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Thriving at 25

A lot of blood and sweat (literally) went into turning the Winnipeg Fringe Festival into an institution

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/7/2012 (1855 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the run-up to the inaugural Winnipeg Fringe Festival, executive producer Larry Desrochers went shopping at a men's clothing store in the Exchange District, hoping to buy a sports jacket he could wear when hitting up potential corporate sponsors for his new venture.

The salesman inquired about the reason for his purchase and Desrochers, then 29, explained he was working on creating an annual summer theatre festival that staged mostly never-before-seen shows from noon to midnight. His big plan was met with immediate derision.

Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival executive producer Chuck McEwen has been the man in charge of putting on the Winnipeg favourite for the last five years, and has been working on fringe festivals for the past eighteen. The Winnipeg Fringe celebrates 25 years this summer.


Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival executive producer Chuck McEwen has been the man in charge of putting on the Winnipeg favourite for the last five years, and has been working on fringe festivals for the past eighteen. The Winnipeg Fringe celebrates 25 years this summer.

Larry Desrochers, the first Winnipeg Fringe Festival executive producer, in 1988.


Larry Desrochers, the first Winnipeg Fringe Festival executive producer, in 1988.

Steve McIntyre, front, played the titular reptile in Mind of the Iguana.


Steve McIntyre, front, played the titular reptile in Mind of the Iguana.

"He actually says it to me and he's actually trying to make a sale," recalls Desrochers during a recent interview. "I had the jacket in my hand but I told him I wanted to look around a little bit more. I didn't want to buy it because of his attitude.

"There were a lot of naysayers at the start."

Even MTC board members were dubious of the festival's chances of success, given their belief that everyone goes to the cottage in the summer.

The Winnipeg Fringe Festival survived that early skepticism to celebrate its silver anniversary this year as one of the city's true artistic triumphs. It is easy today to forget its modest birth and the arm-twisting needed to establish a new, anti-elitist, anything-goes theatrical blowout.

It wouldn't exist today if Manitoba Theatre Centre artistic director Rick McNair had not been the first to simply ask why Winnipeg did not have a fringe festival like the one in Edmonton -- which introduced the concept to Canada in 1982 -- and Vancouver and Victoria. When no one had a convincing reason why not, McNair found the money to send Desrochers off to the 1987 Edmonton Fringe Festival to study its set-up and prepare to spearhead the first Winnipeg Fringe Festival the following year.

In his pitch to the MTC board for seed money, Desrochers wrote that the objective was "to break through the public's 'eight o'clock, formal dress, reservations-only' perception of theatre by making drama something inexpensive, accessible and fun, something that can happen anytime, anywhere, for anyone."

It doesn't sound like a big deal today, but then, it was revolutionary for MTC to cede quality control to a bunch of unknowns with $150 (the admission fee) and an idea. Worse, there was no way to tell the charlatans from the shamans.

"It was a wacky idea for a regional theatre that protects its artistic integrity to undertake, especially because I couldn't guarantee that any of the shows would be good," says Desrochers, currently the executive producer of Manitoba Opera.

The nine-day event opened July 16 in five indoor venues surrounding the fest's outdoor hub at Old Market Square, a neighbourhood that Desrochers noticed mirrored in personality and potential that of Edmonton's Old Strathcona District. To ensure that festival-goers got the message that they were in for something completely different, shows were staged in non-traditional spaces like the Cauldron Club, a sweatbox on the third floor of a sketchy Princess Street edifice, and the beer-soaked back room of the Woodbine Hotel on Main Street.

"What worried us is what if we threw this big party and nobody came," he says.

The five noon-time shows were modestly attended on the opening Saturday, with turnouts for some in the single digits. Attendance did pick up in the evening, with a Calgary puppeteer by the name of Ronnie Burkett the first to crack the 100-ticket mark before a local production of Sexual Perversity in Chicago registered the first sellout.

Burkett, with his one-man, nine-character Fool's Edge, was a raunchy revelation as Winnipeggers roared at the sexual innuendo spouted by his 15th-century puppet characters.

