Cultural Exchange | New Ottawa Critics: Letter 2

As two independent blogger collectives, both New Ottawa Critics and ourselves are both inspired by what theatrically is happening beyond our borders. Each month, we will correspond with all the latest happenings in our cultural cities. This is an opportunity to learn, be inspired, communicate and collaborate! This month, the New Ottawa Critics tell us more about the significance of the Ottawa Fringe Festival in Canadian theatre culture.


Dear Theatre Fullstop,

It’s officially summer! While many Canadians are probably thinking of patio season and taking weekend trips out to the cottage, for us arts critics here in Ottawa, it can only mean one thing: festival season. And the New Ottawa Critics have the largest theatre festival in the city to look forward to every summer: the Ottawa Fringe Festival. Running 10 straight days in June (June 8-18th this year), the Fringe is a veritable buffet of artistic content, which brings together performers from all corners of the globe. The Fringe Festival is a recognized presence in many Canadian arts communities, with many artists centering their careers on the “Fringe circuit,” so I got to wondering how this festival is viewed today in the UK? – the undeniable home of the Fringe.


Before getting into the more nitty gritty, I would like to give you a little slice of what the #OttFringe vibe is like: Every year over 50 shows are selected and performed in approximately 10 or 11 different venues all within relative walking distance of one another (the farthest two venues are probably a 20-30 minute walk away; and a lot of venues are wheelchair accessible). The beer tent is the central hub for the entire ten days, and you can always find artists rehearsing their material, or flyering potential audience members with handbills (you will hear an incredible number of elevator pitches throughout the fest – but that’s totally part of it); critics writing reviews; and audience members frantically rearranging their Fringe schedules due to sold out shows or buzz they’ve seen on Twitter while enjoying cold beer and hot food from local suppliers. No matter whether you’re an artist, audience member, volunteer, staff member or critic you will almost certainly find yourself staying late at the beer tent conversing with new friends about the plethora of creative work happening around you. For ten days you, as a theatre person, have a place to congregate and socialize with other like-minded individuals. This is perhaps why “Fringe withdrawal” is a real thing for people here – once Fringe is done, you can’t help but feel a little lost, like you have nowhere to go. In the same vein, it is also why the Ottawa Fringe is one of the most anticipated events of the entire year.


Fringe Festivals in Canada are mostly governed through the parent organization, the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals (or CAFF) – though it might be important to note that not all of the associated Festivals are Canadian. In order to be associated with the CAFF, each individual Fringe Festival must adhere to the CAFF’s ideals, its mandate, and its mission. This includes, of course, the principal guideline that the artistic content of Fringe must not be juried and that 100% of ticket sales go directly to the artists. What is perhaps more significant though for our purposes here is that the CAFF puts focus on the “Fringe Circuit” and that “the health of all member Festivals is important to the Circuit and therefore the artists’ health as a whole.” Therefore, while each Fringe Festival maintains a unique and individual flavour or vibe the overall structure of the CAFF has created a close knit community spanning the continent which gives artists the opportunity to tour the Fringe circuit year in and year out.


What I mean when I say “Fringe Circuit” is that the CAFF has organized the festival scheduling over the summer months in such a way that it is totally possible to travel from one end of the country (or even continent if you’re brave enough!) to the other via Fringe Festivals. For example, the Montreal, Ottawa, London (Ontario) and Toronto Fringes usually overlap in June; the Regina and Winnipeg festivals in July; and then you have Edmonton (largest in Canada), Victoria, and Vancouver to close out August and September. And these are just some of the “big” ones- the CAFF has 32 registered Fringe Festivals currently operating from May to October (with the exception of the FRIGID New York Fringe which runs in February).


Given the sheer amount of festivals happening in such a short span of time and the almost limitless potential for new audiences, many theatre artists in North America try their hand at touring the Fringe. In fact, there are artists who have built a solid reputation on touring their work every year on the circuit. Solo performers like Martin Dockery, Tonya Jone Miller, and Jem Rolls are known for their unique storytelling abilities and are Fringe favourites more often than not. Duos like James and Jamesy and Concrete Drops have seemingly perfected the quintessential Fringe show, and often play to sold out houses. The Fringe is so prevalent in a theatre artists’ life that hometown hero (and a marathon Fringe circuit superstar herself) Nancy Kenny produced an entire documentary on this phenomenon called On The Fringe which has had multiple screenings across the continent, and is even going to be premiering at the Taipei Fringe in September.


Of course, not every artist meets the Fringe with great success and there is a relative amount of burnout or turnover of companies (this is also due in large part to the nature of the lottery selection process itself). However, there are a lot of artists who find that the skills and training they gain at these festivals is invaluable and have argued for more recognition of Fringe experience as being worthy of professional merit. Rumour has it that these arguments have gained some traction within the Canada Council for the Arts and should something like that ever be outlined in their application process, it would make funding for many independent artists or collectives much more accessible. Simply put, touring the Fringe circuit could become a viable profession.


This, to me, is a huge shift for theatre artists in Canada and particularly in Ottawa where our professional theatre scene is often criticized as being non-existent. With such a healthy Fringe Festival that already brings in numerous high-quality artists, this would only serve to bolster our professional community. In any case, there are those few Fringe artists who speak (often in reverent tones) about crossing the pond and their experience at the immense Edinburgh Fringe Festival – the first ever Fringe; and this is what got me initially wondering about what the Fringe experience is like in the UK.


It’s been said by a few artists that I’ve been in contact with and who have done Edinburgh before that due to the high number of shows it is incredibly difficult for an artist (particularly if you’re touring) to break even. But I also wonder: is that the same for British artists? Furthermore, Edinburgh gets a lot of attention because of its history and its size, but what are the other Fringes like in your country? Do people look forward to it as much as the Ottawa theatre community does? And, lastly, how do your artists approach the Fringe? Is it a major focus for them in building and/or maintaining their careers?
I hope you enjoyed this little window into Canadian Festival Theatre and we look forward to your next letter with great anticipation!

Here’s to a great summer!

Brianna McFarlane

The Ottawa Fringe Festival took place from Thursday 8th until Sunday 18th June 2017. For more information on the festival, visit here…

To find out more about the New Ottawa Critics, visit here…

Written by Theatrefullstop