Part of building and acknowledging a community is making and sharing art about that community. Fringe has always offered opportunities about that, and in recent years has been more intentional about expanding those opportunities to communities who haven’t always been recognized and celebrated in the same way – this year the venue pehonan is an exciting part of that intention.
But the Edmonton Fringe is itself a community. So of course there is art about the Fringe. The poster wall outside the Orange Hall is a lot shorter this year, but the sense of joyful celebration is extended by a complete set of posters commemorating every festival to date, with the imagery used that year for the program book and other publications. There’s an Instagram-ready set of brightly-coloured letters spelling out Fringe, in such a high-traffic area that it’s hard to take a picture without strangers in the way. (Unless, like me, you happen to be on site at 7:30 am.)
On Saturday, I went to three performances that were all celebrations of the Fringe culture. Gordon’s Big Bald Head: MasterThief Theatre is a long-running improv tradition, in which a small troupe of experienced performers uses the short description in the festival program to create their own version of another show. Their self-imposed rules include skipping over any sketch or improv show, since, according to Mark Meer, that would collapse the space-time continuum. (they might also skip music-based performances too.) The troupe members are currently Jacob Banigan, Mark Meer, and Ron Pederson. It’s easy to see that they know each other well and are having fun together, as they set each other up to do some preposterous stunts while building and resolving a complex plot.
With no printed program book this year, and a relatively small number of suitable shows to choose from, they chose to start from a big stack of program books from past years, using a pseudorandom selection process to choose one show. So the audience (close to or at the 60%capacity limit in the big Varscona theatre space) probably isn’t going to be familiar with the source material. But that didn’t seem to matter. On the night I attended, the inspiration was Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down, from a Toronto company in the 1994 Fringe. This allowed the performers another layer of comment/comedy about period customs and about what was okay to say in 1994 and not today. These are some of the best improvisers I have ever seen, and just fun to watch. Some of the remaining performances aren’t sold out. And no, I don’t know why it’s called Gordon’s Big Bald Head.
Die-Nasty is another long-running Edmonton improv troupe, this one in the soap-opera tradition of long convoluted character-driven stories. In a typical season, they have a 50-hour marathon show in the fall, then a series every Monday night all year, and every night of the Fringe there’s one episode of a story that unfolds at the Fringe. I don’t believe they’ve announced their 2021-2022 season plans yet, but the Die-Nasty at Fringe was just as I remembered. A collection of about 8 memorable characters – they have different guests added in each night – sweeps through a Fringe of beer tents, podcast reviews and mistaken slander, rehearsals and life-changing events, hints of romance and darker hints of murder. The night I saw it, the performers included Tom Edwards (a cowboy playwright trying to produce a musical cross between Oedipus and Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), Belinda Cornish as a famous actress, Hunter Cardinal trying to break away from his soccer-mad family to explore the arts, Stephanie Wolfe as a very strange psychotherapist, Mark Meer as a sort of Hunter S Thompson-esque podcaster, Wayne Jones, Jacob Banigan, and so on. The funniest moment was when one of Wolfe’s patients asked her a question about whether she can make people believe in a different reality or something like that, and she says “oh yes, I’ve been in charge of a whole province’s public health during a pandemic”.
Die-Nasty is sold out for tonight but seems to have some tickets available for tomorrow (Saturday Aug 21.)
The third tradition of performances celebrating the Fringe is Late Night Cabaret. In the Backstage theatre space as the last performance of the night, in a normal year it runs all through the week, filling the space with enthusiastic audience members who are still wide awake. An amazing house band, Ze Punters, with Audrey Ochoa the trombonist, entertains before and between the talk-show hosts and guests from various Fringe shows.
This year LNC has only four performances – on the Fridays and Saturdays of the Fringe. They all sold out quickly, but I was lucky enough to get a ticket for one of last weekend’s shows. The music and energy filled the space, but the limited admission meant that there was lots of space for safety and comfort (also short bar queues and no bathroom lineups). It was great to see familiar sets of eyes in the audience, and performance guests both familiar and new to me.
Edmonton Fringe continues until Sunday early evening, August 22, in its small careful format. I’m very glad to be here – and it’s time to head to a show.