Talk to anybody who performed or attended the 1988 festival and they immediately bring up the blistering heat. No one remembers what went on at the two air-conditioned venues, just the three that didn't have AC.

"It was hotter than you can imagine," says Burkett, the marionette virtuoso who went on to perform at MTC many times and become an international star. "I was wearing a quilted Renaissance tunic. It never dried between shows.

"It was an exciting time. It was new, the city took to it and there was the thrill of discovery between audiences and performers. It felt like theatre was being liberated somehow."

And it was. The offbeat shows, the late-night curtain times, the dubious venues and the cheap tickets (top price was $5) appealed to a younger demographic looking for a laugh or something weird after dark.

"We saw there was a hunger on the part of Winnipeg audiences for something different from what they were seeing the rest of the year," says actor John Bluethner. "At the time in the summer it was Rainbow Stage and nothing else."

Right from the start, the festival exuded a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland let's-put-on-a-show feel that swept through the Winnipeg theatre community. Everybody who was anybody wanted in, setting off an unprecedented flurry of activity.

Future Governor General's Award-winning playwright Vern Thiessen directed Sexuality Perversity with a cast that included Michael Nathanson, current artistic director of the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre. (Both Thiessen and Nathanson have two plays eaach in the 2012 fringe festival.) Rick Chafe made his debut as a playwright with Player Pool; this past season, Prairie Theatre Exchange presented his most recent, The Secret Mask. Ann Hodges, who last season helmed the brilliant August: Osage County at RMTC, started her directing career back then with Vegetable Inside. Genie-nominated filmmaker Gary Yates co-wrote Something Strange in 1988.

Actor Steve McIntyre was involved in three shows: the French-language Sommeil entre coupe, un trilogie, the Theatre X improv show A Loony a Night, and Mind of the Iguana, in which he played the title reptile.

"We wanted to do as many as we could," says McIntyre. "We didn't have to worry about getting in because we all got in."

It was a boom time for directors and actors.

"We got our money (ticket revenue) after each show, so 100 per cent of the actors in town had cash in their pockets at the same time," says McIntyre. "So there was quite a party at the beer tent."

Despite the sweltering conditions, the fringe sold 14,000 tickets, almost tripling Desrochers' prediction. It was the most successful debut of any Canadian fringe festival and 25 years later, it still is.

Browse through the covers of the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival programs, going all the way back to the beginning.

Only at the Fringe

  • Tanya Ashton and her boyfriend Alan eloped from their homes in Thompson and got married in Old Market Square with all the pomp and circumstance the fringe festival could muster.
  • In 1991, owing to a $10,000 deficit, the Fringe put out a call to its volunteers in the hopes of getting 120 of them to agree to become guinea pigs for a local research company testing various personal products. For every 13-visit participant the festival would receive $60, to a maximum of $7,200.
  • In 1991, Andrew Goldfuss thought to himself during a fringe show, "Even a monkey could do a better job than this." He couldn't find a monkey, so he entered the 1992 festival with a show called Man is Not Spam, but cancelled the entire run owing to an acute case of stage fright.
  • Even though there was no money-back guarantee at the fringe, executive producer Craig Walls used to carry $50 cash just in case he ran into irate patrons.
  • To create a park environment for the play Steel Kiss, 200 square feet of sod was laid down on the second floor of the Melnychenko Gallery in 1992.

Fringiest titles

  • Live Sex Show -- Llamas
  • Captain Vaseline vs The Radioactive Slut Bunnies from Hell
  • Penis De Milo
  • F--king Stephen Harper: How I Sexually Assaulted the 22nd Prime Minister of Canada
  • The Wet Dream Catcher
  • A Procrastinator's Guide to Depressive Masturbation
  • Wall to Wall Bum
  • Uncle Willy's Spray-On Condoms
  • The Condom, the Cucumber and the Girl from Ipanema
  • The C--kwhisperer -- A Love Story


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Updated on Thursday, July 19, 2012 at 9:47 AM CDT: adds photos, embeds slideshow, adds fact box

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