Three years ago, I saw a show at Toronto Fringe about an Irish rebel who felt the need to strip off his clothing mid-monologue. Two years ago, I saw a Fringe show about a dystopian future in which political differences were settled by playing guitar loudly. Last year, I saw seven Fringe shows, about subjects as varied as the actress Judy Holliday and video game-themed sexual assault (those were two different shows).
One might think that – despite my continued revisitation – based on the above shows’ descriptions, if not for their veracity than for my willingness to write about them, that I am not a fan of the large annual independent theatre festival that rolls through Toronto each July appropriately called “Fringe”. One might then be demonstrably wrong on this account, as this year marks not only my fourth attending Fringe plays but also my first volunteering with the festival. I’ve gotten the e-mails and everything.
My love for the Fringe Festival is difficult to express without copious amounts of sarcasm, though it is by no means ironic or insincere. With the exception of one excellent series of productions of Waiting for Godot last year, I have yet to see a truly strong Fringe play. By this very subjective judgement I mean I have yet to see the production of a play at Fringe that was not theatrically wanting, usually in multiple areas of dramatic technique. Even within the admittedly limited confines of budgets and day jobs, Fringe shows often fail to impress by their own artistic merit. So why do I love them?
It is almost a cliché that one of the many purposes of art in a society is its ability to hold up a mirror and allow people to reflect upon themselves. To extend this metaphor, these mirrors are crafted by the artists; in cooperative forms such as theatre each artist forms a single shard that, when held together with other shards, offers up crystal clear reflections of and to the audience. It is the artistry that makes the shard clear and accurate, and it is the artistic greatness of professional companies like Soulpepper and Factory Theatre that make their mirrors shine.
At Fringe, you’re hard-pressed to find something that reflects any light at all.* The shows are written, produced, and performed mostly by amateurs, who haven’t for whatever reason the skill or ability to make a decent mirror. Theirs are usually blocks of dull yellowed glass held together by sheer force of will and the minor incentive of ticket sales. What makes them so remarkable, though, is that the attempts at mirrors are themselves cultural barometers of Toronto, or at least some of its communities. The fact that our city can support, through a recession and beyond, an unjuried, volunteer-centred, uncensored, amateur theatre festival is itself remarkable. Through all of the political hoopla at City Hall, a rotten economy, and a population that overall prefers webisodes to live theatre, the Fringe Festival has thrived and continues to grow. By nature of its very existence it tells us about ourselves. Furthermore, as a participatory art form, live theatre goes beyond “the medium is the message” into something like “the medium and the audience are each other’s messages and listeners”.
As a fan of art, which is really just an extension of its societal function, the appeal of Fringe is obvious. I intend to see more shows this year even than last, and I doubt any will be very good. But as I take my seat in the theatre/church/parking garage/moving van, I know it’ll be at the very least worthwhile.
*Some shows that publicly debuted at Toronto Fringe have gone on to bigger things, such as The Drowsy Chaperone, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish-Wiccan Wedding, and Kim’s Convenience. I offer this: it’s only statistically probable that within 150 annual plays one or two might be worth producing again.