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Sunday, December 5, 2010

CharPo Sunday Feature: Patrick Goddard's Personal History of The Montreal Fringe


For the 2010 edition of the St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe, Hour asked a few us to contribute to their Fringe Fanaticism blog. Jeremy Hechtman agreed to do a year-by-year account of his experience with the festival. This inspired me to do the same, albeit with a twist: I'd look at the evolution of the Montreal Fringe by reviewing a single show from each year. So here, collected for the first time in one place, is how I've seen it...

1993 was my first Montreal Fringe. I had finished my first year at Concordia Theatre and was volunteering my ass off in order to see free shows. Volunteering gives you a very different perspective when it comes to choosing Fringe shows: something may look great in the program, but then you meet the performer and decide they're a dick unworthy of your Fringe Bucks. And then there was Rush Pearson. Rush was doing a one-man adaptation of the Gogol story and had come up from Chicago with his partner and his dog; they were the darlings of the volunteer crowd. His pre-Fringe promotion campaign became legendary: he faxed the media constantly before coming to Montreal, with a series of increasingly incoherent messages. And the show rocked. Fringe solo shows often seem like they were created that way out of financial necessity rather than for artistic reasons, but this needed to be done solo to truly convey the madness of the narrator. Rush had crafted a very solid adaptation of the text and was an engaging and warm performer. Diary of a Madman was funny, sad, sharp, and touching. 4 Bucks out of 4.

The 1994 Fringe was a bit of a blur for me. I'm quite sure that I saw about a dozen shows with my volunteer Fringe Bucks, but none of them left a lasting impression. On the other hand... Jill Dowse arrived from the UK to perform a one-woman show about a woman in Paris' infamous Salpetrière asylum, with nothing but a bed and an accordion. This is the kind of show that the Fringe is about, AFAIC: the relationship between performer and audience, minimal but evocative set and props, leaving space in the room for the imagination. There was a moment where the character was walking down the halls of the asylum for the first time, and Jill used the bellows of the accordion to give us the sound of the other inmates breathing. Now that was a lasting impression. 4 Fringe Bucks out of 4.
(FULL DISCLOSURE: I went to University of Ottawa with A company of Fools and had seen them busk at the Manotick Fringe in 1992 or 1993. So I was predisposed to like their show (in other words, drunk). There are a lot of theatre snobs who hate the Fringe and everything it stands for (#MichelBélair@LeDevoir). By 1995, I had walked out of at least one show at the FTA and was ready for a shot of carnival. I was drunk when I got to Shakespeare's Interactive Circus; I was (theatrically speaking) hammered when I left. The show was scenes from Shakespeare done using improv tactics by a troupe used to grabbing the public's attention. There was tag-team Taming of the Shrew; there was Richard III wooing Lady Anne while the audience pelted him with cat toys for a quarter a throw. You know, when it's good, all theatre is kind of children's theatre, and when it's very good, it's A company of Fools. III Richards out of III.)

By this point, everybody was doing something about serial killers. True Romance, Natural Born Killers, blah blah blood. (AFAIC, nobody did or ever will top Terence Malick's Badlands) Chris Brophy and Johnna Schmidt actually surprised me, creating a 15-character black comedy where both actors played all 15 characters. Like, both actors played the same characters at different times in the play. This small conceit took the madness of the story and exploded it to theatrical insanity, a trick that not a lot of creators can (or bother to) pull off. It's not enough to just stand there and tell your story, no matter how good the story is. Fringe theatre, to be great, requires huge attention to form. Brophy and Schmidt brought energy, intensity, inventiveness, and humour to a genre that was already moribund. 4 highly appropriate title adjectives out of 4.
The most exciting thing about moving to Montreal in 1992 was watching the explosion of a new generation of performance poets. I was hooked on Montreal poetry from the moment I saw Leni Parker read from Anne Diamond's Terrorist Letters, followed by an Ian Stephens performance, at Ben's. I saw work at Hell's Kitchen; I caught the beginning of the YAWP! series and a bunch of tiny cabaret and gallery shows. So by the time the 1997 Fringe rolled around, I was already head over heels for the work of Buffy Childerhose, Julie Crysler, and especially Catherine Kidd. Misconceptions was a simple series of poetry pieces (I think maybe 2 by each writer), and Cat did a thing about how the blind spot, being the optic nerve, is actually what allows you to see, and a blind philosopher with a blind guide dog called Spot, which all added up to the blind Spot leading the blind. You could've knocked me over with a feather.

