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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Feature: Tales From The Fringe

Fringe is year-round in Edinburgh, where it all began
(photo: Bruno Lajeunesse)

a (truly) personal history of Montreal's most important festival as we head into the last month before the 2011 edition 
joel fishbane

I’m standing in the beer tent, on the receiving end of a partially-thunderous applause. It’s the 18th Annual Montreal Fringe and I’ve just been named the worst playwright in Montreal. The event is called Dramaturkey and calls for playwrights to submit their worst material. Quickly, it has become clear to me that I misunderstood the assignment. In preparation for the event, a lot of writers purposely wrote bad plays. But I had just printed some old file from my computer. 

The prize, provided by Playwrights Workshop Montreal, is a little tin bird. I am told that it isn’t mine to keep – I have to hand it over to the new winner the following year. This means that for a whole year this gaudy trinket has to sit on my bookshelf. It’s as cheap as it is ugly. People who visit me stare at it in wonder and I am not be able to decide whether to tell them the real reason it’s there or if it’s better to let them think I simply suffer from a sublime lack of decorative sense. 

* * *

For the first time in nearly fifteen years, the Fringe will launch without producer Jeremy Hechtman at the helm.

The Montreal Fringe turns 21 this year, but in many ways it’s Year Zero. For the first time in nearly fifteen years, the Fringe will launch without producer Jeremy Hechtman at the helm. Hechtman, who recently stepped down, has always been the physical embodiment of everything the Fringe represents: an ambitious, rough around the edges, in-your-face mixture of promotion, shock and spectacle combined with an unabashed love of all things art. 

Steve Galluccio
Spokesman for this year's Fringe
and previous Fringe bad boy
Hechtman remains one of this city’s great promoters, so its no surprise that under his guard, the Montreal Fringe grew in attendance, productions and controversy. Hechtman’s responsible for instigating popular events like the Drag Races and for keeping the Fringe in heart of the Plateau (they did move briefly to McGill Campus, a dark time that no one likes to mention). 

Then there was the publicity generated in 2007 when the powers that be tried to deny a permit for the beer tent, which for years has stood like an oasis at the corner of Rachel and St. Laurent. Hechtman launched a media blitz that included coverage in the Gazette and suggested the Plateau’s bureaucrats were not as artist-friendly as they wanted voters to believe. Since then, it’s been relatively easier to get their permits, although the war between the Fringe and the condo-owners near Parc des Ameriques never seems more than a noise complaint away.

Now, with Hechtman focusing his energies on Mainline Theatre, the reins of the Fringe have been turned over to his longtime protégé Amy Blackmore. Hechtman has been grooming Blackmore for years and there’s no doubt she’s ready for the job. A choreographer, songwriter and producer, Blackmore has done the Fringe thing before, producing such shows as I Love New York and Hardcore Pussy. There’s no doubt Blackmore understands what the Montreal Fringe is all about – and having learned all she can from Hechtman, she’s now ready to take the Fringe into a new direction. 

* * * 

“Your t-shirt, it is disgusting,” she says.

Coming to this year's Fringe
from New Orleans: A Different Woman
I’m waiting for the 55 when I notice a woman is staring at me. She’s a good looking sort of French girl, all colored glasses and short hair, and I decide to give her my best smile. She rolls her eyes. “Your t-shirt, it is disgusting,” she says.

I remember that I’m currently wearing a bright orange shirt that reads Come and See My Girlfriend’s Hardcore Pussy. This had seemed funny when I thought of it. Now I see it for the bad idea that it was. 

“You don’t understand,” I say. “I’m promoting a show.”

The woman blinks.

“My girlfriend is in a play,” I add. “It’s about a drunken cat. The cat is the Hardcore Pussy. So you see, my t-shirt isn’t disgusting. It’s advertising.

The woman studies me for a second and then shakes her head. “Artists,” she says. She has the same tone of voice usually reserved for lawyers, politicians and deadly infections.

Just then 55 arrives and she leaps on board. I don’t follow. Instead, I walk home, wondering if I should cover my chest or simply throw the shirt in the trash.

* * *

Occasionally, a conventional play slips through the cracks.

TJ Dawe, Keir Cutler
In many ways, Hardcore Pussy was the quintessential Fringe show: a shocking title married to a multimedia presentation and a unique dramatic conceit  And like most fringe shows, it defied convention. This is precisely what the Fringe has always been. Occasionally, a conventional play slips through the cracks. But audiences are most often  treated to theatrical hybrids that both provoke and bore. Everyone has the story of the time they “suffered” through a Fringe show. But everyone also remembers being in the presence of something unique. 

