Editor’s note: hey there. Aisling here. It dawned on me recently: holy shit, Toronto Fringe is upon us once more. How’d that happen?!
Like many Toronto Theatre People™, this is one of my favourite times of year — the cold beers shared on the Fringe Patio, the Derrick Chua sightings, the glorious new works presented in (often air-conditioned!) performance spaces across the city. It’s like #theaTO Christmas.
But by far, the best part of Fringe season is the people. It’s artists like Nam Nguyen, who captivated the city last year with his Fringe musical about soup, and administrators like Lucy Eveleigh, executive director of the Fringe and one of the most respected artistic leaders in this city.
For the last two years, I’ve interviewed Eveleigh about the Fringe — where it’s been, where it’s headed, and how it’s doing — but this year, it felt important for the festival and one of its artists to have that talk together. 2023 is a pivotal year for a festival which has said publicly its finances are in trouble — you can check out the Toronto Star and CP24’s coverage of that — but this year’s Fringe is also artistically poised to be one for the books, with over 100 shows that Intermission can’t wait to review in the coming weeks.
Nam interviewed Lucy at the Fringe office in Toronto’s east end on Friday, June 23. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Nam Nguyen (NN): Beep boop boop.
I’m here in the lovely office of the Toronto Fringe, with Lucy Eveleigh, executive director of the Fringe.
I guess to start, can you tell me about the journey you had coming to work at Fringe in the first place, and how you came into this leadership position? I myself am wearing a Fringe volunteer t-shirt today, so that’s where I started as a high schooler. But I’m curious how you got roped into this world in the first place.
Lucy Eveleigh (LE): I’m originally from the UK and I worked at the Edinburgh Fringe. It was supposed to be kind of a summer job, since I’d been living in Canada and had just moved back to the UK, and I got a job at one of the largest venues at the Edinburgh Fringe. And I’d performed in the Toronto Fringe as well, many, many years ago. So when I came back to Toronto, I applied for the managing director job, and didn’t get it. But when it became available again, I interviewed, and got the position as managing director, and did that for about five years. And then Kelly Straughan, my boss at the time, decided to leave, so I applied for her job. And I’ve been doing it for five years now.
NN: So you’ve basically been in charge almost the entire time I’ve known this organization. That’s pretty lit.
I’m curious, then, how you feel the Fringe has changed in the time since you first started working here? Obviously, there’ve been difficulties over the years, that big thing in 2020, for instance, so I’m curious what your perspective has been through all that.
LE: The festival’s grown a lot, I think. The foundation has become stronger.
When I first started working here, it was really scrappy, and everyone worked so incredibly hard, like 24/7. That still exists a little bit, but we’ve tried to move away from that. We’ve tried to make sure nobody’s working nonstop. It’s kind of impossible to remove that completely, as that’s kind of the nature of running a festival. But we’ve tried to spread it out a bit more.
In my mind, the festival has grown up. It’s become a real player in the city. It’s always fun — when I started, it was a bit like, ‘oh, we’re just the Fringe, doing weird shit,’ but now I feel like we own who we are. We own our importance. And that took a while to get to. The Fringe is such an important part of Toronto. The Fringe movement is important across the world. I’ve had the privilege of being able to see different fringes, and meet the different fringers across the world. And the movement is just so critical.
This institution matters, and it is an institution. It’s a tradition, and an institution that deserves to have its place at the table.
NN: For sure. On the one hand, you can go and find your new favourite indie artist, but then there’s also the chance that you can find a future phenomenon, like ‘da Kink in My Hair or The Drowsy Chaperone or Kim’s Convenience. And inexplicably, that ticket still has never cost more than 15 dollars, no matter the show, and the festival has continued to support both its audiences and its artists.
But how do you find that clashes up against the neoliberal hellscape of pandemic Toronto? Things are expensive now. The lovely folks working outside your office right now, they want nice jobs. And I’m sure it costs quite a bit to retain that talent as well. So how do you find that interaction of keeping things cheap, but also retaining the talent and keeping this thing going?
LE: It’s really hard.
