This year, the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival turns 30.
It’s now older than Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse.
And over the course of its three decades, it has evolved beyond that quaint time when it could be contained in fewer than 10 downtown venues, all within easy walking distance from each other. In sheer numbers, the 2017 edition showcases some 188 different shows in 30 venues. (It was 190, but two shows have cancelled.)
Among those shows lurk a number of veteran fringe performers who have special insight into how fringe theatre has changed throughout the world, and in Winnipeg in particular.
T.J. Dawe, writer, performer, director and dramaturge, is at Venue 28 (Dramatic Arts Centre) performing his one-man show Roller Coaster. This round of shows in Winnipeg represent his 108th fringe worldwide. It’s safe to say: he knows his fringe.
For him, Winnipeg’s fringe fest remains a high point in the Canadian landscape, more enthusiastically attended than fests in bigger cities such as Vancouver and Toronto.
"The fringe still takes over the city just like it did when I did my first Winnipeg fringe in 1994," he says.
"I’m from Vancouver. My high school was on the same block as the Vancouver fringe hub, and I didn’t even know it was a theatre festival," he says. "The Vancouver fringe has grown substantially since then, but anyone in Vancouver might not know of the festival’s existence, even while it’s happening.
"Not so with the Winnipeg fringe. It’s the biggest thing in town for those two weeks," he says. "I tell people in other cities about how big the Winnipeg fringe is, how people take their vacations during the fringe and see as many shows as they can. That’s really unusual. And in 23 years, that hasn’t changed."
From a performer’s standpoint, however, Dawe says the lottery system that allows performers entry into any given fringe has become "clogged" over the years.
"There are more people on the wait list. There are many BYOVs (bring your-own-venues). This means fewer people can tour consistently, improving with each festival appearance, building a following," he says.
Dawe allows that negative has a positive side:
"It means there’s a sea change in terms of the way theatre is thought of," he says. "More people want to create their own work instead of auditioning and playing other people’s parts."
Expanding the current fringe beyond its July season could be a solution, he says.
"Many fringes curate a mini-festival in the winter, bringing in more established acts who might not have gotten drawn in the lottery," Dawe says. "Winnipeg could absolutely do this."
Winnipeg performer Stephen Sim is celebrating his 20th year at the fringe with Crumbs, the improv company he founded with Lee White, but his experience goes further back, to the mid ‘90s with the sketch comedy troupe Higher Than the Ground. Sim partners with White at the annual Crumbs show, and with Caitlyn Curtis for the Burns and Allen homage Comedy Is Funny Again, both at Pantages mainstage (Venue 4).
His sheer longevity with the festival is cause for celebrating it.
"It is a festival that really allows an artist to develop, find a voice and find an audience," he says. "The fringe allowed us to experiment in front of an actual audience and put in the reps needed to get good at something."
"Some performers in the fringe who started out as beginners can now make their living as professionals," he says. "Some tour the fringe festival circuit. Some stay local and mount their shows every year.
"But what has stayed the same is the chance for new performers and new groups to find their feet and their voice," Sim says. "When we first started doing our sketch comedy show, improv wasn’t even a category at the fringe, now there are many new improv groups. "For them, the live audience is the number 1 teacher. A critical mass of watching live theatre takes over the city. It’s wonderful."
The first time Victoria-born performer Michael Schaldemose brought his cherished William Shatner impersonation to Winnipeg was in 1994, when he and members of his Way Off Broadway Group presented The Scions of Hydra (a comedy that in many ways predated the similarly-plotted movie Galaxy Quest five years later) in the long-gone Macaroni Bar venue at Mother Tucker’s restaurant.
Schaldemose-as-Shatner returns in his one-man comedy Call Me Kirk at PTE Mainstage (Venue 16). Schaldemose misses the competitive aspect of the fringe back in the day, including the all-important strategy of finding just the right place to stick your poster.
"We, of the old guard, miss some of the guerilla war aspects of postering," he says. "The adventure of capitalizing on an unrealized advertising location was a giddy, endorphin-producing experience."
He also misses participating in the provocations of fringes past.
"We were rebels back then," he says of himself and his company partner Michael Wener. "We produced some, shall we say, controversial shows.
"Erections Ejaculations Exhibitions (based on the work by Charles Bukowski) and The Fuck Machine prompted the Morality Squad from two cities’ police departments to view our shows to consider charges," Schaldemose recalls fondly. "In another city, we had a group of rabbis come to the show, at Wener’s request, after he was threatened by a holocaust survivor to have Mossad pay him a visit. The rabbis found our Young Hitler play to be acceptable."
The growth of the fringe festival has coincided with a digital revolution that makes things easier, says Rachelle Elie, performer and writer of S#!t I’m in Love with You Again at Pantages Mainstage (Venue 4).
Elie been doing the fringe circuit since 2002 and her current offering is the fifth one-woman show she’s brought to Winnipeg. Getting the word out, she says, has become mercifully easier.
"Last week, as I emailed the entire Winnipeg media list in less than an hour, I reflected on how much more energy it used to take to send information to the press in 2002 when I did my first one woman fringe show," she says. "Back then, press releases and photos were printed along with individual cover letters and were sent in a large envelopes individually to press via Canada Post.
"This had to be timed, taking into consideration the possible five to 10 days for delivery to another province."
Even keeping track of the reviews also proved to be a more hands-on process than it is now.
"In 2002, reviews were not posted on the internet," she says. "The morning after opening night, I would rush out to the nearest corner store, and leaf through (the newspapers) to see if my show got ink.
"If it did, I would buy up 10 copies, cut out my reviews — if they were positive — to send a bunch back to family and friends to share my joy."
For fringe performers like New Zealander Penny Ashton, the fest remains primarily a people experience. Ashton, premiering her Dickensian romp Olive Copperbottom — her seventh Winnipeg show — at the West End Cultural Centre (Venue 24), debuted at the Edinburgh fringe in 2004 and made her Canadian debut three years after that.
She was especially endeared to "the delightful people of Winnipeg," after her husband Matthew Harvey performed his show Dangerman to local acclaim. "It’s the only place where my husband felt like a rock star as people would shout ‘Dangerman!’ at him on the street," she says. "Their enthusiasm for all things fringe is unabated and hugely appreciated."
The sentiment especially applies to the family that has billeted Ashton from the get-go: the Valencias. "I met Oliver in Market Square in 2007," she recalls. "My original billet was near the airport, so I asked every single person I met if I could stay with them. Oliver checked with his then girlfriend, Ragan who said yes.
"Ten years later, they are married with two kids and I even helped them move house in 2016, just across the road.
"We are very good friends now, thanks to Market Square," Ashton says. "Also, they have Apple TV and Netflix."