I was doing my first solo that year, a Saskatchewan Christmas hockey story called The Baumgard Cuckoos. One day in rehearsal, much to the dismay of my director, I did what I called a "Catherine Kidd" run, throwing out my blocking and just performing the poetry in an imitation of Cat's tone and cadence. So then I was doing the show one night, and there was a bit where I come into the audience, and there they were, the three of them. I have no memory of the rest of that night's show except for the sheer panic of performing in front of your inspirations. Next thing I remember, there was a knock on my dressing room door. It was Cat, who told me that she never did things like this, but had promised herself she would start telling people when she liked their work. You could've knocked me over with a feather. 3 Misconceptions out of 3. 

There are a lot of hidden gems at the Fringe. Shows can get lost in a flurry of scandalous titles, local legends, hot buzz, and last year's Fringe hits. But once you get through those first ten or dozen shows, things start to get interesting. If I'm not mistaken, it was Julie Tamiko Manning who convinced me to use my spare time to check out the last performance at the P Scene by this guy from Victoria named TJ Dawe. A front flip into a pile of cardboard boxes. Three seemingly unrelated monologues that finally crashed and twisted together. Even from this unassuming start, TJ was all about craft over flash, and it has been one of my greatest artistic pleasures to watch him develop his craft over the years. There's a kind of myth about how a TJ Dawe Show is basically just really fast talking, but it's more than that: there's a simple, elegant, sly theatricality to his shows, and a warm, intelligent performance style where TJ actually seems surprised by his own insights and the sudden force of the collision of his ideas. I don't know if I agree with Keir Cutler that TJ is a "Fringe god"; but he most certainly is one of the Fringe's totems. 20 crushed cardboard boxes out of 20.

1999: LE TIGRE
On picking a Fringe show: being a regular punter is one thing; being a volunteer gives you another set of perspectives and criteria; but when you're managing the Fringe for the first time, it's a whole other world. Sure, you want to see your friends' shows, but you don't want to look like you're playing favourites. You want to see the hot shows, but you might have to give up your ticket to a paying customer. You want to check out as many venues as you can; you want to find a balance between the local English, local French, Canadian and international shows. Sometimes you want to introduce certain artists to others; sometimes you want to support an artist that you like personally but who's getting no audience; sometimes you want to make critics see shows they don't necessarily want to see. Le Tigre fit all three of these categories.

Thierry Dupré came from France to perform a one-man show based on a Dario Fo story. I was on my way to La Chapelle when I crossed paths with Stacey Christodoulou and dragged her over; we ran into Gaëtan Charlebois there. We were the entire audience. Thierry didn't seem to care: he barrelled through with infectious gusto, kept all of his audience participation moments going even though at least two-thirds of his audience hated participation. I was completely won (and bowled) over. The review was positive and generated buzz. Stacey still hasn't forgiven me. 3 unwilling audience members out of 3.

Another criteria for selecting Fringe shows as GM is flat-out energy. In those days, my job also included running the box office, which made my head feel like I'd been crushing out cigarettes on my brain for 72 straight hours. It was at that point that I escaped to see Greg MacArthur's play, directed by Peter Hinton. Raw, poetic, brutal, authentic, and seriously non-fucking-stop from every performer. I must admit that I was not and have not been convinced by any play written based on the Reena Virk murder, but girls! girls! girls! took the energy I walked in with and sent it back to me an hour later, with motherfucking interest. 9 girls! out of 3.

The Fringe-For-All can be exhausting. It's the Fringe launch and a showcase for the local artists, where each of them gets a very short time on stage in front of about 500 people to do whatever they want. A lot of artists go for shock; another lot go for a rather dry excerpt; very few hit the sweet spot where they get your attention while informing you as to what the show is actually about. Karen Kaderavek walked out with a cello, sat down, and without any further introduction, started to play some Mingus. Eventually, she coolly told us to come check out her show. I use this as an example when we give our artists' workshop on how to do a Fringe-For-All piece. Unfortunately, if Karen Kaderavek was a gunslinger, there would not be that many dead copycats. 4 Black Saints and a Sinner Lady out of 4.