Our goal is to get these artists seen. And I think there’s two parts to your question. On the one hand, Fringe is a place where you can be discovered, and for some, that does happen, and it’s happened in really big ways, like you said. But it’s also a place where people should be able to experiment, and do their thing for the first time, and find that audience, that niche. Out of 100 shows, it’s not possible for all of them to get discovered on a huge scale, and that’s okay.
It’s important for us to remember that we talk about Fringe as being something for everybody — not just for audiences, but for artists too. We’re encouraging people to take a chance. We’re encouraging people to see more than one show. This is the cheapest ticket you can find in Toronto right now. It’s a real balance, which is why we need more funding from the government, and we’re doing a massive donation campaign. We need angel investors, and we need rich people to come.
NN: Have you tried just calling Doug Ford? Like, ‘Doug, yo, you’re right there.’ Can he not just walk down the street with a suitcase of money?
LE: No, I don’t have his number.
NN: I think it’s publicly accessible.
LE: You know, the problem is the government gave away all these grants during COVID, and then they stopped them all. So we were able to pay people, and do all the things we wanted to do. But they took it away, and now this is the result.
Everybody is struggling right now, everybody in the arts is struggling right now. And we’re trying to do our thing. We can’t raise ticket prices, because that goes against what we do. I think people would revolt. We need more funding from other sources, because we don’t make enough of our own revenue.
NN: I want to skip ahead to something I’d planned for the end of this conversation. What do you think are the big swings that you, or perhaps an eventual successor, or even any other theatre organization in the city, could take to raise the profile for a theatre in this city? It’s tricky, right?
LE: It’s marketing. We need a concentrated marketing plan. And honestly, we’ve been talking about this at TAPA (the Toronto Alliance for Performing Arts) too. We need to come together as a sector to remind people how important the arts are, and how the city wouldn’t thrive without the arts in it. Individually, we all have these paltry marketing budgets that mean maybe we can get on the subway once in a while.
We need to be better at sharing, and sharing our resources, and sharing our audiences, because ultimately it’s the same people. We’re not reaching outside our bubble. You know, I think we should — there’s probably loads of people in the financial district who know nothing about Fringe — but I can’t reach them unless I have money to reach them.
NN: Yeah, it’s an interesting phenomenon, right, because you have people who see one show per year and then people who see 100 shows per year, or everything in the season. So I guess you’re basically trying to get that person who sees one show per year to see your show.
LE: Exactly. And then you’re trying to make them realize that this is actually a really fun thing to do. I think some people don’t want to go to the theatre because they think it’s going to be heavy, or they think it’s going to be a message, or educational. We’re used to being in our homes and watching whatever on Disney or Netflix or Crave, right?
NN: Or TikTok.
LE: Or TikTok, right, of course. So you want to give people an incentive to leave. And then once they’ve done it, I think they’ll be reminded of how special it is to be in a live theatre.
NN: So, listen, I know you have to maintain at least some amount of impartiality. So you don’t necessarily need to talk about any shows that have happened under your tenure. But what are some favourite shows that you remember from Toronto Fringes past?
LE: Waiting for Godot was amazing. It was kind of like an endurance piece, and it was a really cool thing to be a part of. That was right before I started working here. I’ve seen tons of great Fringe shows, here in Toronto and for sure in Edinburgh, just so many amazing pieces of theatre and comedy.
Man, there was a show before the pandemic that I saw on the last day of the festival, Every Silver Lining. And it was great, a little bit of a cathartic release at the end of the festival. I remember I brought a bunch of sponsors to that one, and they were crying too.
I don’t get to see much stuff during the festival, but I try and see three or four shows. It’s great. They’re all great.
NN: That’s a very official-sounding answer from someone in a leadership position.
What kind of innovation, then, do you want to see from artists, if you step into the artist headspace for a moment? What’s the new weird thing you want to see in 2024’s Fringe? Who’s got to enter the lottery in December? What’s the thing that will very specifically get Lucy Eveleigh to say, “I like you”?
LE: I’m interested in hybrid work, and I think that is yet to be explored fully. I think we all kind of dabbled into it during the pandemic. But I think there’s some really interesting stuff happening in VR, and even hybrid models of being able to watch stuff online but still participate in person. I’m interested to see where that goes. I think there’s something yet to be explored in this new genre of theatre, digital, real-life mix. And I’m curious about that.
