CANADA

Edmonton

North America’s Oldest, Largest Fringe Festival

Patron scans his play choices at the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, North America’s largest

At the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, the oldest and largest Fringe in North America, theatre-goers have more than 200 shows at 50 venues to choose from.
JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

IT’S A FRINGE with a pedigree. When the railroad came to Edmonton in 1891 it built its own town, on the fringe of the existing settlement. In the 1970s that hamlet, then a part of Edmonton called Strathcona, was on the fringe of existence. A freeway was about to bulldoze through it. Only the vociferous protests of residents saved this antique—and walkable—part of car-crazed Edmonton, and set it up to become home to a Fringe of a third sort: the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, oldest in North America.

Strathcona is still, as one Edmontonian puts it, “like a whole other city.” The six blocks of Whyte Avenue between 103 and 109 streets are its commercial heart, lined with shops for the hip (Gravity Pope), the politically correct (Ten Thousand Villages) and those needing tattoos or musical instruments. There are restaurants serving Greek, Thai, Italian, Mexican, fusion and burger cuisine, places to drink, to listen to live music and to sip espresso. There’s a vintage theatre, the Princess (with “the first marble fronting west of Winnipeg,” as a plaque proudly declares) and, on or within a block of Whyte Avenue, four excellent second-hand bookstores.

Thanks to its proximity to the University of Alberta campus, Strathcona is lively year-round, but never more so than during the 11 days and nights in mid-August when the Fringe festival takes it over. The 2017 dates are 17-27 August.

Edmonton’s Fringe is not just the continent’s oldest (1982—it celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2016), it’s also the largest: more than 500 artists from across Canada, plus acts from Europe, Africa, the United States, Asia and the South Pacific put on over 200 shows. In addition to the festival’s 11 official performance spaces there are now more than 40 BYOV (bring your own venue) sites, ranging from churches to nightclubs, keeping the festival’s 100,000+ ticket buyers hopping.

The world’s original Fringe, in Edinburgh, was born as a reaction to the snootiness of that city’s large and prestigious International Festival, where stately opera was welcome but avant-garde theatre wasn’t. In the New World, “Fringe” has come to mean a theatre festival where just about anyone can come a put on a show. Some are risqué, with nudity and bad language, but there are also programs very suitable for children, and Edmonton has a dedicated Kidstage that runs as a kind of mini-Fringe.

Here, the Fringe has grown well beyond being strictly about theatre to become something more akin to a medieval carnival: clustered around the ATB Financial Arts Barns, the converted streetcar barns that are Fringe HQ, there’s a street of crafts stalls and an avenue of midway-like food stands, as well as outdoor stages. The area is thronged with people from noon to past midnight, their stay no doubt prolonged by the newly expanded beer garden.

“It’s a curiosity to me why the Fringe took off in Edmonton,” says its former executive director, Julian Mayne. “Maybe there is some isolation—the competition is not as great here as it is in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.” It is, in other words, still a little on the fringe.

 

ACCESS

For more information on the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival visit its website at www.fringetheatre.ca.

For information on travel in Alberta visit the Travel Alberta website at www.travelalberta.com.