Over on Charlebois Post, Fringe God TJ Dawe has written an essay about the apparent death of the Fringe Tour that’s gotten a fair bit of circulation among Fringers. In it, he waxes nostalgic about the good ol’ days of Fringe touring while apparently casting blame – if you want to call it that, and I do – on the glut of new generation theatre creators who’ve made it very difficult to build a national Fringe tour, by clogging up the lotteries. While he winds up challenging the mainstream theatres to accept more of these self-creating artists – a laudable goal – I respectfully disagree with almost everything else he writes. Here’s why:
While TJ’s experience and success on the Fringe circuit is virtually unparalleled, I find a lot of his claims hard to swallow. He talks about how in his early days of touring – 1994-2008, approximately – it was common for artists to book eight- or nine-city tours, over which the artists could refine and perfect their shows until they were well-oiled machines.
My Fringe life only barely overlaps that period – 2007-2012 – but in that time I’ve managed three fairly large-scale tours (and some smaller ones) and shows that have toured to multiple cities over the years (unlike TJ, I’ve been lucky enough to win the touring lottery twice). Over that time, even in the early years, it seemed obvious that artists on big, continent-spanning tours were by far the minority. The largest cohort in every festival are the local and regional artists. A lot of touring artists could only ever afford to do one or two cities. The big eight-city tours always seemed relegated to the handful of artists who win the touring lottery and the smaller cohort of ‘lifers’ on the circuit (TJ, Keir Cutler, Jem Rolls, Jayson McDonald, and a few others).
And to be honest, while I can attest to the fact that shows evolve for the better over long runs – Balls, Fucking Stephen Harper, and Big In Germany all became stronger after long tours as I got more comfortable with the material and cut what didn’t work – it’s kind of a strange value proposition: “Hey Montrealers! Enjoy this train wreck of a show I haven’t quite finished working on! It’ll be great by Victoria. I swear!”
Plus, the track record of the Fringe for making huge successes this way isn’t really that great. Nancy Kenney, CharPo and I recently tried to count up the list of runaway successes from the Fringe that have broken into the mainstream and we stopped at: Drowsy Chaperone, Da Kink In My Hair, Kim’s Convenience, and TJ’s play Toothpaste and Cigars, which became the major motion picture The F Word. TJ’s toured, but the other three began and ended their Fringe life in Toronto. To be certain, we’ve missed smaller shows and the Fringe plays that achieved a degree of success but stayed on the circuit, but if the point is to have a polished show only after performing it 60 times on the circuit, certainly you’d want it to have a life afterward, no?
[EDIT: As TJ, Derrick Chua and others have noted in the comments below, this is clearly an inexhaustive list and lots of other shows have gone on to varying degrees of success after the Fringe. While I was being deliberately provocative above, I think my main point stands, that the number of Fringe-launched successes is quite small, and that the majority of those that do succeed did so without touring.]
TJ points out that the big cohort of new theatre creators being churned out of theatre schools at a clip that would rival a WWII munitions factory is a big reason why the Fringe lotteries have become more competitive over the years – all those kids are being foisted upon a jobs market that doesn’t have room for them, and they’re at the peak age for being able to take on the financial risk of a Fringe show and a multi-city tour. (And also the peak age for being willing to sleep on a makeshift bed in several strangers’ houses for a couple of months).
It’s an easy scapegoat, but in my experience, it’s not the biggest reason for the death of the tour. I’m hearing more and more artists simply point out that the value of performing in certain festivals is no longer worth it. The entire east-side of the tour (Montreal, London, Ottawa, and Toronto) can be deadly for producers. The first three are a huge gamble for performers as the audience really just isn’t there (somewhat paradoxically, since the Windsor-Montreal corridor is the most densely populated in Canada). Though a few lucky performers can attract a crowd, many don’t even make their application fees back.
In my first year of touring, one of the veterans told me that if you make about $1000 in Montreal and Ottawa, you should celebrate. That barely covers the cost of going there for a solo show (if you don’t eat). That number hasn’t moved in six years, and indeed, my last time there, I grossed $1100 and the artist liaison told me I should celebrate as I did better than average.
Toronto is a lovely festival with a huge audience, but it is incredibly difficult for touring artists because the city is so local-heavy. I used to commiserate with my touring friends over this, until I spent a few years in the city and realized that quickly I could count thirty shows in the Toronto Fringe with friends in them before I even looked at the touring artists. Touring artists struggle for both media coverage and audiences here.
