Thoughts on Sustainable Growth in Theatre Festivals

Last month, I posted an open letter on Facebook about some concerns I and a number of other artists had felt about actions taken by the Winnipeg and Edmonton Fringe Theatre Festivals that we believe may contribute — inadvertantly — to worsening the festival experience for the participating artists and making the entire touring circuit unmanageable for all but a few wealthy and already established artists.

Essentially, our concern is that the festivals are expanding their offerings faster than the audience is willing to grow, leading to declining revenues for the artists involved. It’s an ongoing trend, and to be honest, the letter could have been sent to a number of other festivals participating in the circuit. I focussed on Winnipeg and Edmonton because they’re the lynchpins to the whole tour, and because generally their organizations have proven responsive to artist concerns in the past (in a way that, for example, the Montreal Fringe, does not — but that’s a topic for a separate post).

Unfortunately, now a month since I sent the original letter, no one from Winnipeg or Edmonton Fringe has responded. No one from any other Fringe Festival that was cc’d on the letter has responded either. I will be sending a follow-up tonight, but I just wanted to remind people that the problem is still open before I repost them.

I won’t rehash the points and arguments here. You can read the original letter on Facebook, where you’ll get the advantage of the 50+ comments from other artists that the post generated. As expected, there were many diverging viewpoints on the letter, ranging from some artists who agreed wholeheartedly, to some who believe there’s no problem at all, to some who agreed there’s a problem but refuse to propose or accept others’ solutions, to some spirited contributions from one of the Fringe circuit’s biggest fans, who blames declining artist revenues on his anecdotal evidence of declining art quality in the face of statistical (and anecdotal) evidence to the contrary.

I will say that my original letter was heavily redacted in response to suggestions from several artists who wanted to be involved in the discussion from the get-go. The biggest thing I removed was a suggestion that all of the festivals take a cue from the Toronto and Victoria Fringes, which, after years of rapid expansion caused many of the same problems, decided that the best way to serve the artists was to return to the roots of the Fringe and eliminate the “Bring Your Own Venue” option, meaning that every artist involved was chosen from the 100% random lottery.

For predictable reasons, several artists opposed this, as it can reduce an artist’s ability to cobble together a successful tour in years when that artist doesn’t get lucky in the lotteries. My general feeling is, well, tough. The Fringe isn’t meant to be a long-term career support for established artists, even if they’re only established on the Fringe. But bowing to the reality of the situation, I instead proposed that the Fringes find a middle ground, which would be placing a hard cap on the numbeer of BYOVs in each festival.

I’ll post the follow-up letter here as well as any response.

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One thought on “Thoughts on Sustainable Growth in Theatre Festivals

  1. Pingback: Winnipeg Fringe Responds to My Open Letter — Sort Of | Exit Upstage

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