The Montreal Fringe has always had a problem attracting francophone artists and audiences. Part of it stems from the fact that it's called, well, the Fringe -- which doesn't mean anything in French. We've gotten "frange" (like the fringe on cowboy jackets, or bangs). We've gotten "fringue", which means used clothing. Partly, it stems from the fact that all of the producers have been uniligual anglophones with absolutely no knowledge of the francophone community, theatrical or otherwise. So, whereas anglophone artists do the Fringe because there's pretty much no other venues, francophones seem to do the Fringe as an aesthetic and artistic choice.

Which brings me to Muriel de Zangroniz. I don't know how she found the Fringe, but she very quickly became one of my favourite francophone Fringe artists. Maybe it's because her set was a giant pile of pasta--which is the kind of thing that for some reason anglos just never think of doing. Muriel's work was visually bold, darkly hilarious, and outrageously theatrical. One massive heap of pasta out of one.

One of the things that distiguishes the Fringe from any other theatre festival is the involvement of volunteers. Volunteers at the Fringe sell tickets, pour beer, act as couriers, answer phones, and do just about everything else. They do it for free tickets, but also to be part of a community. If you haven't volunteered at the Fringe, you're missing out on an essential part of the experience. What I really love is when artists volunteer, and what I love even more is when volunteers start doing shows.

Ron Scott helped build the infamous Penis Pinata of the Drag Races one year (which contained condoms in a pair of blue paper-mache balls). He was a huge favourite among the staff and volunteer corps. And then he and his collaborator Andrew Noble created a one-man show--you heard me--where Ron charmed his way through a lovely mini-epic (yes, with ninjas) and Andrew, dressed entirely in black, provided the special effects (including making Ron fly). Delightful and awesomely fun. Ron Scott remains the only back-to-back winner of the Spirit of the Fringe award. 7 ninjas out of 7.

I had no idea when I was accepted into Concordia Theatre in 1992 that I would wind up sharing a building with the seriously hot dance department. I was already hooked on Montreal contemporary dance, so this was an exciting development. The scene at the time was fucking dark and intense; what Concordia brought to the table was a sense of humour that fit perfectly with my vaudevillian sensibilities. I always felt that those sensibilities were perfect for Montreal Fringe dance shows--of which there were plenty. Dance had always been natural part of the Montreal Fringe, but it wasn't until we moved back to the Plateau in 1999 and were able to book Tangente that the dance element really took off.

Aviva Fleising was already one of my favourite people around that time, and Hannah Dorozio one of my favourite young dancers. Tunnel Vision put them together with a girl in a sheep costume in a dream landscape on Théátre d'Aujourd'hui's mainstage. The piece crossed boundaries with performance, pop, music and spoken word. It had energy, wit, and a kind of carefree goofiness. The night before, I had had a horrific nightmare and woke myself up with my own screaming. Tunnel Vision was a gorgeous antidote. One sheep out of one.

I'd gotten interested in the burlesque revival around 2003, when I started to write Johnny Canuck and the Last Burlesque with Jeremy. I'd been watching troupes like Fluffgirl Burlesque, bands like Big John Bates and the Voodoo Dollz, gone to New York's Cutting Room, checked out films from Gypsy to Tease-O-Rama, read Lili St-Cyr's Ma Vie de Strip-teaseuse. Montreal really was the place to be in the 40's before Drapeau cleaned it up. I often feel, and more than ever these days, that the Fringe is the last vestige of that wild, open Montreal. No wonder Bill Brownstein likes us.

The Sugarpuss Burlesque was one of those shows about people trying to put on a show, which I find an annoyingly hackneyed concept, but useful, I guess, when you can't think of a more interesting revue/variety structure. What I liked about the show was individual numbers: a proper cabaret singer (doing Je ne t'aime pas, si je ne m'abuse), a proper burlesque baggy-pants comic duo, and, most importantly, Miss Sugarpuss. Ah, Miss Sugarpuss: loveable and adorable  but demanding and bitchy, working hard to keep the show together but (not so) secretly drunk off her ass. Miss Sugarpuss took the glamour out of burlesque and made it simple and exuberant, silly, warm, vulnerable, and utterly human. Two pasties out of two.

