Tales of a Fringe Convert (how I learned to stop worrying and love the Fringe)

Toronto Fringe tent

Yay! It’s summer! Time for Fringe; my new favourite time of year.

I can hardly wait for the Toronto Fringe to start on July 3rd. I’m as excited as a kid waiting for her birthday.  (Actually, technically July 3rd is my birthday, but I’m much more excited about Fringe.)

When I say “Fringe” I mean the Toronto Fringe Festival, an annual theatre (and more) festival that turns 25 this year. I’ve fallen into the habit of saying “Fringe” and assuming that everyone knows what it is. I’m amazed when I’m met with blank stares in response to my excited exclamations of “Fringe starts next week!”

This is my 6th year of Fringing. Technically my 5th because three years ago I went to France for a month and missed Fringe. Missed Fringe a lot. Vowed not to miss it again, even for a trip to France

This year the Toronto Fringe is 25. What about the other 19 years? Where was I? I found the idea of Fringe intimidating so I didn’t go. I really didn’t know anything about it but I made assumptions and stayed away. It’s the same thing I used to do with non-mainstream theatre.

As I write this it all seems a bit ridiculous, not to mention embarrassing, but I’m going to put it out there anyway in the belief that I’m not the only person who does this.

These are the things I was thinking.

I wouldn’t understand the shows. It is called the Fringe Festival. I just assumed that meant it was fringe theatre, experimental, avant-garde, not the kind of thing I usually enjoy.

I figured there would be a lot of theatre people at the shows. Obviously it wouldn’t matter during the show but what about before the show? In the line-up. One-on-one theatre-people are pretty much like anyone else, but in my experience (with my ‘theatre-people’ daughter and son-in-law), when you put several of them together they become very ‘theatrical’. Very ‘on’. It’s hard for me to be around and can take me hours to recharge afterwards.

And what about all those long-time Fringe goers who would know each other and talk about what they saw last year and how this year really couldn’t compare?

I figured that between the theatre-people and the long-time Fringers it would be like a private club. I was worried that I would feel as if I had crashed a wedding and I was completely unwelcome and out of place. It would be all the ‘cool kids’ and me.

So what changed? What finally got me to go and see a Fringe show? My daughter started Mooney on Theatre and I started reviewing theatre in Toronto. (Nepotism at its best!)

I saw my first Fringe show. The show was at noon on the first day of Fringe. There were five people in the audience. It was an autobiographical monologue and the actor put his everything into the performance. I was hooked.

The things that I’d worried about weren’t true or just didn’t matter.

The shows are a crap shoot. Participants are chosen by lottery, it’s not juried, so you pay your money and you take your chance. Tickets are only $10.00 so it’s not a huge investment and there are far more good shows than bad shows. For the most part it isn’t experimental or avant-garde theatre.

I’ve seen a musical about a lesbian wedding and one about living with HIV and I loved them both. There are a lot of one-person shows and I’ve discovered that I love one-person shows.

A lot of the shows aren’t particularly memorable but they are a pleasant enough way to spend an hour.

There can be a private club feel in the line-ups. The thing is, line-ups are the best way to find out what’s hot and what’s not. I spend the first five days of Fringe reviewing shows and the second week seeing shows. The shows I review aren’t necessarily my first choice of what I want to see. With 20 writers the competition can be fierce.

I gather information by eavesdropping in line-ups during the first five days so that I can decide what I want to see during the second week. When the line-up starts feeling tedious I find somewhere to sit and read.

I wish I could have discovered Fringe earlier. I think reading the experience from the perspective of someone else who may have been a bit intimidated to begin with may have helped me get over that initial trepidation and try it out earlier. That’s what motivated me to write this piece. Maybe it can help someone get a clearer idea of what to expect, make it seem a tiny bit less intimidating for them, and who knows, maybe they’ll fall in love with the Fringe Festival too.

If you find the idea of going to see Fringe shows interesting but intimidating, just go. You’ll be fine and you’ll have a great time. And if you don’t, well, it will only cost you $10, an hour of your time, and at the very least you’ll get a story out of the whole thing.