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Building a bigger big top

Fringe festival organizers hoping to set attendance records

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/7/2011 (2655 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Chuck McEwen is focused on making the Big Top Fringe another record-breaker, but he also has his eye on the festival's silver anniversary next year.

"We are the laying the groundwork for two festivals at the same time," says the executive producer. "We need to let people know about the 25th anniversary this summer."

The 24th annual Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival kicks off this evening with a little over a third of the 150 shows opening on the 24 stages in and around Old Market Square. Over the next 12 days, the streets of the Exchange District will be teeming with fringe-goers -- as it never is the rest of the year -- anxious to see the best theatre in town.

The ever-cautiously optimistic McEwen has a modest 2011 goal of reaching a new indoor attendance high of 90,000, passing last year's record of 86,717. That would set the stage in its 25th year for an attempt at becoming the first fringe festival in North America to top 100,000 ticket-holders.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/7/2011 (2655 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Chuck McEwen is focused on making the Big Top Fringe another record-breaker, but he also has his eye on the festival's silver anniversary next year.

"We are the laying the groundwork for two festivals at the same time," says the executive producer. "We need to let people know about the 25th anniversary this summer."

The 24th annual Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival kicks off this evening with a little over a third of the 150 shows opening on the 24 stages in and around Old Market Square. Over the next 12 days, the streets of the Exchange District will be teeming with fringe-goers — as it never is the rest of the year — anxious to see the best theatre in town.

The ever-cautiously optimistic McEwen has a modest 2011 goal of reaching a new indoor attendance high of 90,000, passing last year's record of 86,717. That would set the stage in its 25th year for an attempt at becoming the first fringe festival in North America to top 100,000 ticket-holders.

"That's 14,000 between now and 2012," says McEwen, overseeing his fourth festival. "I think if we work hard and have good weather, it's not unrealistic. That's one-third of our fringers seeing one more show."

He knows he could easily do that next year by bringing loads of past favourites — such as Free Food and Beer, English Suitcase Theatre, Mump and Smoot, Theatre X, Ronnie Burkett — from the last two dozen festivals.

"We can't do that because we have to be unjuried (entrance is only through a lottery)," he says. "I would have a hard time arguing with 150 companies as to why they are competing with a hit every show."

To celebrate a quarter-century the festival is going to need extra money to undertake special programming or book a buzz-worthy band — like, say, the Weakerthans — that could draw 3,000-5,000 people to the square. The financing would have to be in place in three months to book a prominent act by the end of the year for some legacy event next July.

As well, the plan is to add an extra venue to accommodate 160 shows, which would be the most ever. Then it will be left to the fringe faithful, whom McEwen is sure will rise to the occasion.

"People have a unique connection with the fringe," he says. "There are no strangers at the fringe. You can come here alone, stand in line to buy a ticket and you will be talked to about what you've seen by one, if not 10 people that day. People really do commune and share their love of theatre."

 

Look up, look way up

Fringe ringmaster Chuck McEwen has set his sights on breaking records.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Fringe ringmaster Chuck McEwen has set his sights on breaking records.

IF you are in Old Market Square next Tuesday at noon, you'll notice a giant, helium-filled balloon floating over Old Market Square. It's the centrepiece for Toronto's Suspended Animation Circus, a troupe of daredevils who dangle from ropes some six to nine metres in the air, entertaining audiences below with aerobatics and ribbon routines.

It will certainly put to an end to any grumbling that the Big Top Fringe is all talk and no big top.

The debut of the circus — which will be entertaining several times a day through July 24 — recently returned from Belgium is all part of the festival's determined push to draw bigger crowds to the outdoor stage in the hope of converting scores of them into ticket buyers for indoor shows. Last year about 80,000 people took in the all-day entertainment at The Cube, but the sky's the limit, says McEwen.

"We still have to focus on our younger demographic," McEwen says. "We have to use the outdoor stage more to bring them down."

While the outdoor lineup also includes the Unicycle Queen from Montreal, Australia's fiery Zap Circus and a return of San Francisco prop comic and juggler Fred Anderson, it is higher-profile music acts he thinks can attract more teens and 20-somethings. Local country-blues singer Romi Mayes is making her festival debut Saturday at 11 p.m. and it is hoped her following will be introduced to the 12-day theatre party.

 

Winnipeg is alive with the sound of musicals

NO fewer than 16 musicals will be opening at the fringe in the next few days, a veritable festival within the festival.

In an event full of performers talking by themselves on a bare stage, you have to love the naked ambition of triple-threats offering singing, dancing and acting for only $10. Fringers will get the best value for their money attending musicals.

And they are not all a bunch of silly sing-alongs. Well, some are. The Great Canadian Trailer Park Musical is billed as "a big-hearted, unashamedly vulgar off-Broadway hit (that) is more fun than a chair-throwing episode of Jerry Springer." Ditto for Cannibal the Musical and The Brain from Planet X.

If you are a buy-Winnipeg-first fringer, try either of the première runs of Joseph Aragon's Illuminati II: The Second One or his intriguing collaboration with playwright Sharon Bajer called Hersteria, which follows four women who are driven to murder after being betrayed by their therapist. Also of local interest is Colin Godbout's The Last Gig of Lenny Breau about the Winnipeg jazz legend.

The off-Broadway cult hit Zana, Don't!, by the company behind last year's huge hit The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, is set in a parallel universe where homosexuality is the norm. The angry rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch is well placed at the Pyramid Cabaret on Fort Street, while Whiskey Bars promises an atmospheric night of Kurt Weill classics.

Performers are so anxious to stage musicals that a company of Winnipeggers has moved a singing Hamlet into the 21st century.

 

Free Press News Café serves up fringe specials

STARTING Friday evening at the Free Press News Café, festival-goers can take in The Sideshow with comedian Vanessa Macrae.

At 8 p.m. and 9:10 p.m., Macrae will talk with Free Press personalities and reviewers about their favourite plays. She will also host top fringe performers as they use our McDermot Avenue stage to preview their productions. The Sideshow runs nightly to July 23.

As well, each weekday morning during the festival, Free Press reporter Tania Kohut will do a live web interview from the News Café with a featured fringe performer. See the live webcast every morning at 9:30 a.m. at winnipegfreepress.com.

Look for Miss Lonelyhearts Maureen Scurfield, who be camped out at the cafe and festival beer tent, collecting the latest fringe gossip and goings-on. See Sideshow Mo's column, starting Friday, in the Free Press fringe pullouts, which will contain artist profiles and reviews of all the shows.

 

By the numbers

24th annual Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival

Dates: July 13-24

Budget: $650,000

Number of companies: 150

Number of international companies: 31

Number of venues: 24 (13 BYOVs)

Single tickets: $5-$10

Largest venue: 300 seats, Prairie Theatre Exchange and Pyramid Cabaret

Smallest venue: 60 seats, Studio 320 and Rudolph Rocket Cultural Centre

2010 total indoor attendance: 86,717

Average house per performance: 67

2010 total attendance: 166, 717

Total box office revenue: $600,698

 

Canadian Fringe Festival Circuit

2010 indoor attendance leaders:

Edmonton: 92,747

Winnipeg: 86,717

Toronto: 54,029

Vancouver: 31,261

Montreal: 17,3000

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