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Friday, November 23, 2012

Opinion: Rob Salerno on The Montreal Fringe

Montreal Fringe announces its lineup, milks artists
by Rob Salerno (reprinted, with permission, from Mr. Salerno's blog)
[Publisher: I have decided to reprint this article, which went into circulation last night, to encourage dialogue between artists who have appeared at our Fringe and the Fringe organization. Mr. Salerno's opinion reflects those of several veteran Fringe artists I have talked to off the record. When posted on Facebook, last night, there was a very interesting discussion on the article's many points. I encourage that discussion to continue here. NB: Mr. Salerno has made corrections to his original post. In the interests of clarity, we have removed the strike-outs. GLC]
The Montreal Fringe has announced its lineup after throwing its lottery party earlier this week. I’m not going to do synopses of all of the Fringe lineups, because that would be nuts, but I thought it would be worth looking at Montreal Fringe’s list because it’s the first big one to announce its lineup and also, it reveals some of the less-than-awesome things going on in Montreal Fringe.
The Fringe drew 84 companies in the lottery — 29 local francophone, 28 local anglophone, and 27 Canadian and International companies. This is slightly down from last year’s total, but the Fringe says more companies will likely be bumped up from the waitlist as they figure out the schedule and possibly add more venues. And of course, BYOVs will be added to this list. So it doesn’t appear as if the Fringe has actually learned lessons from last year, and is going to continue to expand beyond its capacity to draw an audience.
You’ll also note that they’ve posted the wait list for each category: 13 International companies are waiting for 13 spots. I guess that’s fair. It means performance poet Jem Rolls in spot #13 is hoping that every other international company drops out of the Fringe so he can get a spot.27 Canadian companies are waiting for the 14 Canadian spots.
50 Quebec Anglophones and 34 Francophones are waiting for the 28/29 spots currently available.
I got burned by Montreal Fringe in 2011, when I was given a wait list position that would’ve required every company to drop out and then two more companies ahead of me to drop out. I asked for my money back right away. I got no response immediately, and then had to hound them for months. They promise the cheque was in the mail — what, they couldn’t just refund my Visa? — and it wouldn’t show up. When I threatened to complain to the Quebec bureau of consumer protection, they finally mailed me a cheque, which — punchline! — bounced. (This happened while I was performing in Europe and left me cashless until I could get money transferred to me. They eventually sent me an electronic deposit.) I wonder what happens to wait listed companies who aren’t as proactive as I am?
[EDIT: After posting this, it was brought to my attention that this year, the Montreal Fringe did not actually charge the full amount in advance, unlike in previous years. So they have learned from their mistake. It was also brought to my attention, for comparison's sake, that Edmonton does indeed still charge the full amount to all companies kept on the waiting list as well.]
One more beef before the results. Montreal Fringe also charges a ridiculous nonrefundable “administration fee” of $60 on every application, which is not refundable. This is supposedly to cover the costs of running the lottery, which, let’s face it, is just writing numbers on pieces of paper, assigning those numbers to companies, and then drawing them out of a box. Despite the ~200 applicants who contributed ~$12,000 in admin fees, Fringe couldn’t even find time to post the lottery results the day after the lottery. $60 is an insane charge just to enter the lottery for this or any other festival festival. Only Vancouver approaches a fee that high ($50) and it’s just as ridiculous. Juried festivals that actually read your submissions charge less than that. This really needs to be brought under control. [EDIT: The $60 fee is actually $50 plus HST. That's still a $10,000 total.]
I didn’t apply to Montreal this year, and I won’t until they clean up their act. The way they’re running the festival is irresponsible at best, unscrupulous at worst.
Anyway, the lottery winners: 
From the list, I recognize only a few big names.
The international list includes Chase Padgett of Six Guitars fame, and John Montgomery of Fear Factor: Canine Edition, who was also a CAFF lottery winner. Weeping Spoon is Shane Adamczak of Zack Adams fame. He had success at this year’s Montreal Fringe. His company is still considered to be based in Perth, Australia even though he lives in Montreal and works for Mainline Theatre, which runs the Fringe. He was an early-bird draw, so it doesn’t look like he’s taking advantage of better odds in the draw.
In the Canadian category, Peter n Chris of The Peter n’ Chris Show and Sam Mullins of Tinfoil Dinosaur are back after getting in via the early-bird deadline. They were big hits at this year’s Montreal Fringe. I also see improv troupes Sex T-Rex and Hip.Bang! Also nice to see that our client The Theatre Elusive got in. They’re also doing the Frigid Fest in New York next year.
I don’t recognize anyone in the local categories.


