Risky Business

If you’ve taken a chance on a new play at Edmonton’s Fringe Festival, you know the anxious thrill of sitting in your seat, wondering if it’s going to be the best $12 you ever spent, or the most tedious hour of interpretive dance you’ve ever watched. The Fringe detonates around the city for the next eleven days, and it’s got me thinking about the tension between taking a risk and finding comfort in a sure thing. This week, Fringe Theatre Adventures Executive Director Jill Roszell spoke at an Aprikat-doused Rotary Club event at the Artisan Resto Café on Whyte, where I had a chance to bounce some ideas off her.

Jill raises her hands in front of a tree-lined Whyte Avenue backdrop.
Fringe Theatre Adventures Executive Director Jill Roszell sharing some stories at the Artisan Resto-Café on Whyte Ave. Photo credit: Idris Fashan

Jill has one of those horizon-wide, full-toothed smiles that says, “I love what I do.” I asked her what she anticipated would be fascinating, and this was her un-prompted answer:

“I am very interested in the zombie tag, I’m not gonna lie.”

That would be An Apocalypse Survival Guide: Undead or Alive?, going up in the TACOS space that Punctuate! curates. Un-prompted!

You might have heard of how the green onion cake-dappled, fire-juggling festival has evolved over the last few years. Since the Fringe’s inception, crowds of artists have entered their names into a lottery, hoping to be randomly selected to perform at one of the festival’s venues. That means professional performers have the same chance to get a spot as someone who’s just got a leotard and an idea. In recent years, the festival has begun allowing shows to open at BYOVs – Bring Your Own Venues. Those venues, like TACOS, can select shows that they think will be intriguing, electrifying, or just guaranteed crowd-pleasers.

The number of shows this year is so gigantic that Jill laughed about the size of the program guide. If they have to add one more page, she said, they’ll have to re-think the staples in the middle and move to a whole new binding size. This year, they’re also adding a family-friendly hangout space for those who don’t want to trundle into the beer garden, and experimenting with activities in an iconic gazebo.

What’s the most audacious thing they’ve tried in the last few years, though?

“The expansion of the BYOVs,” said Jill. “I don’t think the previous festival administrators could have anticipated the popularity of the BYOVs.”

She said she doesn’t think they fully know yet how it’s changed the character of the Fringe, but it has definitely changed the way veteran performers are thinking about the festival.

“Local companies that know that they have access to venues,” she explained, “are not putting their names in the lottery as much. So it’s opening up that local lottery for people that don’t have access to venues. We’re getting different groups come through the lottery system. And we’re also seeing a lot of national and international touring artists start to embrace the BYOVs because they know they can get a spot. Places like Edinburgh and Adelaide, the bigger Fringes than Edmonton… they do all BYOV, so it’s all based on venue.”

What’s the concern, if it’s bringing us zombie tag?

“In some ways that’s good,” said Roszell, “in some ways that’s taking away from the spirit of risk and chance. The Varscona [Theatre], there was a huge controvery a number of years ago when they decided to become a BYOV and not a festival venue anymore. At the end of the day, the decision was made that because companies like Teatro la Quindicina grew up in the Fringe, you know… they got tired of playing the lottery game.”

Being able to choose the programming at their own venue, she said, lets established companies like them guarantee opportunities to their artists who want to grow in a new direction, like actors who want to write plays for the first time. More to the point, she added, festivalgoers come back every year expecting to see signature artists like Stewart Lemoine’s work, or Guys in Disguise.

BYOV-hosted shows make up about half of the festival this year. For now, said Jill, it’s not obvious that their hyper-expansion is threatening that heady anticipation you can get by buying a ticket to a show you’ve never heard of before. Their strategy for managing the tension between those forces at the moment is to keep the number of BYOV and lottery shows the same.

What does she want to experiment with next?

“I really want to do some more work with found space,” Jill mused. In other cities, she’s seen actors hang from trees, or perform their whole show outside in a glass cube.

Too many spaces with chairs right now, I asked? Pretty much, she agreed. She beamed as she leaned over with her next idea. You know the glassed-in outdoor washroom everybody’s talking about on Whyte Ave?

“I want to commission a show to do in that bathroom. You could do an interpretive dance in there.”

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