CANADA

Winnipeg, MB

Being a Bit on the Fringe Helps Make This Fringe Big

Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival executive director Chuck McEwan amid signs for Fringe shows

Chuck McEwan, executive producer of the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, stands amid a forest of posters for Fringe shows. More than 80,000 people will see performances by 150 companies during the festival’s annual 12-day run.
JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

“PEOPLE WOULD think that Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal would have the largest Fringe festivals,” says Chuck McEwan. “But in those places you have lots of competition.”

McEwan, the executive producer of the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, is explaining why his festival, along with the Fringe in Edmonton, are the two largest in Canada and are among the biggest, after the original Fringe in Edinburgh, in the world. Size is one reason: in this case, a little smaller is a lot better.

Also, “we have long winters here. You want to go out and enjoy your summers.” The Fringe, which spills through the city’s Exchange District, is as much a social event as a cultural one.

The festival celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2012. That makes it five years younger than Edmonton’s Fringe, North America’s oldest, but these days the two run neck and neck: each attracts 80,000 to 90,000 patrons to see about 150 companies perform at two-dozen venues, give or take, over the course of 12 days and nights. Winnipeg’s is held in mid-July (in 2017 the dates are 19-30 July); Edmonton’s in mid-August.

The companies come from all over. In Winnipeg, half of them are Manitoba-based, 30 per cent are from the rest of Canada and the remainder international, a category dominated by acts from Britain, Australia and the United States, but which may also include artists originating in Asia, Africa or Europe. Their shows could be anything from Shakespeare to Sam Shepard, from an intense, one-woman confessional to a two-man hour of slapstick.

Part of the fun of a Fringe is that, as the audience, you’re often unsure if you’re standing in line to see a frog or a prince. McEwan and his team don’t select based on their perception of a show’s artistic merit: companies are allotted space on a first-come, first-served basis.

The 12 official performance spaces range from the stage of the century-old Pantages theatre to the well-air-conditioned auditorium of the planetarium. There are another dozen Bring Your Own Venue locations—anything from a bookstore to a bar—with whom a company can make its own arrangements. They’re still included in the festival’s program, and there’s no shortage of takers, says McEwan. “We could have a hundred BYOVs.”

One thing that makes for a successful Fringe is having the right sort of neighbourhood to put it in. Winnipeg has lucked out with its Exchange District. A century ago, when its Beaux-Arts, Italianate and Romanesque buildings were erected, the city was to be the Chicago of the north. Now the district is an historic backwater, home to cafés and galleries, live music and antique shops—ideal for the Fringe. Half of the venues are within a 10-minute walk of the festival’s information kiosk and beer garden. The atmosphere would be even better if the city let them close more side streets.

McEwan figures a typical Fringe company makes about $3,000. “It’s not about the money,” he says, “it’s about giving artists the chance to do a show.” In Winnipeg, in sunny, hot July, they find an invigoratingly enthusiastic audience.

 

ACCESS

For more information on the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival visit its website at www.winnipegfringe.com.

For information on Winnipeg visit the Tourism Winnipeg website at www.tourismwinnipeg.com.