  1. Because I agree that dialogue is healthy, I will reiterate what I commented on facebook. The size of the festival has been increasing proportionally with attendance. There are fewer blockbuster shows in recent years than there used to be 10 years ago. But there are also fewer empty houses. I am not convinced that overall attendance would continue to increase steadily if the festival was not growing. Are there valid concerns over the limited theatre audience in Montreal? Yes. But this is something the entire theatre community is struggling with year round and is not exclusively a Fringe problem. We live in a city where not losing money is considered success.

    That said, if you want to have a discussion, have a discussion. This is an attack, not a discussion. I see plenty of complaints and no solutions. Could it be that Rob Salerno is bitter that his show didn't earn him a decent salary, and that lashing out like this is a cheap ploy to gain publicity and attract attention? If that's the case, it seems to be working and I don't want to feed into it further.

    The last sentence in this blog shows how connected Selarno really is to the Montreal theatre scene.

    Duh. Stay out of Riverdale.

  2. Lordie, that's rough! I must say, though, that I have heard many of Mr. Salerno's complaints from Fringe veterans speaking off the record, as I said. I am grateful to Rob for speaking ON the record because problems with the Fringe - and there isn't an honest commentator in the city who hasn't noticed them - need to be discussed. One salient one is more focus on activities and less on the shows.

  3. I believe it was established that Shane Adamczak does not, in fact, work for MainLine - no?

    In any case, I did the Montreal Fringe for the first time ever last year, and I had a great time. I found the staff helpful and supportive, my show did well, and I was able to bring in friends who would not otherwise have been there. All while seeing a good number of other productions myself.

    Unfortunately, I'm way down on the waiting list this year; but the staff have already been encouraging me to consider going Off-Fringe. I'm not sure I'll do it, but I am planning to attend the related workshop on Monday.

    Whether I produce something or not, I am looking forward to Fringe 2013.

  4. And "irresponsible at best, unscrupulous at worst" isn't rough? I'm sorry if I've lowered myself to Salerno's level of communication.

  5. Yes, but the difference is that Salerno is discussing an institution and method, not a single person. What we seem to be most upset about is his tone, not the substance, and that, sadly, is a bit of a hallmark of MELT.

  6. Hi Shayne,

    First of all, I'm a Toronto artist and my blog is targetted largely at a Toronto audience, so you'll have to forgive my ignorance of the all the local Montreal Fringe companies. If I had re-written my blog entry for this site (rather than just allowing Gaetan to cut and paste it), I would have excised the chunk at the bottom about other companies, and cleaned up the parts of the text that I left struck-out and corrected in the original (I left my original, mistaken, information in my blog post for transparency's sake).

    Second, yes, I did intend for this to foster a dialogue. I find that too many artists are too concerned with playing nice with industry administrative types, that real complaints never get aired. I can back up Gaetan's note that lots of artists raise exactly my complaints amongst themselves. It's an annual thing every Fringe where the touring artists complain about feeling sold a bill of goods by the Festival staff. After I posted this article, another artist told me that Fringe withheld his deposit cheque from the 2011 festival for a whole year! And artists who are applying to multiple festivals around the country are venturing upwards of $200 just to take part in the lotteries. The lottery fee is out of control.

    It seems if we complain anonymously we're (rightly) not taken seriously because we're not willing to own our concerns. But if we put our names and faces on these concerns, we're called cheap attention-seekers. I feel like I have an ability to speak about the festival now for two reasons: because I've participated in 30 Fringes across Canada over the past five years, including 3 Montreal Fringes, so I have the benefit of a certain context and perspective that not a lot of people have; and because I've recently decided to step back from touring the Fringe circuit generally (although I have applications pending in Toronto and Ottawa for different reasons), so I don't need to worry about the potential for blowback, as some of my colleagues who've stayed anonymous do.

