Eight Questions About the Toronto Fringe

The Toronto Fringe is in full swing of what is by all accounts a tremendous year for the festival. So while we’re right in the thick of it, let’s start a discussion about things that have come up this year so we can help make an even better festival next year.

1.  Are Ticket Sales Really Up? By how much? What does this translate to for average artist return? What was the average sell-through? Was sell-through more-or-less even across timeslots and venues?

There was concern that the move to 100% advance sales availability would hurt the Fringe, as patrons who didn’t get to see their top show would give up rather than come down to the festival to find out what else to see. I’ve always said that concern was unfounded as other festivals that moved that way actually reported massive sales increases.

Anecdotally, ticket sales and sell-outs at the Toronto Fringe are way up in 2014 compared to 2012-13 (2013 isn’t a fair comparison, because the big flood wiped out a day and a half of sales). On opening day, one staffer mentioned to me that advance tickets were up 40% over that day in 2013 (before the storm hit, of course). Artists are in generally good spirits this year, and it seems that even more shows are getting hot sales/sellouts this year.

The biggest factor seems to be the switch to 100% advance ticket sales, which encourages more early purchases and achieves sellouts earlier, encouraging people to buy tickets to other performances/shows rather than waiting in line all day for a chance at a ticket. (This isn’t scientific, of course, but there’s no other compelling hypothesis.) A way to confirm this hypothesis might be to look at what proportion of total sales were advance/door, and how that’s changed over time.

But there are other factors. One of the popular spaces, Tarragon Extra Space, had its capacity reduced by 29%, which made sellouts happen even faster (a factor that hopefully won’t be present next year). Similarly, the 100-seat Factory Studio was replaced with the 60-seat Tarragon Solo Room last year. And of course, it could just be the small handful of hot shows doing well. Let’s look at the data.

I’m also curious what happened at Theatre Passe Muraille; with Factory Theatre out of commission, Queen/Bathurst really wasn’t the hub it was in the past. Did sales remain steady or tumble at TPM because people weren’t spending a day down there? If they fell at TPM, could that account for a rise of sales up on the Bloor/Bathurst corridor? If so, perhaps this is an argument to focus more shows in a single area.

2.  Who is buying all these tickets? Individuals buying more tickets, or more individuals buying the same number of tickets, or more individuals buying fewer tickets?

The switch to more advance sales ought to yield a treasure trove of additional useful data for the Fringe. If more people were buying tickets in advance, they’d be creating accounts on fringetoronto.com, which require mailing addresses. So we should know, for example, where more Fringe patrons live. This is useful for gauging the success of Fringe marketing and outreach.

Previously, Fringe staff have said that 85% of sales were in the Trinity-Spadina riding (basically, between Ossington and Bay, and from St. Clair south). That’s problematic for a festival that serves a region of 6 million people from Oakville to Oshawa and Barrie (Hamilton has its own Fringe). But advance tickets may be more useful to people who commute in a long distance rather than walk or bike to the festival. Has this change helped reach those more distant audiences? What can be done to reach deeper?

Moreover, more advance tickets can help get a more accurate number of how many individuals are buying tickets, and how many shows each individual is seeing (within limits, of course; some individuals see shows other people bought tickets for and some will buy a mix of advance/door tickets). Has the greater emphasis on advance tickets led to an increase or decrease in number of shows seen per person and number of individuals seeing shows (both increases are possible and desirable)?

For audience development, we obviously want the number of individuals seeing shows to grow more than anything.

3.  What venues will return next year? Will Factory Theatre be available again with both spaces? Will the Tarragon Solo Room be back? Will the Al Green be back – and better utilized? Will the Tarragon Extra Space be back to normal? Does the increase in ticket sales justify the addition of a venue and a few more official slots in the festival? 

Factory Theatre was out this year due to renovations, and was replaced with the Tarragon Solo Room (starting in 2013) and the Al Green Theatre. By next year, it ought to be available again. Will it be desirable to use the new Factory Theatre? If so, will it also be desirable to keep the Solo Room and Al Green, given their proximity to other Fringe venues?

