Fringe Festival Pushes Back 30th Anniversary

How Artists Are Affected by the Festival’s Postponement

Amy Blackmore took the stage at the launch of the Fringe Festival’s 28th edition in 2018. Photo Cindy Lopez

Montreal Fringe Festival is pushing its 30th anniversary celebrations, initially planned from May 27 to June 16, to June 2021 due to COVID-19.

This year, Montreal’s edition of the international multidisciplinary celebration of arts will offer alternative programming that accounts for the need for social distancing.

“It was a very difficult decision to make. Postponing our festival has impacted over 500 artists,” said Amy Blackmore, the executive and artistic director of MainLine Theatre and the Saint-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival.

All festival artists were offered the choice between requesting a refund of their festival application fee, if applicable, or to defer their participation to the June 2021 edition.

“We really want to be able to celebrate in-person with our community, so that’s why we decided to postpone and not cancel,” said Blackmore.

Preparations for the 30th anniversary celebrations included “an overhaul of our box office system, a new Fringe Park layout, and several audience development initiatives,” according to the festival’s official announcement.

Instead, Fringe is going to be collaborating with festival alumni to come up with creative ways to disseminate art during the pandemic. Blackmore says the company will be offering reduced programming, which will be tailored to the need for social distancing, and will include curated online performances, workshops, and activities. The official schedule will be officially announced on May 1.

“I welcome these challenges,” said Blackmore. “We are really hoping that it’s going to inspire folks to do something different and think innovatively about art and creativity in these times.”

The hard work of many artists will not be presented in this edition, which the festival’s artistic director describes as “certainly really sad and unfortunate.”

For this year’s initial programming, the founder of Crazy Cat Lady Productions, Mylène Chicoine, had been preparing Le Sober Show. The producer and director from Winnipeg is a highly involved member of the Fringe and arts community. Her play is a raw and personal solo performance dedicated to her alcohol addiction, which she would’ve performed on the two-year anniversary of her sobriety.

“That was going to be my one and only time on stage,” said Chicoine. “[It’s] an alcoholic journey through the guilt-filled wreckage of bad choices, misdeeds, and ruined relationships,” she added.

The event was intended to take place at the alcohol-free bar and venue MindfulBar on St. Denis St., which, like other bars and restaurants, has been ordered by the Quebec government to close until further notice to halt the spread of COVID-19.

Like other artists who’ve pushed their shows to next year, Chicoine might also have to reconfigure the venue, depending on availability.

“This show was my cathartic way of feeling and confessing,” said Chicoine. “It’s more about taking responsibility for my bad choices which resulted in bad behaviour. Being drunk is not an acceptable excuse for bad behaviour,” she added.

While Chicoine’s performance is on hold, she says she isn’t complaining too much about the current situation and remains busy and productive by entertaining other creative projects, mostly related to Le Festival de la Bête Noire, a horror-themed theatre festival, she has created.

“The Sober Show is not dead, it’s just on hold,” said Chicoine, “It’s still possible to make it happen, I just don’t know when.”

Uncertainty seems prevailing amongst artists, such as Paolo Sangaré Mermin, who had started the production of his play, Si Seulement J’avais Été Dans l’Espace, four years ago.

Mermin is the founder of Opéra-Théâtre du Miroir, a half-theatre, half-music organization that would have been officially launched alongside his play during this year’s edition of Fringe.

The play was part of the festival’s inaugural Culturally Diverse Artist Project, which aims to promote culturally and ethno-racially diverse artists and is now on hold until 2021.

Mermin says his play was ready, all that was left to do was “rehearse and play the show in front of the audience.”

Pushing back a show isn’t so simple, and it comes with a set of difficulties. Mermin says there is a lack of funding for new classical music companies and that he’s had to invest his own money to fund the project.

“I don’t know if we’re going to have the money to do it next year, and I don’t know if we’re gonna have the cast, too. It was a pretty special show in the sense that it was written for the cast that we were going to have,” said the director.

“Fringe is a community and just because we can’t have a Fringe Festival this year doesn’t mean that the community can’t happen, even if it’s in a weird, online form.”
Cheyenne Cranston

The play, co-written by Catherine Gilbert, was inspired by British playwright Martin Crimp’s book Attempts on Her Life. It tells the story of a missing woman and the various interpretations of her personality as explored through letters written by people close to her. Each letter describes a slightly different woman, exploring the idea that each of us can appear as a different person through other people’s eyes. The play featured French melody, where monologues intertwined with opera songs.