NN: See, that’s interesting, because I feel like as someone who has been extremely online for my entire life, I’m approaching that in different ways. I want theatre to be theatre, video games to be video games, TV, TV. I like the liveness of things.
LE: For sure — I think it’s hard to do, particularly when everyone’s working on such small budgets.
I think it’s honestly just exciting for me when people get buzz around their shows. It’s so hard to predict what’s going to excite people, and there’s a thrill in that. I just want to see people coming together and enjoying themselves, having fun. It’s supposed to be fun. And it’s nice when you see people find one another.
NN: So, I want to talk about the 50 per cent BIPOC cohort, Fringe’s curation effort to draw in these communities first. I found it a very interesting phenomenon that at the launch party in December, there were so few applicants who applied. One name was picked out of the bowl. Can you talk a little about that?
LE: Yeah, so the hope, obviously, is that we won’t need to do these initiatives in the future, because eventually we’ll see the same number of people applying from all these backgrounds and experiences. But until that happens, yes, we’ll have that situation where it is one person. But that one person now has a chance they probably didn’t have before, so it’s worth it.
NN: Well, right, because it’s these structural factors outside the festival that keep people from seeing themselves at Fringe, and thinking, ‘yeah, I can make a show,’ right?
LE: Exactly. It’s not easy to put on a show, as you know. There’s a certain amount of privilege, because you need to have money to participate. But it’s hard, because when you’re relying on box office to share with whoever’s in your show, it’s not easy. It’s a stressful process, even when you’ve been doing it for a long time. So we’re trying to make that easier.
NN: See, that was a really valuable part of just being around Fringe as a kid — it’s not a huge risk. There are front-of-house managers who are really, really generous with their snacks, and yeah, you don’t have to pay $4,000 to rent out a theatre and then take on all those other costs to put on a show. Even though it’ll be hard on your — let’s say $1,000 — credit limit, this is still the easiest way you have to make it onto the scene. It’s why so many people have started out here. Pretty much anyone who’s acquired an OAC Recommender Grant has probably had a show at Fringe at some point.
LE: I mean, yeah, and that sort of feeds into a bigger point: Fringe takes over this city. During the festival, everywhere you go, you bump into an artist with a flyer. And I think that’s actually what’s hard about Toronto — it’s so big. So much is going on. So when we bring people to a space where the audience can come and meet and chat with an audience — the Fringe Patio — that’s really important. That’s why so much marketing goes into the patio.
One of the things from when I first started working here that I got a lot of feedback on was the brochure — it was overwhelming. People didn’t know how to decide what to see. So we were like, ‘okay, so the patio really is the gateway into the Fringe.’ And we started putting a lot of effort into that. It’s been my real focus.
NN: What’s your go-to patio drink?
LE: I don’t really drink much during the festival, but last year, I was a really big fan of the ciders we brought on.
NN: I think I was in the Fringe office the day you brought in the cans. You seemed excited.
LE: I was! We have such wonderful sponsors. But that was a really nice, summery drink.
NN: I always live for the Filipino food. If no theatre happened at the Fringe, I’d still go just for the Filipino snacks.
LE: The patio is going to be the place to be between shows this year. Obviously, the shows are the priority, but it’s going to be great.
NN: So, this season has the reintroduction of what had previously been called “site-specific” venues. Now it’s “unconventional” venues. What inspired that comeback?
LE: When I think about what we achieved last year, it’s actually a miracle. There was no room for excitement. So this year, we wanted people to be able to offer digital or hybrid work. That’s why we’ve renamed it to “unconventional” venues. We’re not the kind of Fringe that offers “bring your own venue,” where you can just do your work in a different theatre. This is more unconventional — we want it to be something a bit different than just another place with a stage.
This year, I feel like I’ll be able to collect data to make a decision for next year, in terms of how many unconventional shows, how many venues, and how many slots we can actually offer.
NN: I remember one of the most out-there ones entailed taking out an entire secondary school in the west end.
