Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fringe festival has revolutionary roots

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The first Winnipeg Fringe show I ever saw was called Hell, simply Hell, and with regrets to the actors, that's the memory of it that best lingered.

The name was what grabbed our attention. The name sold that show.

We saw it scrawled on the Main Street sidewalk in orange and red chalk. One of the actors pressed a handbill at us and it was one of the rare spontaneous moments of unsolicited human engagement in my neatly ordered young life. At the time, I was an awkward 15-year-old, draped in an oversized Fringe volunteer shirt and aching to learn. And this whole Hell thing, it whispered of something a bit wicked, maybe a little obscene.

"We're going to hell," my shy boyfriend and I snickered, because that was about as transgressive a joke as we knew at the time.

Alas, my recollection of our actual visit to Hell is far more fragmented. There was the velveteen darkness of the theatre, the muffled rustles of jeans against seats, and the lanky young actors cavorting under the spotlight. Every word they bellowed put this shiver in me. I couldn't tell if I actually liked what I had just seen, but I knew it was completely unlike any of the shows that streamed by on TV.

So this was the start of a great love story. Maybe not quite one deserving of its own one-woman show, but great enough.

Almost every July since that fateful trip to Hell, I've wrung my heart out at Fringe. I've sorrowed and sighed, I've laughed 'til I cried, I've been exhausted and revolted and bored out of my mind. I have sunk into plays that pushed me to the edge of what it is to feel human, performances that left me running outside to sob on the curb. And for being the site of a hundred catharses, the Fringe has been -- for me -- the greatest festival in the world.

In some ways, it's not so surprising Winnipeg should have grown its Fringe to become the second-largest on the continent. In the heady days of Manitoba's jam-packed summer calendar -- get it in while you can, I suppose -- the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival is wedged between its older, somewhat more stately festival cousins. On one side is the Winnipeg Folk Festival and its sprawling campground city fantastical; on the other is Folklorama, the persistent and remarkably resilient old veteran.

The Fringe slipped into the gap between them in 1988. It bore only five venues at the time, including one backstage at the Woodbine, but otherwise not much has changed. For example, there is still no jury process for submissions; instead, acts are selected by lottery, and the festival does not interfere with the creative content of their show. Meanwhile, all of the box-office revenue goes directly to performers.

Those tenets form the Fringe's simple but revolutionary foundation -- and in turn permit it to give space to the most authentic revelations.

We live in a society that doggedly envisions itself as a meritocracy. That's a tougher sell in reality, though the numbers that pinch at the myth are for another column and another time. Point is, at the Fringe, this idea isn't a lie.

The allure of the Fringe is, among most similar cultural events, it is perhaps the most nakedly meritocratic -- other than its lottery entry process which, besides acting to foil the risk of censoring curation, serves as a cheeky nod to the luck of life's draw. Once a play is in, however, the shows that best connect with their intended audience tend to find large ones.

There is something so honest about this process of people telling their stories unmoderated and seeing what sticks. It reminds of a time, distant in conscious memory but seared by a million years into our ancestral minds, when all stories were passed from one mouth to another. When none of truth's many prismatic faces were censored by power, but all came up honest. The most perceptive of us and the least, considered together and with equal right to speak.

Maybe we need that now, more than ever, when entertainment is so packaged and defanged and declawed, when so little is given to us raw. Maybe it's even more urgent now to open a space for these stages unfiltered, to wrestle with our experiences, from rope bondage to cancer.

All of this is a roundabout way to say: Happy Fringing Winnipeg, and see you in the beer tent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 19, 2014 D3

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