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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House full of eccentrics

rutherford fundraiser

You there, with the computer. I want to give you a chance to look swanky and meet some truly wild personalities. Just because I like you. All you have to do is answer a question. Are you in?

I’m on the board of Punctuate! Theatre, right? We’re pretty new, but we’re trying to create heart-palpitating, brainwave-inducing, challenging work. And next Friday, we’re taking over Edmonton’s Rutherford House for our first annual fundraiser to let you have a peek into the process and meet the minds behind the performances. You’ll get to see excerpts from the plays, costumes, the scripts we’ve worked through, and partake in some wining and dining. I want you to come. And lucky you, even if you can’t afford a ticket, I happen to have one to give away. You see, my lovely mother has asked me to purchase one on her behalf and find a good home for it. So in her honour (today is her birthday!), I am giving it away to the first person who can answer this skill-testing question, which will mostly test your skills of research:

Who was in the cast of the first show that Punctuate! produced? No hints which show it was. The first person to name at least two of the cast members in the comments below wins!

Find out more about our takeover of Rutherford House on January 11, from 7 pm – 10 pm.

Edit: We have a winner! Congrats to Steve Andersen.

Satanic Circulation and 1000 Tiny Gestures

Today I come to you to make a humble request on behalf of Old Scratch himself, Satan. Or rather, on behalf of Punctuate! Theatre‘s great new play An Evening With Satan, on now at Edmonton’s Fringe. And two things have got me really excited to make this pitch to you.

Elliott James' Satan looks into a mirror, darkly
You’ll be close enough to bump horns with Satan at the show. (Photo credit: Killin’ Photography – April Killins)

First though, here’s the pitch. I’m a new board member at Punctuate!, and I am so so pleased that this is the first of our plays I’ve seen. An Evening With Satan is a dark, funny, and very rude show written and starring Elliott James (whose face just seems to hold an improbably number of disturbing expressions). The dark lord is summoned for an intimate evening to ask us why we live our lives in fear and regret, rather than embracing the joy of being alive. Along the way he shows a little of his vulnerable side, and you’ll probably show some of yours when he asks how many folks revel in bath salts, murder, and sodomy.

The Edmonton Journal’s Jason Markusoff called Elliott’s Satan a “seductive” and “charming, goateed high priest,” and we’re gearing up to take his dark delights on the road. After the Edmonton Fringe, Elliott and the (equally scandalous) director Elizabeth Hobbs will be heading to Vancouver’s Fringe Festival. As with all good endeavours, that’s going to cost money. So we’re in the middle of an Indiegogo campaign to make it happen.

Indiegogo, in case you’re not familiar with it, is an indie funding website like Kickstarter. You pitch in a little bit to make a big idea grow. In this case, you can get cool perks like complimentary tickets and signed posters. We’re aiming to raise $1000 to pay for these guys’ travel costs and hey, maybe eating along the way. We’re halfway there so far.

The first reason I’m so excited about this is I saw it last night at the Fringe, and it’s great. Elliott and Elizabeth share some genuinely outrageous moments, and made me think about my own ideas of pleasure, pain and vengeance. This is why I signed up to support Punctuate!: it’s a little theatre company with a big mission to create bold, intriguing original work that will grab you by the tie and make you sit up and pay attention to your life. And bonus, the play’s on tonight for half-price at 11:15 PM at the Daily Discount booth, too.

The second reason I’m so excited is because these kind of indie campaigns are warming the cockles of my heart lately. Roman Mars made a gigantic ask for his podcast 99% Invisible this month. He was raising money to pay a producer and get some videos made, and once he passed his first target he wondered if he could do something ground-breaking, and get 5000 supporters for his tiny show.

It didn’t matter how much you donated, he just wanted people to feel like they were part of creating something exciting, and it reminded me of something Stuart Mclean did. A couple of years ago Stuart Mclean was in Edmonton doing a Vinyl Cafe Christmas performance, and he was raising money for one his listeners, for medical expenses or something. I don’t remember what the money was for but I remember he asked folks not to donate too much, because he wanted the outcome to be the product of many small gestures, many people making a small choice to help each other out, to add up to something inspiring.

An Evening With Satan made me smile and cringe in all the right ways, and I think it’s worth a bucketload of support. If you can chip in anything, $5, $10, $25, head to Indiegogo before August 30th, you’ll be helping make something magic happen. The perks are nice, too. But that’s my pitch.

The 99% Invisible gang did it, by the way. I know we can, too.