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Fringe Fest feels growing strains

Winnipeg fringe festival trying to balance making performers and audiences happy

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Chuck McEwen, executive producer of the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, in the Cube at Old Market Square.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Chuck McEwen, executive producer of the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, in the Cube at Old Market Square. Photo Store

So what do you do for an encore after the 25th anniversary edition of the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival brought out a record indoor audience of more than 100,000?

"The focus of year 26 is to keep the enthusiasm of the 25th year," says festival executive producer Chuck McEwen. "Falling back under 100,000 would be a letdown. I don't want to dip down too much. If we could match last year's total, that would be phenomenal."

The festival starts a new quarter-century of showcasing alternative theatre this evening at 32 venues, which include 20 bring-your-own-venues. Some are as far away from fringe central in Old Market Square as the West End Cultural Centre at Sherbrook and Ellice and the Centre culturel franco-manitobain on Provencher Boulevard. Others are as near as the basement under the Peasant Cookery across the street on Bannatyne Avenue.

The 169 shows, which range in size from solo standup acts to full-blown musicals like The Who's Tommy, are only two fewer than last year's record total. Tickets are still no more than $10.

Whether 100,000 is surpassed again will depend on many factors, mostly on the quality of the work. Again, there are dozens of never-before-performed shows like Daniel Thau-Eleff's Good People, Bad Things and Jesus' 13th Video by Frank Bowman, along with familiar names from the past, including Better Looking Boys (1997), Jake's Gift (2007) and Til Death: The Six Wives of Henry VIII, which returns from last year. Perhaps the draw will be the added perk of free tea (2 for Tea), condoms (Circle) or perogies (Keeper).

And if attendance does hit six figures, it should be recognized that the total includes freebies to the media, sponsors and volunteers. That represents a significant portion of that 100,000 number.

"It's probably 23 or 24 per cent comps," says McEwen.

Each company gets 10 tickets to hand out per performance and there are 14,000 performances. The 844 volunteers earn a free ticket for each four hours worked. That's fairly standard for volunteer-driven festivals, says McEwen.

"So it's not unreasonable to get 15,000 to 20,000 comps, potentially," says McEwen, who is helming his sixth festival. "That would be 15 to 20 per cent from year to year."

At recent festivals, volunteer comps have been restricted to the size of the house. This year, an across-the-board policy restricts volunteer comps to six per cent of a venue's capacity.

The change comes after McEwen and his counterpart from Edmonton, following last year's festivals, received an open letter from prominent fringe performers concerned about the jump in number of fringe shows, which they claimed was detrimental to artists. Winnipeg added 17 shows in 2012 and Edmonton added 40. The result -- audiences were spread thinner across the added shows, meaning less money for performers.

"We make our living -- and it is a precarious living -- from those ticket sales," wrote Rob Salerno, who performed Big In Germany in Winnipeg last year. "While we always recognize the risk of performing at these festivals -- the show might not catch on, we might lose money -- we need the odds stacked in our favour in order to justify the risk.

"Too much too fast can make the festival a real struggle for the artists who want to be part of it."

The average take did slip last year but not significantly, McEwen says during a recent interview.

"Our average did go down a little because we had some targets for our 25th anniversary," he says. "We set a record but we were short about 3,000 tickets to meet the same average of the year before. It wasn't 15 seats per show less, it was two or three seats per show less."

Each performance in Winnipeg averages between 60 and 70 people and when the audience size exceeds that number a new main venue is added along with 10 groups from the sizable waiting list each year. That last happened last year when the Winnipeg Art Gallery's Muriel Richardson Auditorium was made the 12th regular venue. McEwen is committed to keeping the delicate balance of reasonable box office potential with allowing more artists to get in on the action.

"The festival was never designed for artists to max out and be guaranteed a certain amount of money," says McEwen, who doesn't see any more growth in the number of acts in the near future. "I think 170 is a good number for quite some time. As long as we maintain a healthy average, everybody will do well and that's what we want."

The complaints come from companies with instant sellouts. No one grumbles about the policy when a show doesn't sell out. When their show is a hot ticket, they wish there were more paying customers.

"It's natural to do that but you can't be upset if you have a sellout," says McEwen. "Sure, you might lose a grand of revenue, but you are doing far above the average."

Salerno opted to pass on fringe performing this year, although many who signed the letter, including Jem Rolls, Brent Hirose and Jeff Leard, are here again.

"I won't be back until I get a signal that the fests are going to be reasonably-sized," Salerno said via email. "I didn't get any response from either festival this year and I find that really worrisome."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Prokosh's picks

It's no easy task trying to uncover the hits of the 2013 Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival with its 169 choices. To help with your early fringe scheduling, here are 10 shows that are on my must-see list:

  1. Hockey Night at the Puck & Pickle Pub: The best play for local puckheads is to stickhandle over to the King's Head to see if they have scored a big win at the fringe.
  2. Jake's Gift: Sold out the entire run at the festival in 2009 and it shouldn't be a surprise the drama about a Second World War veteran's journey back to Juno Beach will do it again.
  3. Radio :30: The comedy about an actor becoming unglued while recording a radio ad arrives with growing buzz.
  4. Hitchcock'd: Popular out-of-town troupe, Sound & Fury, plus the much mockable subject, Alfred Hitchcock, equals a hot ticket, even if it is playing off-campus at West End Cultural Centre.
  5. Hot Thespian Action: The award-winning quintet is close to a sure bet for fringers looking for top-notch sketch comedy.
  6. Assassinating Thomson: Legally blind actor/artist Bruce Horak paints a portrait of the audience while noting the parallels between his life and that of unofficial Group of Seven artist Tom Thomson.
  7. 2 for Tea: James and Jamesy are two classic English eccentrics you should plan to meet at their tea party.
  8. My Dad's Deaths: Jon Bennett (Pretending Things are a Cock) tells the story of his relationship with his conservative father, who had a penchant for dying.
  9. 6 Guitars: Orlando's Chase Padgett strums a moving story about six guitarists who play vastly different songs about the importance of music in their lives.
  10. The Titanic: Fringe favourite Kenneth Brown has adapted E. J. Pratt's epic poem about the 1912 sinking of the Titanic.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 17, 2013 C3

History

Updated on Wednesday, July 17, 2013 at 8:26 AM CDT: replaces photo, changes headline, adds sidebar

11:29 AM: adds links

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