewed for this piece are performers she has worked with directly in this capacity.