Prediction: The 23th annual Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival will set another indoor attendance record in 2010.
That's a no-brainer given the fringathon has reached new highs for ticket sales nine of the last 10 years. At the current relentless upsurge in ticketed attendance, the 12-day theatre party will top 100,000 by the time the festival marks its silver anniversary in 2012. Executive producer Chuck McEwen will toast that accomplishment but only if he has pumped up the size of outdoor audiences first.
"If we hit 100,000 indoor ticket sales before we have 100,000 seeing outdoor shows I won't be happy," says McEwen, on the eve of his third festival. "I would find that hard to believe. My goal is to double the attendance on the outdoor stage within two years."
It should be a cinch to attract mobs of people to sit on the grass in Old Market Square noshing on a delicious gyro or a samosa while being entertained for free by some fabulous fire-eater, goofy comic or kick-ass musician. But it seems Winnipeggers would rather pay to fringe.
Last July, total festival attendance reached 151,353, with ticket sales totalling 81,353. That split is an oddity on the Canadian fringe festival circuit.
Compare those Winnipeg numbers to the Edmonton Fringe Festival which in 2009 drew 550,000, of which 92,279 bought tickets. That translates into one out of six fringers buying a ticket. In Winnipeg, there are more fringe-goers buying tickets than not.
It's obvious which of the festivals has the rosiest growth potential. Huge throngs of people ever present on the Edmonton fringe site are ripe for conversion to ticket-buyers by leaflet-carrying performers pitching their shows. The odds are significantly less in Winnipeg, which is a worry to McEwen.
"I think the future growth will be outdoors," he says, during a lengthy interview recently. "I think we could double or triple outdoors attendance without overwhelming the indoor component."
McEwen is all too aware that talented artists performing popular shows drive ticket sales indoors. The formula should work just as effectively outdoors. To do that is a bit of a chicken and a egg conundrum -- in order to get the best street performers you need streets full of people but you can't get huge audiences without the top buskers.
"Now we get touring buskers looking for another stop but I'd like to become one of the prime destinations for street performers," says McEwen, who previously was the executive producer of the Toronto Fringe Festival. "We need them to create some wow. The word of mouth about great buskers would bring out the crowds.
"We're not known right now as a great busking town which is sad. If we had a budget to fly them here you could get the best."
The lack of a mass of people also affects the festival's image as well as its ability to raise funds. While it sells more tickets than the Winnipeg Folk Festival, it doesn't look bigger. The alternative theatre party can't draw 14,000 to one venue like the folk festival in Birds Hill Park.
Size counts, as well as the perception of size, when it comes to securing grants, sponsorships and street closures.
"Most people don't see our size because half of our attendance is indoors," he says. "So you don't see that every hour there is 3,000-5,000 people watching plays because they are all indoors. I don't think we are viewed sometimes in the same light as the jazz festival or the folk festival. If we put 20,000 people in Old Market Square every night you wouldn't miss that."
Although the closing of Arthur and Albert streets was precipitated this festival by the need to move the vendor court to accommodate Red River College's $27-million renovation of the Union Bank Tower adjacent to Old Market Square, the move fits into McEwen's expansionist plans. The festival's footprint in the Exchange District has remained fairly constant throughout its 23 years but if it is to grow outdoors it will need more room to accommodate those larger crowds coming to the area.
NEW and NOTEWORTHY
RECORD NUMBER OF INDOOR SHOWS: A festival high of 154 shows in 24 venues is an increase of eight over the 2009 edition. That's more offerings than any other fringe festival except the largest one in Edmonton, which is hosting 184 shows on 42 stages next month.
CUBIC SQUARE: Fringe-goers will get its first look at the Cube, the main attraction of the second phase of a $3.3-million makeover of Old Market Square. The 12-day theatre party will be the true acid test for the functionality of the gleaming aluminum chain-mail structure. The betting is that the Cube has the potential to become a local landmark and provide some visual razzle-dazzle. The fire jugglers may not appreciate the roof over their heads but the bands certainly will when it rains.
VENDOR COURT: The collection of food sellers, jewelry kiosks and henna tattoo parlour have typically set up shop in the alley between the Old Market Square stage and Main Street. Due to the re-development of the nearby Union Bank Tower by Red River College, the merchants are all moving over to Albert and Arthur streets between McDermot and Bannatyne avenues. A pedestrian path through the alley linking the Cube with Main Street will be maintained.
A-LIST DETOUR: Albert and Arthur streets will be closed throughout the festival. With the clutch of vendors taking over the streets, a couple of busker circles will be set up to serve as satellite stages in the hopes of spreading the carnival atmosphere.
TICKET HIKE: Top ticket is now $10, a $1 increase. About two-thirds of the companies have set their admission at the higher price. You can pay less in some cases by attending matinees or meet special conditions like showing up in specific costumes or props. The last increase, also $1, was in 2006. Even with the markup, single tickets are still some of the cheapest on the circuit. Edmonton is charging a top ticket of $14. Frequent fringer and buddy pass prices remain the same.
STEPHEN JUBA PARK: This first-time venue is the outdoor grass stage for the site-specific clown show Morro and Jasp Gone Wild. To access the sylvan setting, enter on Bannatyne Avenue at Waterfront Drive to see the parody of TV's Girls Gone Wild beginning Thursday at 8:30 p.m. and running nightly at the same time through July 25.