Toronto Fringe is wisely waiting until its ticket sell-through ratio reaches a certain percentage before adding more slots in the festival (there is absolutely artist demand for more spots, but it’s best not to dilute the festival). Fringe wouldn’t say what percentage at the last town hall (except to say that sell-through was 45-50% in 2013) but whatever the target is, has it been reached? Would it be enough to, say, keep the small Solo Room only? (I believe there is actually a value in keeping limited-size venues. Some companies love them).

If the Al Green is kept as a venue, could the Fringe mitigate some of the problems that have arisen from it? The Al Green reportedly removed the front 4-5 rows of seats, creating a 25’ chasm between the stage and the audience. While this was done to ‘crowd’ the audience together to make the house look fuller (and reduce the size of the venue from 280 to 200 per a request from the festival), it actually greatly reduces the intimacy of the venue, and is deathly for comedy. If the venue must have its capacity reduced, couldn’t it just rope off or screen off the back rows of seats?

Or, could other venues get dumped? Perhaps it’s worth considering the value of using St. Vlad’s and the Robert Gill if we’re keeping the number of venues constant.

Speaking of venues, has the Fringe come up with a plan to replace the Festival tent site, which will be lost when Honest Ed’s is redeveloped in 2016?

4.  How much additional revenue did the Fringe pull in from advance sales fees, net of bank charges and system costs? Does this more than offset the anecdotally reported decrease in “Tip The Fringe” donations? How down are those donations anyway? If there were more individuals attending the festival, did this translate to more beer sales at the festival tent?

Anecdotally, volunteers are saying Tip The Fringe donations are down this year, and you can see it in the lineups too. However, if more and more people are paying $2-4/ticket to get advance tickets, that more than offsets the average $0.59 tip the Fringe was receiving per patron in previous years.

5.  Could the Fringe raise advance sales even more by eliminating the “door discount”?

Currently, tickets are $10 at the door, and $12 + order charge online. Would eliminating the discount on advance tickets encourage even more advance sales? This could be done by raising the door price to $12, which would make artists even happier. The door price has been frozen at $10 since around 2005, and inflation is eating at the artist return very heavily.

6.  Are multi-show passes still useful? Could the Fringe develop a pass that works for advance tickets, or some kind of compromise solution (ie, allowing passes to purchase advance tickets at the central box office)? What would be the effect of getting rid of multi-show passes altogether?

Several patrons who bought multi-show passes are complaining that they’ve become useless since the popular shows they want to see are all sold out before they can get door tickets. It’s a shame that this seems to penalize the patrons who are trying to be the most loyal (ie, planning to see the most shows). It does seem to be a bit of a bait-and-switch for these patrons, who likely didn’t foresee the difficulty of using them.

7.  What is the effect of restricted postering/flyering possibilities?

Fringe has gradually reduced the spaces available at venues for companies to display posters and flyers for their shows. Together with the city’s anti-postering by-laws, this has severely reduced the opportunities for companies to display advertisements for their shows. The Fringe still expects you to make posters though – they want one poster from each company for the poster wall at the beer tent – but they just don’t want to give you more than one space to put them. Which is silly, because you can’t just print one poster (unless you’re Jem Rolls, I suppose).

If this were Winnipeg, people would be taking their wedding photos in front of this.

If this were Winnipeg, people would be taking their wedding photos in front of this.

At the town hall, Fringe pushed this as an environmental initiative, which is a little silly. These posters and flyers are recyclable and can be printed on recycled paper, too.  Limiting the postering makes it more difficult for patrons to find out and get excited about shows that aren’t (yet) receiving buzz or reviews.

A related concern is the program, which, I’ve said numerous times, is the ugliest program by far in the circuit. From the grainy black-and-white photos, to the tombstone layouts, to the gulfs of white where more information could fit, it’s a really weak promotional tool for companies. (I’ve offered to redesign the program for them at lower than what they’re currently paying, but they haven’t taken me up on it).

Posters are a rare opportunity for a full-colour ad with updated promotional copy (ie, cast or review information). Could we bring back poster boards at other venues? Many companies are quietly grumbling about the shrinking poster space. Can we start a discussion about opening up some more spaces in an orderly (utterly Torontonian) fashion?

8. Can we revisit or refine the latecomer policy?

Well, it happened to me finally – the door was slammed in my face as I arrived, ticket in hand, just in time for my show (the FOH actually flashed his phone to indicate “It’s 1:45, sorry”).

