If you were going to name Canadian cultural institutions, top of the list might include the Calgary Stampede, the Stratford Festival, Montreal's Just for Laughs Festival and the summertime Anne of Green Gables musical in Charlottetown.
Few would think to add the Canadian fringe-festival circuit, and that's an oversight performers from here and abroad hope will be addressed by a documentary being filmed in the city during the next 12 days as the 27th annual Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival opens today.
"It's a unique and Canadian story," says Scottish performance poet Jem Rolls, making his 12th fest appearance. "It's there to be told, crying out to be told."
Why wave the maple leaf for a bunch of indie performers staging stripped-down plays in makeshift venues for the $10 bills of Winnipeggers hanging out in Old Market Square? The answer is in the way these fringe-athons have made theatre less expensive and intimidating, more expansive and open to alternative voices. More importantly, Canadian audiences have embraced fringes' relaxed atmosphere.
Winnipeg is one of a chain of 17 fringe festivals that stretches from Halifax to Victoria. Ticket sales are climbing towards 400,000 annually. To put that in perspective, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre sold more tickets (101,000) to its 2013 fringe festival than its entire 2013-14 mainstage season (98,000). One of those RMTC offerings was the fan favourite Kim's Convenience, which debuted at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2011.
Every June, actors, clowns and monologists from around the world gather in fringe festivals in Montreal and London, Ont., to begin a summer-long trek across the country. Some will lose their shirts, while others earn a large enough financial stake from ticket revenue to see them through the entire year. A few dozen performers will naturally draw together as a fringe family and form a caravan that travels from festival to festival.
They will be the focus of On the Fringe, a feature documentary being co-produced by Ottawa's Nancy Kenny, 33.
The objective is to capture the flavour of the various festivals, the ups and downs of its participants, as well as what Rolls calls the "arduous cross-country full-on-ness."
"I wanted to tell people this only happens in Canada," says Kenny, who is also here to perform her solo drama, Roller Derby Saved My Soul. "It's so Canadian in the way we don't celebrate it by shouting about it from the rooftops. We're very nice and quiet and polite about keeping it to ourselves."
Director Cory Thibert, 23, is following four performers and troupes, including the veteran Rolls and the tour newbies from Saskatoon's Howl Theatre. He hopes to capture the camaraderie and support that comes from knowing what other troupes are going through.
There are all kinds of stories of fringe performers banding together to take care of their own. Last year, a company had to cancel its run in Ottawa after actor Antony Hall broke his leg in a car accident. Fellow performers immediately took over the show slots to stage cabarets and donated all the proceeds to the injured actor.
"No wonder some people say they wait all year for the summer and fringe festivals," says Thibert, who also acts in Wolves > Boys. "It's like a giant adult summer camp with a reunion every year. Romance is a big part and I'm trying to get the performers to talk about fringe crushes, but they are too shy to talk about them."
American Martin Dockery, a regular on the circuit, explains the strange phenomenon of spending months alone writing shows before they hit the tour for a four-month long party, during which there's a shuffling of the deck of performers every two weeks.
"And what you discover along the way is that you're not alone at all, that all sorts of other performers have had their moment alone in a room with their laptop," says Dockery, whose new monologue is called The Surprise.
"I love performing at the fringe and can't imagine what else I'd be doing now, but sleeping in strange beds, suffering unfavourable reviews, having small houses -- all of which happen to even the most successful artist -- can make you feel burned out after several months. Thanks goodness, then, that none of us are doing this alone, not even those of us doing solo shows."
It is ironic that Kenny finds herself back in Winnipeg shooting a documentary celebrating Fringedom in a city where she experienced her career's most soul-destroying moment. In 2009, she brought her first show, No Exit Upstage, to the fringe festival and it bombed. The reviews were harsh, the turnout even harder to take.
"It really hurt and I lost $2,000," says the bilingual Kenny, originally from New Brunswick. "I cried a lot and stopped writing for a whole year. I thought, 'It's too heartbreaking.'
"I learned more at that one festival by failing than I did during a full year of theatre school -- and the company was great."
Kenny raised $10,000 from an Indiegogo campaign and is throwing in another $10,000 of her own money. She even scored a Volkswagen for the summer, certainly the first time a fringe performer has landed a car sponsorship.
The best-case scenario for On the Fringe would be theatrical release next May, followed by screenings at every fringe festival.
"I want to get the public excited by the fringe as much as I am," she says. "I want them to know about this super-cool thing that happens every summer and they can be part of."