Work in progress: cultivating inclusion and equity during the Edmonton Fringe Festival and beyond

Lisa Jeans profiles the 36th Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival
August 17 – 27, 2017
Various venues—visit www.fringetheatre.ca for ticketing, time, and location details.

As I follow Edmonton International Fringe Festival Executive Director Adam Mitchell through a sun-drenched open workspace to a private office, the room positively hums with focus and urgency. It is less than one month before opening day. Edmonton is home to the oldest and largest Fringe in Canada; these year the festival is presenting 220 shows created by 1,300 artists. The festival will welcome 550, 000 guests (making 850,000 visits) for ten days in the heart of Edmonton’s historic Old Strathcona neighbourhood.

This year’s theme—A Midsummer Night’s Fringe—aptly evokes the chaotic magic of this Edmonton festival, which impresses theatregoers with its array of indoor shows and the sheer mass of crowds gathered to watch fiery outdoor acts while sipping beer and scarfing down green onion cakes. This festival is a point of pride for the city—its arts community and the broader public—and it is thriving.

According to Mitchell, Fringe theatre thrives both during the festival and the regular season because their team facilitates creative risk-taking and cultivates a robust sense of inclusion and community for artists and audiences alike.

Accessibility is a core value that includes the physical space. The ATB Arts Barn has an on-grade front entrance (no wheelchair ramp required) and Fringe Theatre has partnered with CRIPSiE and the Sustainable, Political, Accessible Communities of Edmonton Project to provide detailed accessibility information for primary Fringe festival venues, and this year the information will include a few BYOVs as well.

Starting this fall, regular season productions will include one relaxed performance. Pay What You Will ticket pricing started at the recent Chinook Series and will continue with Fringe Theatre’s regular programming: 25% of tickets to all shows will be Pay What You Will to remove economic barriers to theatre attendance. Partnership with Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre and Azimuth Theatre on the Chinook Series, which included BAM! (Black Arts Matter) and SOUND OFF (a new Deaf theatre festival), is expected to continue, as is future collaboration with indigenous artists and organizations.

Brenley Charkow for FringeFemmeYEG

But Mitchell and Fringe Theatre Artistic Director Murray Utas aspire to further serve and connect artists with new audiences. A glance through the 2017 Program Guide suggests that Edmonton Fringe, like many mainstream theatre organizations in Canada, and despite its lottery selection process, is missing a portion of the theatre/performing arts community: indigenous people and people of colour.

While the first hundred Fringe productions are selected by lottery, there are numerous Bring Your Own Venue shows that are completely administered by the venue producers, which adds complexity to the implementation of accessibility and diversity initiatives across the whole festival. The odds of being selected in the current open lottery system may also limit participation of artists for whom there are ongoing racial, cultural and socio-economic barriers.

“Murray (Utas) and I are committed to creating space within the lottery system for equity seeking artists, and that translates to a number of different models across the world… Toronto had two separate lottery spots for equity seeking artists. Chicago Fringe has a very complex lottery system with even more categories.” Adds Mitchell: “We are trying to make sure that when we roll this out we have done it in a way that doesn’t exclude anyone and opens up as many possibilities as we can, which is why I say we are working on it, we just don’t know what it is going to look like.”

While Mitchell could not confirm a timeline for change to the structure of the lottery process, there is every reason to be optimistic that those changes are in the works.

Edmonton Fringe leadership is also enthusiastic about grassroots community-building initiatives as well: #FringeFemmeYEG is a community-driven social media movement led by theatre artist Brenley Charkow, who curates the @FringeFemmeYEG Twitter feed and Facebook page. The goal of the movement is to celebrate and amplify the work of female and female-identifying artists leading creative teams presenting at the Edmonton Fringe, and it supports the work of all artists—non-binary, femme, or otherwise.

#FringeFemmeYEG echoes similar movements that have emerged, such as #FringeFemmeTO, and will inform audience members who are keen to attend female-led productions. While the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival is proving to be an ally and engaged community facilitator, it, like many other Canadian theatre organizations, has men in the key leadership roles of Artistic Director and Executive Director, something that Adam Mitchell acknowledged with wry self-awareness at the midpoint of our conversation.

As #FringeFemmeYEG curator Brenley Charkow notes, “Parity is still a huge issue on our stages, and while we are moving forward, there’s still a long way to go.”

The Festival Program Guide is now available for purchase. Tickets go on sale on August 9, 2017. www.fringetheatre.ca

Author Bio
Lisa Jeans is a theatre artist and writer. Her writing has been published in FASHION, The Globe and Mail, and in a smattering of Canadian literary journals. One of her current projects in progress is a performance text about violence against women in politics.

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