There are good reasons to have a no latecomer policy, but it has to be tempered with common sense. FOH should never slam the door on a ticketholder. Late should be 1:46, not 1:45. Companies should be given the option of allowing in latecomers if they want (with the choice flagged in the program) – ie, a latecomer is less disruptive to a stand-up/sketch comedy than an Ibsen. Some other festivals do this – including Fringe’s own Next Stage Festival.

It’s not as big an inconvenience for me – I actually got the ticket for free and I’m a theatre person who should know better. But Fringe is unique in that it’s a gateway to theatre for lots of people who don’t know, and may have come across town with their ticket only to get stuck in traffic/TTC. Getting stopped at the door this way may discourage these people from ever coming back to the theatre.

Everyone who’s ever done the Fringe in Toronto has heard a story from friends or relatives who came only to have FOH slam the door in their face (I’ve had at least one of these stories every year of the four I’ve done it). Those people always tell me they’ll never come to theatre again after that. You have to ease people into theatre culture – people who don’t go to theatre are used to more casual entertainment options, like movies or comedy. Heck, even at professional theatres, you can usually be escorted in by an usher during a scene change. It may be time to revisit this policy.

So what do you think? Post your comments below.


7 thoughts on “Eight Questions About the Toronto Fringe

  1. Good article, Rob. I’ve always felt the same way regarding the latecomer policy, that it should be at the discretion of the company. Also, not convinced the 100% advance tickets is the way to go. Maybe 75%?

  2. As a Fringe volunteer, I’ve heard several comments from patrons about the 100% advance sales policy, none of which were positive. The National Theatre in London always holds back 10% of tickets for sale on the day of performance. Perhaps this level could be set here in Toronto. As for the on-time policy, as an audience member, I really like the idea of punctuality and not being interrupted by latecomers. I don’t want to see it changed.

  3. I would love to see a discount on advance tickets for performers, even if only for a specific number of tickets (like the 5-play Performers’ Pass that currently exists). When I am performing in the Fringe, I find I need to make a schedule and buy advance tickets for everything, as my show takes up too much of my time to be able to line up early for at-the-door tickets. While I appreciate the Performers’ Pass being offered, I wonder if it is the most practical discount to offer to the very busy Fringe performers.

  4. As I said on a friend’s FB page, I agree competely re the multi pass. I bought a 5 play pass and at least two of the shows I wanted to see are sold out for their run – I’ve also bought advance tickets just to make sure I got to see the play I was interested in, thus cancelling any savings I would have received from purchasing the pass. I totally support the artists and think the sell outs are great, don’t get me wrong – but I think in future either keep 100% advance sales and phase out the passes, or make it 80% advance/20% at door. Won’t be buying multipasses again w/ current policy as it stands 😛

  5. I had tickets and had the door shut in my face at the Randolph at 6:44 when the show started at 6:45 – have the pic on my phone to prove it! It’s one thing if you don’t have tickets to show up at that time but please, if you want patronage from new people please don’t SHUT THE DOOR ON THEM! I agree that 6:46 can be considered “late” (you gotta draw the line somewhere) but not before. Fair is fair – just let’s be reasonable.

  6. I’ve volunteered with the London (ON) Fringe for a few years now. We have the same policy about “no latecomers”, but I would never close the door in someone’s face! I have been the one telling someone they need to *run* and get in, which people do. And yes, I’ve had to turn people away who have shown up 2 minutes past doors closed. Only once have I had someone be rude about it. Mind you – in many of our venues, you have to walk almost across the stage to get to the seats. Once I explain that, it isn’t an issue.

    My husband and I wanted to get to T.O. Fringe this year… but with everything being advanced sales, it just wasn’t an option. We had one show we really wanted to see… but we’re not driving four hours for one show, and we don’t know what else we might have been able to see. We wanted to have a bit of flexibility, and with 100% advanced sales, it really isn’t an option.

    • I don’t understand how advanced sales limits your ability to see shows…if anything it means that you can see exactly what you’d planned to see if you’re driving four hours to get here to see shows. Without advanced sales, you’d have no idea whether you’d be able to get a seat to the shows.. Back when they held back tickets for the door the hot shows would have lines so you still wouldn’t be able to see hot shows……..

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