Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/7/2017 (909 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
One hour before her new Fringe show opens, Kerry Ipema is holed up backstage at her downtown Red River College venue, feeling nervous, feeling all of the things a performer does before they meet the watchful eyes of an audience.
She is a Fringe returnee, now. Last year, the Free Press followed her for days, as she prepared to debut her parody romp, One Woman Sex and the City. It was her first Fringe festival experience, and her first visit to Winnipeg.
Ipema was nervous then, too. But she sold out the run. Now, on the brink of her second Fringe outing — her new show, Sex Ed, is more personally revealing — she revisits those feelings, yet this time with a sense of déjà vu.
The beer tent, the food trucks, the musicians passing the hat by The Cube: as she walked around the Exchange District this week, it was as if Winnipeg had picked up right where she left it. A dream once paused, now resumed.
For fans, for performers, the first day of the Fringe always feels like the beginning of a whole new world, one where anything is possible, where the big-bang energy of creation foams over the pot. It also feels like coming home.
"I go home and rave about Winnipeg, like absolutely RAVE," Ipema texts, as the clock ticks towards showtime.
In New York City, where she lives when not on the road, people raise an eyebrow at that. Yet Ipema saw something in the Winnipeg throngs, something rare and precious: "I think there’s an absolute thirst for these shows," she says.
It’s been 30 years now, of the Winnipeg Fringe, and even 30 years in it’s still remarkable that the city hosts one of the planet’s best alt-theatre festivals. Remarkable that, for ranks of working actors, Winnipeg holds the key to a dream.
This is a city that clings to the hope of "world class," affixing those words to perpetual promises of riches yet to come. Yet for 12 days each July, it becomes exactly that: if all the world is a stage, then Winnipeg plays this starring role.
In this grand performance, the Exchange District’s geography is an integral part of the show.
Every night, thousands of Fringe revellers pass through its middle. They deliver their lines, effervescent and unscripted, surrounded by a set piece of weathered brick backdrops and a canopy of spread-fingered elms.
In the sunny breeze of opening day, you think — if Winnipeg was a Fringe show, it could be a period drama.
It’s not so hard to imagine. The actors, costumed in stiff hats and scratchy wool, curl their lips around dusty accents. The world they inhabit is a simulacrum of what came before, by turns whimsically recreated or imperfectly preserved.
The story they act out is classic, and holds no big surprises: familiar cycles of rebirth and disappointment, replays of old clashes. Yet through this show, a wistful hope that retreading old boards will squeak out some new understanding.
Yet somehow, that idea doesn’t quite fit. A period drama would be too stoic, too confining. The Fringe itself shows a different side of Winnipeg, one more abundant and joyful and new; if it was a Fringe show, that must be captured too.
On Wednesday evening, Fringe performers filed onstage at the Cube to briefly plug their shows. They included artists from the United Kingdom and Colorado and right here at home: they were children, and students, and 55 years old.
What they described, in their flash of self-promotion, was a garden of creation. A play about tween-age best friends; a play about the man who first patented a nuclear chain reaction; a play about two people trapped in a "void, an abyss."
So if Winnipeg was a Fringe play, perhaps it would be a musical.
In this iteration, the city is a diversely cast spectacular, bursting with colour, becoming more real as it grows louder. Through the quaver of a practiced vibrato, the city transforms, song probing at places that words cannot find alone.
This version of Winnipeg is passionate, and bountiful. It is stylized and artful, with bright lights and broad skies. The subtleties of its story are slipped between projected aspirations: a conflict, a romance, someone dies at the end.
Yet this too doesn’t quite seem right. Winnipeg has long stoked the fires of creative expression. But it is a slow burn, not so demonstrative, never one to so loudly trumpet its own song. The city is many things; but New York it is not.
Which brings us to this: if Winnipeg was a Fringe play, maybe it would be a simple solo show.
On the flat stage of the prairie, it stands alone, with rivers for curtains and stars for a crowd. In the heartbeat before speaking, it becomes aware of the empty space that surrounds: it stretches out its arms, and touches the darkness.
Spartan lights rise in silence. The city lifts its voice in monologue, somehow hoping that speaking by one can find a truth held by all. Turning inward, turning in until the exit doors close and the roads to somewhere else fall away.
For those quiet minutes, that intimately unfolding hour, all that exists is the figure on stage.
This sounds more like the city I know: curled around its own hopes, braced against the winds that howl in the wider world. Always searching its own story for clues to where it has been, what it has become, and where it is going.
This week, the Exchange District rings with the voices of many, drawn by the hope of finding ears that will hear them. When they leave, some will rave about the city, alive in their minds as food trucks and beer tents and 12 days in July.
They will have discovered the best parts of Winnipeg, the gentle summer nights and familiar faces, always in the same places they left them. In embracing their creations, maybe Winnipeg discovers something about itself, too.