LE: I did a show in the Fringe that was site-specific. It was at the bottom of a record store, which is now a dollar store on Bloor. It was downstairs, in the record store, in this grungy basement.
NN: It’s fascinating, right, because Fringe is this place that everybody comes back to. It’s like, ‘here we are, we’ve had extremely successful careers in other spheres, but you know, I’m back with a Fringe baby.’
I’m interested to hear your thoughts about press. This is sadly the first year we’re existing without our homies at NOW Toronto, who changed ownership and now have nowhere near the same emphasis on staged work. These days, I know I’m mourning the possibility that I’ll ever get five N’s from Glenn Sumi — and it’s great he’s doing his own thing across outlets these days.
How do you think these sorts of changes might affect the festival, the review economy? Do you think the recent changes in media affect how people might view the festival this year?
LE: Yeah, it’s changing a lot. I think it’ll be different without NOW, and even still without Mooney on Theatre. That’s why we started the New Young Reviewers program. It’s been really cool to see people like Joshua Chong, who started in our New Young Reviewers program, now work for the Toronto Star. We’re excited about it. We have 10 New Young Reviewers this year, and we’re just happy to give them the experience and opportunity to review things. It’s really hard, because obviously, people rely on those reviews. Glenn’s still reviewing, but it’s in a different way.
So yes, it’s changing, but as long as people are talking about the shows, that’s what matters. Whether it’s someone like Karen Fricker, or Glenn Sumi, or Aisling Murphy, or someone an audience member meets in the tent, or a volunteer — we just want folks to connect with people and hear other people’s stories. As long as that opportunity is there, it’ll be okay.
NN: I mean, yeah, I guess reviews matter most to the most savvy Fringe viewers anyway, the ones picking up NOW Magazine when it was a print publication.
LE: But it mattered to the artists a lot, too. A 5 N review meant something — you could use a Jon Kaplan review in the future. Sometimes those things have a big effect on you for the future.
NN: Yeah, most of the Perfect Bowl of Pho press came late in our run last year, when most of our shows were done. It didn’t affect who won Patron’s Pick at all. But the Toronto Star review was still the best one we had.
Okay. I want to finish off on this note: best memories you have at the Fringe.
LE: Easy — so many great people. Working behind the scenes, it’s the camaraderie of the team that is so special. We were talking about it at a staff meeting the other day — every Fringe I’ve worked, there’s been some kind of disaster, right? Something terrible has happened. And yet, somehow, we’ve come out the other end. We’ve become so resilient. We can calmly fix things. We lost a venue last year. We lost the internet for a day last year.
NN: Oh yeah. We had a performance that day.
LE: There was one day where it was just a downpour. You’re putting bin liners on, cutting holes in them, carrying those big squeegees. We had a bomb threat one year. Yeah, every year, something happens. And it just speaks to the incredible team we’ve assembled. We just keep going, and we take care of artists.
Shitty things happen, but you always reach that point, around halfway through the festival, where you can kind of relax a little bit. And I just look around, and I see people chatting. I see trees have grown. The art’s happening. And it’s pretty cool.
Nam Nguyen is Vietnamese by genetics, 60 per cent Lake Ontario by mass, and he makes theatre that usually involves funny songs and world history. Nam wrote the 2022 Toronto Fringe hit A Perfect Bowl of Pho with Wilfred Moeschter, and an industrial hip-hop adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar titled CAEZUS for the 2023 festival with electronic composer Chernilo. Nam first volunteered for the Fringe in 2014, making this summer’s festival his 10th, as long as you count the freaky lockdown/digital years in there.
Lucy Eveleigh has been at the Toronto Fringe since 2013, joining as the managing director and then becoming the executive director in 2017. Prior to this Lucy worked at SummerWorks Performance Festival, Necessary Angel and as the director and founder of Zoofest, an alternative festival under the umbrella of Just for Laughs/Juste pour rire. Originally from Somerset in England, Lucy worked at the Pleasance in both London and Edinburgh, one of the largest venues at the Edinburgh Fringe. Lucy is also a certified life coach and has been a long time volunteer at the Distress Centre.
Toronto Fringe runs July 5-16. You can find out more about the festival here.