Artists appearing in TO Live’s Best of Fringe discuss the challenges and charms of their Fringe run, reflect on the genesis of their work, and contemplate what’s next.
The Best of Fringe 2019 will run July 19-21 and July 26-28 in the Toronto Centre for the Arts’ Studio Theatre.
“Everyone who has the chutzpah to put up a show in the Fringe Festival takes a huge personal and artistic risk. They work incredibly hard to make something they hope will be meaningful to somebody else.”
So says Michael Ross Albert of One Four One Collective, whose new play The Huns will appear in TO Live’s Best of Fringe alongside nine other Toronto Fringe productions. This year’s roster features an exciting assortment of new works, sequels, remounts, and retrospectives.
Programmed by TO Live and hosted by the Toronto Centre for the Arts (soon to be the Meridian Arts Centre), the Best of Fringe offers companies a chance to remount their acclaimed productions—reaching new audiences in North York, as well as other patrons who missed the original Fringe run or simply want to catch the shows again. A jury comprised of TO Live staff and “outside eyes” deliberates on productions that self-select to be considered for remount. “All jurors have a specific interest and background in theatre,” TO Live director of programming Madeleine Skoggard says. “It’s a considerable commitment for our volunteers, so the people who agree to participate are true lovers of theatre—particularly fringe.”
Jury members assess shows on five key criteria: adaptability to the Toronto Centre’s Studio Theatre; audience interest and response; accessibility; reflection of TO Live’s core values (including diversity, inclusion, and innovation); and the individual juror’s overall impression. Juror’s “score” shows out of five—if a show receives three or more, TO Live sends another juror to see the show. If both jurors give the show a score of more than three, it’s shortlisted. The jury then engage in a lively discussion post-Fringe, with an eye to finding the right line-up mix for a remount.
For the artists, Best of Fringe is an opportunity to reflect on their Fringe run and whatever changes and challenges they encountered along the way.
Monster Theatre’s Til Death: The Six Wives of Henry VIII was condensed into 60 minutes from its original 75-minute runtime for the Toronto Fringe. For performer Tara Travis, this meant making cuts and reprogramming her brain. “It broke up my patterns, allowed me to have fun again, and fall in love with [the show] in a new way,” Travis says. “I feel like I’m on a second honeymoon with this show, and that feels great.”
After the Beep creator and performer Pamela Bethel had her own timing concerns: there was so much laughter from the audience in her first performance that she began to worry about cutting into the next show’s set-up. “I was panicking inside, convinced I would go over my allotted time (big no-no at Fringe).”
Jake Epstein’s Boy Falls from the Sky—which Epstein co-created with Robert McQueen—poses a particular trial. Styled as a musical showbiz retrospective detailing Epstein’s career, Boy Falls’ personal nature makes its debut that much more daunting. “Over the course of the Fringe, I felt a real sense of appreciation from audiences for being so honest,” Epstein remarks. “I think that’s given me some confidence to do the show.”
Pea Green Theatre Group’s 2019 Fringe offering Three Men on a Bike is a sequel to their previous Fringe hit Three Men in a Boat, which adds a certain degree of pressure, according to playwright Mark Brownell. “On the plus side, creating a sequel allowed us to revisit these wonderful characters and to shape their development to match our three very talented performers,” Brownell says.
It’s common enough for shows to evolve throughout the course of Fringe, or between festivals. This was certainly the case for Canvas Sky Theatre’s Night Feed, which enjoyed a run in the Ottawa Fringe before heading to Toronto. “We learned so much during our Ottawa run,” writer and director Sarah Joy Bennett says, “and made several writing changes as well as some puppet rebuilds. But most importantly, we found the flow and rhythm of the show, we learned to trust the work we had put in and to trust each other; we found our “group mind.””
Spicy Day’s two-hander In Waking Life is partially improvised, so each show is “a different new adventure” for creators and performers Monica Bradford-Lea and Lauren Welchner. “We are always making each other laugh,” they say. “Even our audiences have really brought the comedy!” Improvisation has also affected Jordan Armstrong and Kevin Matviw’s Death Ray Cabaret: “Jordan and I have improvised some jokes over the run that are now a part of the show,” Matviw says.
For others, the work has changed very little in recent years. This is the fifth Fringe for Pamela Bethel’s After the Beep: “The show has definitely changed and developed since its genesis,” Bethel says. “But this version is pretty much the same as the one I toured last year.”
By comparison, Fringe 2019 is the world premiere of One Four One Collective’s The Huns. Playwright Michael Ross Albert felt the shift from rehearsal hall to performance space keenly. “In rehearsals, I still have the opportunity to make adjustments to the text, or tailor the script a bit more,” Albert says. “But once we enter the theatre space, the play belongs to the performers, and to the audience.”
Active audience participation and a sense of community spirit seem to be shared experiences for many artists in this year’s Best of Fringe. Night Feed playwright Sarah Joy Bennett reports being pleasantly surprised by the response of male audience members to a play about new motherhood. “When you set out to create a piece of theatre exploring the experiences of a nursing mother, you don’t really expect to get a standing ovation from a dozen twenty year-old men in the front row,” Bennett says. “But it happened!”
Pea Green Theatre Group’s mascot and Dora-nominated stuffed dog Montmorency has developed a fan base in his own right, complete with social media presence and security detail (in a previous festival, an audience member rushed the stage and grabbed him).
In similarly cheeky fashion, one audience member played a harmless prank on the cast of In Waking Life. “There is a short moment near the beginning of the show where we ask audience members if they remembered to bring the “finger sandwiches,”” Monica Bradford-Lea and Lauren Welchner say. “On our closing show, one patron came back to see the show a second time and really brought finger sandwiches for the audience to share!” Closing night audiences at Til Death even sang happy birthday to performer Tara Travis’ father: “That was so special,” she says. “I love how Fringe audiences are so ready to get on board and play along!”
So, Best of Fringers, what’s next?
Following the remount at Toronto Centre for the Arts, many artists will be gearing up for touring, theatre seasons, and more festivals. After the Beep will be playing at the Vancouver Fringe in September; Spicy Day and Monster Theatre will be touring other productions, whereas Pea Green Theatre Group and Sky Canvas Theatre aim to continue touring their present works. “We are already in conversation with health care professionals who have indicated interest in mounting Night Feed in a hospital setting for prenatal and perinatal patients,” Sarah Joy Bennett says.
One Four One Collective is taking a slightly different approach: “I don’t know what’s next for this show, or for One Four One Collective, but I do know that we’ve just had a Fringe Festival for the ages,” Michael Ross Albert says. “We’re going to do some proper celebrating before figuring out what to work on next.”
Before the celebrating begins, make sure to catch the Best of Fringe 2019 in the Toronto Centre for the Arts’ Studio Theatre.