To those who might find a particular play at this year’s Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival offensive, Fringe executive producer Chuck McEwen has this advice: It’s called the Fringe Festival for a reason.
"We don’t tolerate anything illegal on stage, or anything that puts the audience at risk," McEwen says.
But, he adds: "When it comes to the content of a show, one of the principles of Fringe Festivals across the country is that artists have artistic control to create and present their work on stage. "Whether or not a show has artistic merit is left up to the audience, who choose whether or not to attend."
Nevertheless, some attendees feel Hollywood Hen Pit , a show put on by Ian Mozdzen and Doug Melnyk, goes beyond what is acceptable even for such an edgy festival. In the Fringe Festival program, Hollywood Hen Pit advertises itself as a 90-minute show and has warnings for language and nudity. But Free Press reviewer Wendy King said those warnings did not capture how far the show would go. Her review notes one of the actors "inserts mayonnaise into his rectum and then defecates in front of the audience. It is... as degrading the third time as it is the first," the review says.
Terri Stevens, publicist for the Winnipeg Fringe, said the festival has looked into complaints brought to their attention by a reviewer for the CBC.
Stevens said via email the festival talked with the performer, who said "the caricatured fellatio scene is simulated. The show is, however, extreme in ways." Stevens said the festival will be "keeping an eye" on the situation.
Following the CBC complaint, the show’s billing was changed to add an age restriction so no one under 18 can enter the show, according to a press release from the festival.
King said she understands the play is satire and doesn’t want to come off as prudish, but added the problem with the show is partly that the audience wasn’t warned of the graphic material.
"(The festival) knew so little of the content of this show that it failed miserably in its responsibility to warn its patrons of the graphic, violent sexual exhibitionism and language of which the show is comprised," she said via email.
Mozdzen said he realizes the show is not for everybody, but added he thinks there are people who would want to see his work.
"There’s some audiences that do want to see what I do, but it’s certainly not mainstream or popular, and I don’t mind that," he said.
"Maybe it’s really bad, but it doesn’t matter to me. It’s just what I do," he said.
Mozdzen said he wanted to perform at the Fringe specifically because he might not be able to get his work seen otherwise.
"It’s one of the few things we have in our city, the opportunities to have people see work that wouldn’t be seen if I did it independently," he said.
Toning down the show wouldn’t work for Mozdzen, he said.
"We do what we do in the studio room... It’s certainly part of a tradition of body art or transgressive art or provocative art," he said.
Fringe attendees didn’t seem as perturbed by the play as the two reviewers did.
Robin Kroeger said she hasn’t seen the play, but would not mind seeing it despite the content.
"I think I would be a little taken aback by it, but it wouldn’t bother me," she said.
McEwen said performing companies write their own play descriptions and set their own restrictions, as they are responsible for the content of the shows, but King believes the festival should be more active in its overview of what is presented.
"(It) can cause harm to the other companies which participate, especially those that want to push the artistic boundaries of theatre, which is one of the things creative fringe theatre should do," King said.
Mozdzen said his performance was as much for him as for the audience and that the audience is often not necessary for artistic expressions like this.
"Sometimes I think it’s enough to work on a piece and no one sees it." Still, in this case, the fact the show is so visual made an audience important for him, he said.
"It’s a perspective on the world I don’t think we get to see at all, because it’s so terrifying. But for me, I have a fascination with darkness," he said.
Mozdzen said he chose not to read any of the reviews about his show this year.
"I’m sure it causes a certain amount of conversation," he said.