    That said, many of my colleagues have told me they've expressed these concerns to Montreal Fringe directly, only to be brushed off. In fact, I included Montreal Fringe's ED on a letter I sent to all of the major Canadian Fringes earlier this fall expressing my concerns about how the festivals are expanding, and very politely requesting that we begin a dialogue on how to grow the festivals sustainably (read it here: That letter was published on this site as well, and cosigned by more than a dozen Fringe artists. Of all the festival execs that received the letter, *not a single one* responded to me -- although someone from the Toronto Fringe board did reach out. (cont'd)

  7. Third, if you have stats to back up your assertion that paid attendance at festival shows is climbing in proportion to its size, I'd like to see them. Really, I would. I think I've been fairly honest about admitting my mistakes, so if my impressions are wrong, I'll say so. BUT, I'm not concerned with the total attendance at the festival. The important figures are average paid attendance per show, and average artist earnings. Adding twenty shows to a festival is likely to draw more people total, but the marginal growth is likely not proportionate to the growth of the festival. But hey, Mainline keeps an extra $2 per ticket, so if they sell an extra 1,000 tickets total, but artist revenue drops, it's no skin off their necks. Also, as I've blogged about earlier, the total attendance numbers get skewed easily in larger festivals because there are more total comp tickets -- more artists are at the fest seeing shows for free, the additional shows/venues require additional volunteers/staff who see shows for free, etc. This may raise the attendance number, but it does little for artists' bottom lines.

    Even if the paid attendance *is* growing in line with the festival, this would still be problematic, because the average artist return at Montreal Fringe is so low, that artists can't even reasonably expect to cover their costs, let alone make a living. I brough up the figures about my show not to bitch about my payday, but to point out that if even a show with *tiny* overhead like mine can barely eek out a profit, how on earth can a larger show or a new work?

    Fourth, I think the solutions are implicit in the blog entry. But let me spell them out: 1) reduce the lottery fee; 2) don't process payments until companies are already in the festival -- the Fringe appears to have already adopted this policy; 3) make the waitlists more transparent by keeping them at a reasonable length; 4) reduce the overall size of the festival, and focus on growing the audience who come to individual shows -- this is admittedly the trickiest step, because it's going to require some real introspection from the festival to figure out what it's doing right and what it's doing wrong. I could write a whole other blog post on this topic, but we've already talked about how the festival's counter-programming hurts artists. I think the festival needs to centralise its venues, and consider arranging the schedule so that English shows lead into other English shows and the same with French, to encourage people to stick around and watch multiple shows per night. (One thing I will commend the Montreal Fringe for: getting rid of those lousy weekday afternoon shows. That's probably accounted for any bump in avg attendance, if any.)

    Finally, sorry, but it's not enough to say "not losing money is considered success." We're professionals trying to make a living. We're adults. We can't just decide to spend two weeks in Montreal, busting our butts, and not have a reasonable expectation of earning an income. Yes, we do it because we love it. But it's also our job and our livelihood, and -- especially if you're a travelling act -- it's not a hobby you're doing after work. There has to be a reasonable expectation that you can make money at a festival like this.

  8. Finally someone is fucking say what needs to be said. TY, Rob.

  9. Hello Rob,

    As the Director of the Montreal FRINGE, I appreciate you choosing to voice your concerns about the festival. While I respect your opinion and will defend your right to have it, I am afraid you have been misled. Many of your statements are misinformed.

    I have met with many local, national and international artists about their concerns in regards to the Festival. I have found it very helpful. It has informed many of the decisions I have made in the past two years as director.

    I am sorry that you have felt "brushed off" by FRINGE Staff. I invite you to please contact me so I can personally clarify any questions you may have about the inner workings of our non-for-profit organization. Please never hesitate to contact me directly. I feel this is not the right forum for us to have a discussion.

    Have a nice day,

    Amy Blackmore, Director
    St-Ambroise Montreal FRINGE Festival


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