There is a kind of Fringe solo show that bugs me more than anything: I'm going to call it the Audition Show. You've seen it: it's when an actor writes a showcase show for themselves, usually based on the life of another fucking actor. The actor character is usually elderly, reminiscing on his or her brilliant fucking career (because nothing says ACTING like playing someone old). They might talk to the audience, they might talk to an empty chair near the audience, but it doesn't matter: the actor character is talking to a FUCKING INVISIBLE PERSON. What the actor actor apparently doesn't realize, at least not in a way that has any theatrical interest whatsoever, is that this behaviour characterizes people who are FUCKING INSANE.

Tracey Power was not insane. She was just doing another fucking boring Canadian Fringe show about an elderly Mary fucking Pickford talking to a fucking invisible person in a fucking invisible chair. Christ, I hate actors sometimes. And you know that Centaur loved that shit. Zero sweethearts out of a million.

InFluxdance had come up from the US in 2006 wearing tutus and charmed the hell out of us. They were blown away by The 13th Hour, and insisted on being the Decorating Committee for Fringe Prom. They brought a ton of energy, enthusiasm, and not a little Bombay Sapphire Gin. They volunteered their asses off. It just wasn't a good day without them walking in with a hearty (but increasingly hoarse) "inFlux in the house!" As a result, they won the 2006 Spirit of the Fringe award. Their show that year was pretty good, too.

Found & Lost was a multidisciplinary performance with live ASL signing. Based primarily in dance, F&L used to-do lists, new year's resolutions, lost and found items, and, most spectacularly, a deluge of mystery keys. Rose and Alysia's work didn't have the technical proficiency or detail that other dance companies had, but with inFlux, technique wasn't the point. They had intention, intelligence, and a mission of openness and boundary-crossing that fit perfectly with the spirit of the Fringe. Five tutus out of five.

A new wave of francophone Fringers had begun to emerge around this time. We'd been working on this for a few years; had had Théâtre d'Aujourd'hui as a venue since 2002; had arranged Frankie awards from Chapters for a French text and from the Cirque du Soleil. With prizes like this, people like Muriel de Zangroniz, Fabien Fauteux, Nancy Thomas, and Simon Boulerice (among many others) had extra ammunition for grant applications, residency applications, touring proposals, etc. And whereas the Fringe was still pretty much the only game in town for emerging anglo companies (along now with Theatre Ste-Catherine and MainLine), on the franco side, the Fringe was now becoming a very interesting showcase opportunity for work that, aesthetically, didn't fit anywhere else.

Les Dames was a 20-minute bijou of a duet, a little gothic sandbox piece about two sisters, beautifully written and elegantly directed and acted. It was my favourite show of the 2008 Fringe. Deux dames sur deux.

Except for Spectacle pour emporter. Les Néos were a collective bringing the work of the Neofuturist Theater of Chicago to francophone Montreal. The deal was, they had 35 short pieces; they set a timer for an hour; the audience called out which piece they wanted next; set up; go; rideau; next. When the timer went off, they stopped. The pieces were all autobiographical; they were all highly theatrical. I was crying my eyes out one minute and laughing my ass off three minutes later. They were the last show I saw at the 2008 Fringe, and my definite favourite. 35 pièces sur 35.

Except for Shavirez. Belzébrute had already rocked the beer tent with some puppet work; now they blew the Fringe's mind. Jeremy's buzz review really said it best: "It's like Bugs Bunny meets the Muppets done by pirates!" It was joyous, epic, ridiculous, tragic, heroic, erotic, in short, a show for the whole family! I liked it so much that when they started talking about getting it translated into English, I insisted that I be the one to do it. One terrible pirate terrible out of one.