Still, you might be able to justify the added month or two of touring in Ontario and Quebec as an investment in workshopping and developing your show. Except that in recent years, reporters from Winnipeg started turning up in Montreal and Toronto to advance review your shows. If your show wasn’t ready yet in Montreal, you could get a poisonous (or worse, neutral) review in Winnipeg before you even open there. (It happened to me with Balls in 2008). Many artists just decided the first four cities on the tour weren’t worth it – why not spend those two months at home, saving money, while you continue to develop your show?
Ditto for many other cities on the circuit. Why spend up to $1000 or more to perform in Calgary or Saskatoon, when you could probably fly home and back from Winnipeg and to Edmonton for that? Victoria and Vancouver have also expanded the number of shows well beyond their audience capacity to fill seats too, and it’s easy to justify chopping these off the end of a tour.
Conversely, for artists in central Canada (by which I possibly only mean Toronto), there’s long been an ambivalence – or worse – toward touring the circuit. The evidence seems to support the notion that the only important Fringe for career development is Toronto, so why spend a summer – the months when you should be out auditioning for film and TV, or playing summer stock, or putting on a show at SummerWorks – in Alberta and Manitoba? In my experience, other artists here look down their nose even at successful shows out of the city, and everyone forgets who you are while you’re away performing. And as TJ points out, “Fringes aren’t crawling with agents and producers and talent scouts and artistic directors,” so you’re unlikely to get spotted while performing at Acacia Hall in Edmonton.
Add on the fact that while Festivals across the circuit were responding to artist demand by expanding the number of shows accepted (with Toronto and Calgary being notable and noble exceptions), thus increasing competition for audiences, they were sharply raising admission fees and holding ticket prices (ie, artist return) relatively flat. Oh, and at the same time, the price of everything else was going up (especially gas, rent, heat, etc…). Well, everything except credit, which stupid young theatre creators are often all too happy to take on in order to finance these increasingly risky tours.
Finally, it’s pretty clear the lotteries aren’t holding back artists who want to tour. The lifers especially have found ways to circumvent the lotteries by arranging Bring Your Own Venues at festivals where they think it’s worth it. TJ knows this, because I’ve seen him sell out a run at the Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg at least twice in my touring life (Which, really? PTE didn’t want him back this year? Crazy. [EDIT: TJ explains this below.]). What’s changed is that artists are recognizing that the financial reward for booking BYOV’s all across the country is evaporating.
Why the Young Ones?
I have to point out as well that I object to what I perceive as the subtext of Dawe’s article, which is that this new cohort of young artists is crowding out the older generation of Fringe stars who used to own the circuit.
I think a more pressing point is: why are Fringe stars still touring the circuit ten, fifteen years on, instead of moving up the artworld hierarchy and making room for the new generation of artists?
It’s a problem I’ve been wrestling with for the last few years, and was a big part of my decision to leave the Fringe circuit after the 2012 tour (although, admittedly, financial concerns were a big part too, and I continue to enter the Toronto lottery because the Toronto Fringe has always been a different animal). I think one of the biggest problems in our theatre ecology is the refusal of artists to leave the “emerging” category and give up the perks and supports that come with it. Doors are being closed on new, young voices while artists that by any measure ought to be considered “established” take up room that should be reserved for them. It does long-term damage to the scene, and infantilizes artists that should be standing on their own.
For all the success it’s had in recent years, SummerWorks has largely become the thing it was created not to be: a prestige showcase of Toronto’s established companies and artists (with a smattering of work by anointed youngsters). NextStage programs playwrights, actors and directors whose work wins Governor-General and Dora Awards and is regularly seen in the seasons of mainstream companies.
TJ praises the entrepreneurial spirit of all of the self-creating/self-producing theatre creators that are clogging up the Fringe lotteries. But the Fringe is only borderline entrepreneurship. While performers must create their own budgets and handle tour logistics and design posters, the festivals themselves do the work of venue logistics, staff, marketing, etc. Fringe is a great school or lab for theatre entrepreneurs, but eventually, you have to graduate from it and do it on your own.
Put another way, TJ can sell 3000 tickets in a visit to Winnipeg (and understandably — he’s a great performer, and Fringe audiences have come to think of his shows as major events). Surely it’s worth it to some producer to book him for a few nights at PTE in the off season, no?
So let’s not gobble up the Fringe’s resources. Let’s let as many new, ‘fringey’ voices rise up into the circuit as possible. No more Fringe stars. The concept of a Fringe star is contrary to the whole spirit of the Fringe. If you get success on the Fringe, work to parlay that into success outside the festival. Don’t hog the Fringe – demand your well-deserved spot in the centre.