Fringe festivals are all about discovering new acts and catching up with old favourites. Here are some of the faces -- some familiar, some brand new -- you will seeing over the next 11 days as the 22nd annual Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival takes over the Exchange District:
Show: Jake's Gift
JULIA Mackey was the Cinderella of last year's Edmonton Fringe Festival and she had a ball.
A last-minute replacement show not even listed in the program, her production, Jake's Gift, came out of nowhere as a sleeper hit to grab the Best of the Fest crown and sell out all nine shows (1,587 tickets). Her only problem has been getting her glass slipper in the door of the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, until now.
"I finally get to go to the Winnipeg ball after three years of trying," says Mackey. "I have the worst luck when it comes to the fringe lottery system."
Jake's Gift was inspired by her 2004 trip to Normandy, France, for the 60th anniversary of D-Day. She called the ceremony one of the most moving experiences of her life, one she was compelled to write about. Manitoba soldiers -- including the Winnipeg Rifles, who were part of the first wave to land on Juno Beach on June 6, 1944 -- are prominent in the hour-long drama.
The story of the central character of Jake is partly inspired by a Manitoba soldier named Chester Hebner who, with his older brother Clifford, was killed in action in 1944. She came upon Chester's grave in Normandy and was touched by the epitaph his Riding Mountain area family inscribed on the marker.
"In 2007, I started to notice an effusive response from audiences regardless of what city we were performing in," says Mackey, whose show opens in Venue 2 tomorrow at 12:15 p.m.
Earlier this month at the Regina Fringe Festival, where the fledgling event has never seen an audience of 100, Jake's Gift played to 160 people and could have drawn more if the venue hadn't run out of chairs and space.
Home: New York City
NEW Yorker Candy Simmons briefly dipped her toes in the Canadian fringe waters for the first time late last summer in Vancouver and Victoria, and is taking the plunge in 2009.
"I jumped onto the end of last year's circuit and fell in love with the audiences, the fellow artists, the unbridled creativity that flows throughout the festival," says Simmons, 33, whose one-woman show, AfterLife, is taking on a life of its own at fringe festivals in eastern Canada.
AfterLife sprang from a one-act play penned by her co-writer, Chris Van Strander, called The Mothering Instinct. She became enamored with the character of Ruth, a 1920s-era Appalachian midwife, and combined her story with that of a 1950s homemaker and an emotionally fragile film producer.
"That's what this show is about," she says. "It's taking three seemingly ordinary women and ripping the façade off for a brief time to see what's really going on in their lives."
The fringe rookie has banded together for mutual professional and personal support with fellow circuit performers Colette Kendall, Gemma Wilcox, Susan Jeremy and Lana Schwarcz as the Femme Fatales on the Fringe.
"Touring as a solo artist can be a lonely endeavour," she says. "As a woman, I found it comforting that I very quickly found a group of strong women."
IT was as a member of an American dance troupe that played the Edmonton Fringe Festival last August that Tamara Ober caught fringe fever.
It's a common affliction that has claimed many foreign performers new to Canada. The most prominent symptom is a curious delirium that the fringe festival is a theatrical Eden they must enter.
"The sense of community and support that surrounds this event is really incredible," says Ober, following her Montreal fringe debut. "The artists in general are so beautiful. Free spirits. They have embraced me and taught me so much already. I feel like I joined the circus."
Her role under the big top here is as solo dancer in Pipa, which debuts at noon today at Venue 4. It's the sweet story of an accident-prone girl who is unable to take a direct route anywhere.
For seven years Ober has been a member of the Zenon Dance Company in Minneapolis but found the fringe circuit could satisfy her pressing need to strike out on her own.
"I also have fire in me about the fact that so much dance is inaccessible, and I desire to make work like the work I see that turns my world upside down," she says.
A lot is at stake for her this summer.
"I have managed to save a little money over the years and I really decided to spend it all to do this," she says. "It has been quite a ride. The whole process from beginning to end is the biggest adventure I think I've ever had."
WHEN Alice Nelson was studying at the University of Lethbridge, one of her instructors gave her a blunt piece of advice: Go do the fringe, write a show and tour it.
"Then you are doing theatre," Nelson remembers being told. "Universities are safe. The fringe is sink or swim. You better get good or no one is gonna come. And you'll end up eating soup at a roadside turnoff somewhere in eastern Canada."
That was 10 years ago, and every summer she heads for one to five fringe festivals. She debuted in Winnipeg in 2004 in Swashbucklers, a raucous homage to lesbian pirates, and two years later was back with Local Celebrity, which focused on a girl working as an escort in small-town Alberta. This year Nelson shows up in Raunch, an examination of the rise of female chauvinist pigs, beginning tonight at 8:45 in Venue 1.
"Last week I packed up everything into my parents' basement, again," she says. "I'm 31 and I still live like a nomad, bohemian artist. I am billeting and living out of my Jeep for the next two months."
She already has plans to tour next year with her one-woman show Elephant in Zulu, which chronicles her work with Clowns Without Borders South Africa. She has done four expeditions to South Africa to work with children affected by HIV/AIDS.
And yes, she once did sip soup roadside to the sound of trucks whizzing by on a Newfoundland road, and it tasted pretty good.
IT has been eight years since Kevin Williamson darkened a door at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival.
The name doesn't ring a bell? Surely his company moniker, English Suitcase Theatre, does. EST has been a distinguished troupe in the history of local fringe lore since its first appearance here in 1989. (There have been 13 more since then.)
Still, a no-show since Betrayal in 2001, Williamson is long overdue. He reappears with a bit of a splash, performing in George Orwell is Not My Real Name and Pinter's Briefs, both at the Gas Station Theatre, while serving as associate director of Spiral Dive 2.
"I decided to return because nothing has come close to giving me the same pleasures and satisfactions I received from working on the English Suitcase shows in the past," says Williamson, who has run EST on his own since 1993.
His new works involve two of his favourite writers.
"I love Pinter, and working on a collection of short plays in Vancouver last year seemed to suggest itself as a great fringe show," he says of the work he will be performing with Simon Webb and Anthony F. Ingram.
George Orwell is Not My Real Name is a world premiere about the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
"He's a remarkable man and writer, with a story that's very close to my heart," Williamson says.
Show: 52 Pick Up
Home: Boulder, Colo.
THIS is Gemma Wilcox's third consecutive appearance in Winnipeg, but her first performing another playwright's work.
The ex-Londoner has dealt herself a two-hander called 52 Pick Up after seeing the TJ Dawe/Rita Bozi production at the Orlando Fringe Festival three years ago. The show's hook is that each card in a deck represents one of 52 scenes about a romantic relationship. The actors walk onstage and toss the cards into the air, ensuring a random order of scenes every show.
"It particularly resonated with me, as I was nearing the end of my last relationship, and so many of the scenes about intimate relationships struck a chord," Wilcox says. "I absolutely love not knowing how the cards will fall and feeling how that affects the tone and flavour of each show."
She and her stage partner Sam Elmore premiered their 52 Pick Up at the Boulder fringe last August before touring it to Texas last February and doing a three-week run in Denver in May and a four-night stand in Colorado Springs.
The severe economic turndown south of the border has not scared her off the road.
"Touring is where I hopefully make my living," she says, "though it can be a bit of a juggling act having to pay all the application fees by November/December before the summer that I tour. For the past three years I have managed to put my tour expenses on a credit card with low interest, and then pay it off by the end of the summer."