Although most often a breeding ground for new artists, the Fringe has become the adoptive home for several inimitable talents who would be otherwise orphaned in the conventional theatre world. Never Surrender, Uncalled For, Jem Rolls, TJ Dawe, Keir Cutler, Nicola Gunn and Barry Smith all became Fringe celebrities, returning year after year with new shows (Dawe has long been called a “Fringe God” while Nicola Gunn once famously told an opening night crowd that her show “wasn’t ready” before refunding their money).

Then there’s Zack Winters, Sweet Sweet Jimmy Priest and their pet Rufus - nightly hosts of the 13th Hour, the Fringe’s late night, live action talk show. It is this event, more then any other, that has turned the Montreal Fringe into a ten day celebration unlike any other. By the 13th hour, most cities are going to bed. But thanks to Montreal’s liberated drinking laws, the 13th hour is just the start of late night opportunities to press the flesh, promote the shows and – perhaps most importantly - pursue that artist, volunteer or audience member or whose good looks / daring artistic sense has captured a corner of your heart.

* * * 

...the crowd is too thick, the lights too dim, the party too intense.

The girl is not to be found. It’s Day Ten of the Fringe and I’ve made my way to the Frankie Awards to see if I can find X, a young lady who I’ve been flirting with since Day One. The place is packed tight and I have to fight my way to higher ground (standing on a chair) to get a better look. On stage, Rufus has just spun the magic wheel and I reach the edge of the mezzanine just as the world suddenly erupts into an eleven second dance party. Below me is a writhing throng of artists, techies, volunteers, critics, fans, fanatics. 

She’s not here, I think. I’d have seen her by now. 

But X is there, looking for me as much as I’m looking for her. Still, the crowd is too thick, the lights too dim, the party too intense. The thing that brought us together – the heady, euphoric atmosphere of the Montreal Fringe – is also the thing keeping us apart. 

X and I both give up on each other and go in search of beer. And that’s how we find each other: at the bar, both of us asking for a Griffon Blonde in which to drown our sorrows. She tries to pay for my drink and I try to pay for hers. In the confusion, nobody pays for anything and we end up getting drunk for free. 

* * * 

Edinburgh Fringe
Edinburgh was the first city to promote an alternative theatre festival and remains the largest Fringe in the world. But Canada continues to have more Fringe Festivals then any other country, with major festivals occurring in almost every major city. Our attraction to the festival may have something to do with its egalitarian format: the Fringe is an unjuried festival. 

I’ve never had a show in the Montreal Fringe. Oh, I’ve applied. But the Fringe chooses its participants entirely by lottery. There’s a rumor that you can assure your entrance with a well-timed gift of Jack Daniels, but this has never been proven. There is also a rumor that once upon a time, there was a movement in CAFF (the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals) to make one or two Fringes into a juried competition, like Toronto’s Summerworks Festival. Legend has it that Jeremy Hechtman raised H-E-L-L over the plan, asserting that this would destroy everything the Fringe stood for. No, the Fringe is not always the place for high quality art. But it remains the one festival where freedom of speech is truly celebrated. All you need to participate is money and an idea – and the idea is optional.

* * *

“I love rewrites,” I say. “I’m a writer, you know.”

I’m standing outside Venue #6, flirting with a pretty girl. It’s going badly. Really badly. She’s shifting from side to side and looking for a reason to escape. I’m relentless. I’m 20 years old and it’s the last day of my first Montreal Fringe. Tomorrow morning, this pretty girl is leaving town. 
“I really loved your show,” I say.

She perks up. Her show is a vague one-woman comedy about losers in love. Attendance was lousy and the reviews were worse. One piece of buzz, posted at the beer tent, took no prisoners: AVOID AT ALL COSTS. It was a fair assessment. But back then, the fact that the show starred a pretty girl was all it took for me to be generous with my praise. 

“I’m doing a rewrite before the Toronto Fringe,” she admits.
Fringe faves: Uncalled For

“I love rewrites,” I say. “I’m a writer, you know.”

Telling people you write is a dangerous thing – most of the time they suspect the admission is a precursor to asking for a loan. But this time it works. We spend an hour at La Cabane, going over her script.  Then she gives me a fake phone number and disappears into the night.

I like to think she took my suggestions and “AVOID AT ALL COSTS” became “SEE IT TODAY IN CASE YOU DIE TOMORROW”. There’s no way I’ll ever know. I don’t remember the show and I don’t remember her name. But this is nothing new. A lot of people have trouble remembering details about the Montreal Fringe. It tends to leave person with that Morning After sort of amnesia. Nothing but a loose assortment of memories and the vague certainty that whatever happened, they had a really good time.

Want more Fringe 2011? Go to CharPo's Fringe aggregator.
Barbara Ford is on a break. Ford's Focus will be back soon!

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