“As artists, we need a stage for our business. We need to bring people together—that’s our goal,” said Mermin.

What is especially hard for artists at this time is that sources of income are virtually nonexistent, said Mermin.

According to him, there’s only so much that artists can do to prepare for the future when they can’t get together to rehearse.

“I’ll do my best to make it happen,” said Mermin, “I’ve got my fingers crossed.”

On the other hand, Meghan Vera Starling, co-founder and artistic director of Cottontail Production, is using this time of self-isolation as an opportunity to rework and refine her one-woman show, Dominance, for next year’s edition of the Montreal Fringe Festival.

She wrote the play based on her work as a dominatrix, exploring power dynamics within society.

Mado and Amy Blackmore share the stage for the inauguration of the festival’s 25th edition. Photo Cindy Lopez

“The story is about my dom persona, Callista Cottontail, telling her story of emancipation and self-discovery into a BDSM lifestyle,” said Starling. “The message of the show is to make the audience look at power dynamics in their own lives and outside of the world of BDSM,” she added.

Directed by her husband Alex Lorewater, the English-language performance was supposed to take place at Café Cléopâtre, an adult entertainment club on St. Laurent Blvd.

Starling says that not being able to work as a dominatrix, which is the inspiration for the show, has stopped her in her tracks. She is, however, considering taking inspiration from the current situation.

“The world is being affected by the imposed measures of social distancing and seeing how these power dynamics are playing out on a macroscale. It’s interesting to experience it, and it will probably make its way into the play somehow,” she said.

One aspect the performer wants to expand is her show’s musical element, going from having a couple of backing tracks by jazz composer Daniel Arthur to a chorus. Originally from the United States, Starling expressed wanting to reconnect with her New Orleans roots and dearly hopes to incorporate a live jazz band.

Some plays at the festival would have involved the audience. The immersive play In The Stars is a mix between an escape room and live-action video game where the audience members take on the roles of characters, fully interacting with the actors by solving puzzles to decipher the plot.

The project was designed and produced by Home Theatre Productions’ Steve Greenwood and Cheyenne Cranston and was intended to take place at the Montreal Esports Academy.

Its script involves a lot of improvisation because the audience is heavily participating by making choices that influence the story. According to Greenwood, making sure the current actors will be available next summer is important, since the casting process was different from typical auditions.

“Every actor improvises differently,” said Greenwood. “You have to make sure that the cast is comfortable fully immersing themselves into character, interacting with audiences, and not having much of a script to go off of,” he added.

Both founders of Home Theatre Productions say they are looking forward to contributing to the festival’s alternative programming, which will be announced May 1.

“Fringe is a community and just because we can’t have a Fringe Festival this year doesn’t mean that the community can’t happen, even if it’s in a weird, online form,” said Cranston, who helped run the MainLine Theatre’s virtual Rocky Horror-themed quiz night earlier this month.

Greenwood has also been working on a project through the developing software Twine to create a visual novel that will feature live actors in a digital storytelling setting.

The postponement also means the Fringe community doesn’t get to connect on the personal level they are used to. Finding the drive to create can also be an issue.

“Artists find inspiration in life, and since life is now looking out the window and seeing the same four walls 24/7, it can be hard to find,” said Greenwood, who teaches online classes as a day job.

“I’ve been inspired by the amount of innovation in the arts sector right now and the number of community initiatives,” said Cranston. “Artists are getting together to bring some joy to people in times that don’t have a lot of joy for some,” she added.

Greenwood also reminds us that it’s important to remember this is a transitory moment and to stay optimistic about the way we can adapt to the everchanging obstacles.

Fringe’s alternative programming will take into consideration accessibility, an important element to Blackmore, who says not everything will be online as the festival wants to facilitate activities everyone can enjoy.

As for the online content, the platform alternatives are left in the hands of the artists, but art enthusiasts can expect some of it on user-friendly social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Zoom, according to Blackmore.

“As an arts organization, I think it’s about how we are going to adapt to the change that is taking place because we can’t control it,” said Blackmore. “But we can be innovative and come up with new solutions so that we can move forward.”