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Molly MacKinnon

Molly MacKinnon is a local actor, singer, producer and director based primarily in the Edmonton theatre scene. When she's not working in theatre she can be found writing, travelling, drinking copious amounts of coffee and dabbling in photography. 

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That's a Wrap!: Edmonton Fringe Festival 2017

Thursday September 07 , 2017

Each year there is a palpable buzz on the streets of Old Strathcona as August rolls around and the anticipation of Fringe season begins. Gradually theatres, bars, churches and parkades begin to transform into found performance spaces. Storefronts fill with show posters, and the streets flood with artists, clutching coffees and handbills for dear life. After months of preparation driven primarily (in my experience) by caffeine, moral support, and a slightly dizzying sense of determination, the time finally comes for the Fringe to begin and for us artists to showcase our work. Every year artists travel from all around the world to take part in the Edmonton Fringe, and for good reason. The Fringe Festival has put Edmonton on the map as one of the premier summer destinations for festivals, ranking as the largest Fringe Theatre Festival in North America and the second largest in the world behind the Edinburgh Fringe. It has showcased Edmonton to the worldwide theatre community and has been a major catalyst in the cultivation of our current thriving theatre scene.

The Edmonton International Fringe Festival has evolved a lot since 1982 when Chinook Theatre's Brian Paisley was given $50,000 to create A Fringe Theatre Event. It was the first festival of its kind in the city, modelled loosely after the format of the Edinburgh Fringe, with 47 shows working out of 5 venues in Old Strathcona as well as 5 shows performing in found spaces. The average ticket price was $3 and they saw an attendance of approximately 7,500. Since the first Fringe in 1982, the festival has seen consistent growth, with attendance jumping from 7,500 to 350,000 in 1987, then to 450,000 in 1994, topping out at 850,000 people in 2016. Along with attendance numbers skyrocketing, we have seen those 47 shows expand to more than 220 shows this past year. As the festival expanded, so did its format, the staff, and the name, which was changed in 1995 from Chinook Theatre to the Fringe Theatre Adventures that we now know and love. 1988 saw the addition of KidsFringe, and in 1991 we saw the first incarnation of the now-known Late Night Cabaret, which was originally named the Fringe Benefit. In 1992 the Festival Director Judy Lawrence coined the term B.Y.O.V (Bring Your Own Venue) as a classification for all performances that were happening in venues outside of the main Fringe stages, and the term BYOV caught on quickly, becoming a commonly used term in the Fringe circuit worldwide. In the first year there were only 3 shows that were performed in BYOVs, including a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream on ice. In the 15 years since the first official BYOVs appeared in the Fringe, we've seen that number expand into 30+ BYOV spaces being used each year. 

Part of what has drawn so many artists to Fringe festivals throughout the years is the community of support that has evolved around them. Artists are given an open platform to take risks and create uncensored works with the full backing of the festival and with the encouragement of other artists. Although the creation of this open platform has not always been easy, the Fringe has done an amazing job throughout the years of fighting to ensure the autonomy of artists. In 1994 there was pressure put on the Fringe by police and community groups to censor the content of the festivals program, as well as the content on posters around the Fringe grounds. This was all due to the use of a slang term for genitalia in the title of a show touring from London, England. In response to the pressure, then Fringe Director Judy Lawrence responded with what may be the most phenomenal response possible. First, she reiterated that the importance of keeping the festival a non-juried event, stating that the entire purpose of the festival was to be a "forum for artists to produce their own work independently and test their ideas." Then she placed the following warning on the front of the Frankenfringe Part 13 festival guide:

Open at own risk!! Monstrous, global celebration of uncensored theatre inside! Beware: May (probably does) contain language and/or ideas construed as thoughtful, radical, controversial, provocative, offensive, child-like, half-baked, ill-conceived – the list of possibilities is endless! Ps: Could also contain laughter, thrills, chills, music, dance, art, and other dangerous stuff! 

This opposition to censorship is what has encouraged and emboldened artists to create some of the most controversial and most popular Fringe shows. This year alone saw Bash'd!: A Gay Rap Opera, Evil Dead the Musical, Man Up! Has Daddy Issues, and With Glowing Hearts: A Canadian Burlesque Revue. None of these shows would have been possible were it not for Fringe Theatre Adventures' strong dedication to artistic liberty.

Each year the Fringe brings an abundance of shows to sift through, ranging from the comedic to the absurd. From full Broadway musicals to one-woman Greek tragedies, every show you'll see is bringing something completely unique to the table, but the one thing I look for in any show at the festival is its "fringe" factor. It's a difficult factor to define succinctly because it can come in many different shapes and sizes, but trust me you'll know it when you see it! This year I managed to see quite a few shows but there were a handful that stuck out to me because of their "fringe" factor.

The first show I'll mention is The Sinner's Club, a new work written by Edmonton natives Dylan Rosychuk and Jeff Punyi. This comedy/horror gave the audience 85 minutes of drinking, demons, and death. This college reunion from hell started with a knock on the door from Office Vince McHale (Chris Nadeau) coming to break the news that the boyfriend of the host, Patty Swan (Katelyn Trieu), is dead. As guests began to filter in Patty tried to cancel the party to no avail, and things begin to escalate when an accident sees McHale knocked unconscious. The issues snowball from there, made worse with the arrival of an old college roommate (Lauren Boyd) who summons a demon known as The Spectator (Dylan Rosychuk). The Spectator causes extreme chaos, killing off party guests while trying to woo the party host Patty. What set this show apart for me was just how far into the absurd they adventured and the level of commitment to that absurdity that the cast brought onstage. Throughout the show the audience is treated to fake blood, fake vomit, and fake goo, with the cast slipping and sliding in the cocktail of bodily fluids.

Another show that stood out as a quintessential "Fringe" show was Prophecy, written by Jessy Arden and directed by Sterling winner Corben Kushneryk. This one woman show tells the tale of Cassandra, the princess of Troy, who was gifted the power of prophecy by Apollo. Her gift turns out to be more of a curse when she sees the fall of Troy and the demise of her household, but despite her fervent warnings no one in her house will believe her. In this show the extremely talented Carmen Nieuwenhuis plays many different women who were involved in Cassandra's tale, jumping between the roles of Cassandra, Hecuba, Andromache, and Briseis. Every character was distinct and the shifts between each woman were fluid, natural and entirely believable. The show was performed, in true Fringe form, with minimalistic set and lighting design completely free of redundancies. Each piece of the set served a very clear purpose, with some objects personifying other members of Hecuba's household. The entire show was lit by small switch operated lights that were attached the set pieces or carried by Nieuwenhuis; this aided in creating an extremely ominous environment where Nieuwenhuis acted as both storyteller and guide through this horrific Greek tragedy. The bare bones staging of this show stands out as something you wouldn't normally see during the main theatre seasons. Prophecy is a prime example of what Fringe theatre is all about: making big choices on a minimalist budget, focusing on the storytelling, and bringing new works to the table.

After 36 years of Fringing, Edmonton is full of dedicated patrons who make a point of coming out to support the risks we artists take in this eleven-day whirlwind. As artists we are gifted with a stage to create works we wouldn't necessarily have the means to during the main theatre season; the Fringe truly is an artist's Christmas. The Fringe has become a staple in the Edmonton theatre scene, and thanks to the long-time support from businesses and individuals alike, I don't see it slowing down any time soon.