Many of the Canadian Fringe Festivals allow companies to set up their own venues. They call them BYOV's (Bring Your Own Venues), and basically any bar or whatever can do it. It allows companies who want to put in the extra effort to participate in the Fringe. We started doing this in 1999, but with two twists: one, we limited our BYOV's to site-specific performances, in other words, shows that you could not do in a regular Fringe venue; and two, we called them a name that francophones could easily understand, OFF. Every festival had its "off", Avignon's Fringe was called "off", everybody got the idea of Off-Fringe. Our first one was a Une Hyène à jeun, a show that essentially set up an outdoor African village by torchlight at McGill. Since then, we've experimented with allowing year-round venues to set themselves up as an Off, but the original, site-specific vision of the Off still works best for me, no matter how much of a pain in the ass they can be administratively.

Liam Dougherty wasn't a theatre artist, wasn't a writer, had never done theatre before. He did, however, have a story: he'd been the Canadian junior ice dance champion, and needed to get figure skating off his chest. The McConnell Arena was the perfect venue. The piece was basically a slideshow and costume parade on rollerblades, narrated with a lifelong accumulation of vituperance, bile, and bitter, bitter wit. I don't know if it was theatre, but it was engaging, honest, vital, and bleakly hilarious. Shows like this are what the Fringe is here for. Ten thousand rhinestones out of ten thousand.

2010: THE 13TH HOUR
Jeremy and I had wanted for a while to do some kind of late-night event to keep people drinking after the beer tent closed, but just couldn't dope it. Enter Gravy Bath Productions, who briefly shared office space with us. They had come back from the 2002 Toronto Fringe with the notion to rip off--er, be inspired by--the late-night talk-show hosted by the Rummoli Brothers. 2003 being our 13th Fringe, and having to do the show at 1 am, after all the night's shows were over, we called it The 13th Hour, and put it up in a corner of the Grand Bayou, kitty-corner to the beer tent. Good, fun, idea -- for 50 people or so.

Cut to 2005. Improv whippersnappers Uncalled For were the reigning Spirit of the Fringe winners and decided to take over as hosts. They brought four things: hosts Zack Winters and Sweet Sweet Jimmy Priest, their intern Rufus, and, most importantly, The Money Wheel. Under the Wheel's watchful eye, The 13th Hour evolved from simple talk show to Talk Show/Game Show/Dance Party. If you haven't experienced it, when a guest spins the Money Wheel and hits "11-Second Dance Party," the DJ spins Le Tigre's "Deceptacon" and everybody gets up and dances for exactly 11 seconds.

The 13th Hour has since become the best thing about the Montreal Fringe, requiring larger and larger venues to accommodate it. In 2006, they created Fringe Prom by basically announcing it from the stage the week before. In 2007, they brought us the infamous and untoppable Fringe Bachelour Party-Fringe Wedding-Fringe Divorce trilogy (people who were there still refer to their Fringe-husbands and Fringe-wives). There's been Fringe Funeral, Fringe Masquerade... every year, the show gets bigger and bigger. It incorporated the Frankie Awards, and even has its own award for the best artist presentation on The 13th Hour. Many of the Fringes across Canada want a version of their own -- but since the rest of Canada is not Montreal, their audience can't handle the concept of 1 in the a.m. It doesn't work at Just For Laughs; it doesn't even really work at MainLine; it is the quintessence of the Montreal Fringe.

But something was missing from the 2010 edition. Maybe it was the fact that I'd recently gotten married and turned 40; maybe it was the fact that we'd started paying Uncalled For and trying to encourage them to include more francophone content. But I didn't feel the same sense of urgency, the same feeling of "OMG-I-cannot-possibly-miss-this." Maybe it was too professional, maybe it was too important, maybe it had crossed the line from spontaneous gathering of the Fringe community to a production that was too big to fail. I remember walking into the Just For Laughs Studio with Geoff Agombar in 2008 and feeling like it was the first year of Saturday Night Live. These days, I worry that The 13th Hour will suffer the same fate as SNL -- and wonder what that says about the future of the Montreal Fringe. 10 (slightly winded) seconds out of an 11-second dance party.

(Patrick Goddard is a CharPo contributor, General Manager of MainLine Theatre and the Montreal Fringe and President of the Quebec Drama Federation)

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