Fringe Town Hall Meeting: Notes From The Underground

Last week’s Toronto Fringe Town Hall meeting may have been light on attendees but it was heavy on productive conversation, including remote contributions from friends via Twitter. Everyone in attendance was encouraged to raise questions and concerns and to share commentary as Kelly Straughan, the Executive Director, ran the show.

First up was a report on the success of the 2014 festival. Last year was a record breaker for Toronto Fringe: the highest selling festival in the organization’s history. No small feat. The Fringe Club was another success as evidenced by artist and audience feedback as well as bar sales $15,000 higher than expected.

We didn’t wait long before addressing the BIGGEST change: ticket sales. This past year, Fringe introduced a new ticketing policy where 100% of show tickets were made available for purchase in advance. In previous years, 50% of tickets were available in advance while 50% went on sale at the door starting one hour before show time.

The new policy proved to be very positive for the participating artists, who received larger, guaranteed audiences and higher revenue. The change was not without controversy, however. Several Fringe patrons, many of whom had purchased multiple-show passes, took to social media last July to voice their discontent over not having the ability to get into popular shows with their pass.

“At some point we decided we needed to make a move for the artists … to get butts in seats,” explained Straughan. And the initiative worked.

In July, I was torn on this issue. I, myself, am a theatre artist and totally champion any initiatives that bring more capital to our austere coffers. It is also reassuring to know that when I purchase an advance ticket, I am guaranteed a seat and I don’t have to line up for an hour to get it.

I am an audience member who pores over the festival guide and plans her festival experience as soon as the Fringe guide comes out. Because I like to see multiple shows, a festival pack is (was) the best economical choice especially for a person on a budget. I did not purchase a pack this year because my wish list was full of sell-out performances. While I was annoyed that I had to spend more money, I was thrilled that I got to see 100% of my selections.

The 100% advance ticket sales policy was a triumph and it is here to stay. What will change is the branding of the festival passes. The brass at Fringe will set different expectations of these passes and adapt the language so that patrons wishing to purchase them will know in advance that the passes do not guarantee tickets to their shows of choice. Advance tickets do.

An exciting announcement came up next at the meeting that charged the room with electricity. Direct from Edinburgh Fringe is Red 61, a new ticketing system that Toronto Fringe will inaugurate at the 2015 festival. This system requires far less data entry and allows artists to log on the site to check ticket sales.

We spoke about the Fringe app, what worked and what needs improvement. We bounced around a few ideas for fine-tuning it including facilitating online purchases.

There was talk of resurrecting a comment board (as free of trolls as possible), Fringe presence at various events throughout the city, Fringe artist installations at said events, and the execution of the very fun Shed Plays that were part of Toronto International Film Festival’s inaugural street programming this year.

In June, I saw a procession of Fringe artists march through the Junction—a sight I’d never seen beyond the Fringe boundaries. I spoke up at the meeting about my desire to see more of this in neighbourhoods that aren’t necessarily Fringe-savvy.

We concluded by sharing some ideas of how to make the festival more alluring and hospitable for international companies. A great idea is to pair a Toronto local with an international company for the duration of their stay in order to get them acquainted with the city’s arts and culture environment

After the wrap, I spoke with Straughan to ask her what information she wants attendees and interested parties to walk away with.

“We listen.”

Simple, honest and succinct.

As big as Fringe is, I felt very visible and audible at the town hall meeting and feel that this environment is inclusive of anyone who wishes to be part of it.

Look out for news and upcoming events including how to apply for the 2015 Toronto Fringe Festival and programming for the Next Stage Festival by visiting online or via social media (Facebook and Twitter).