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International: Canada’s fringe – an alternative to Edinburgh?

London Fringe, Ontario London Fringe, Ontario
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As everybody gears up for this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, on the other side of the Atlantic a series of fringes are already under way – currently running are the Montreal, London and Ottawa festivals – which make up the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals. These cross Canada and even dip into the US. Already established for 20 years, some of the 26 member festivals have been operating for more than three decades.

top 10 north american fringe festivalsInstead of Edinburgh’s three to four weeks, North America’s CAFF fringes tend to last a week and a half, rolling into each other from one coast to the other. The circuit starts with New York’s aptly named Frigid Festival in February and finishes in September with Vancouver Fringe or San Francisco Fringe, depending on which country you end up in. Maybe not quite as smooth as that, but you get the idea.

For my spoken word poetry and solo drama shows, I have generally started with London, Ontario, in early June, doing five fringes in total and returning after the San Francisco Fringe in mid to late September. Although the CAFF touring circuit is geared to the summer months, festivals keep adding to the calendar elsewhere in the year, and I have returned to festivals such as New York Frigid Festival. As they are out of season, the attraction is that there is less chance of a clash with the busy summer events.

The budget for a five-city CAFF tour is roughly the same as that for an Edinburgh run. Most festivals charge between C$700-C$1,000 (£370-£525), and for that money you get a place in the programme, a venue, a technician, a tech rehearsal and five to six performances. In many cases, being an out-of-towner means you will be billeted by friends of the festival, volunteers or board members.

You can also bring your own venue (BYOV), which typically means hiring a space and is much closer to Edinburgh in principle. I did this at the Boulder Fringe in Colorado and it didn’t really work for me. I had no idea the venue was several miles from the fringe when I booked it. The advantages of a BYOV is that you can perform more shows, thereby increasing your revenue, and even if you failed to be pulled in the lottery or were quickest to the draw, you can still participate in the fringe with a reduced admin fee.

Each CAFF festival has to follow four guiding principles. Firstly, that they are non-juried, with the acts being chosen on a lottery or first come, first served basis. Secondly, 100% of the box office goes to the artist. Thirdly, that there is no control over artistic content. And finally, festivals must provide an easily accessible opportunity for audiences and artists to participate. In 1998, CAFF trademarked in Canada the words ‘fringe’ and ‘fringe festival’, which means any festival in the country wishing to use these terms must abide by the guiding principles.


The circuit offers performers something different from the Edinburgh experience, says TJ Dawe, co-creator and director of One Man Lord of the Rings, One Man Star Wars and Toothpaste and Cigars (filmed as What If with Daniel Radcliffe). He will perform his 100th festival this summer as he tours a catalogue of shows from Orlando to Vancouver.

Dawe explains why the North American circuit is different: “People do Edinburgh to get seen by agents, producers and festival curators, but none of that applies to the Canadian fringes. The general public will see you, other performers, the media, and that’s about it. It occasionally happens that a show will get cherry-picked from a Canadian fringe and go on to other opportunities, but if that’s your top priority, the Canadian fringe isn’t the place to be. No Canadian fringe is even a 10th the size of Edinburgh in terms of total shows on offer, number of venues and so on. And, unlike Edinburgh with several festivals running at the same time, the Canadian fringe is likely to be the only thing in town for those two weeks.”

The fringes have a positive effect on the local communities, although like many fringes, they have not always been an obvious sell. For example, the IndyFringe in Indianapolis takes place downtown on Massachusetts Avenue. When I was first there in 2007, the businesses along the road weren’t favourable to posters cluttering their windows and so on. But then Pauline Moffat, director of the festival, handed out questionnaires asking audiences not only about their fringe experiences but also how much they would spend on businesses in Mass Ave – the bars, restaurants, convenience stores and so on.

The results were favourable and, armed with these, Moffat demonstrated to local businesses that the fringe was making them money. Boosted by that local support, the fringe has grown and the area of Mass Ave has been a focus of redevelopment with new restaurants and shops. While it would be hard to place all of this at the fringe’s door, the festival has certainly had a galvanising effect. It also affects the way you are greeted by the locals – it is as if everyone’s favourite circus has come to town and you are part of it.

Frigid New York venue
Frigid New York venue

And that holds true for the performers. Each fringe, for example, has a fringe club which is a unique place to talk shop with a mix of people you are unlikely to find gathered anywhere else. Alex Dallas, from the UK 1980s comedy troupe Sensible Footwear emigrated to Canada and toured the circuit both as a company and solo act that was broadcast on a number of CBC specials. Returning to Edinburgh this year after a 26-year hiatus with her solo show Nymphomaniac, she certainly sees mixing with your peers as being a special part of the CAFF experience.

“The friends you make on the fringe will be your friends for life – my pals from 30 years ago are still my friends now. You will meet the most inspiring, original and passionate performers on the North American fringe – risk-takers who bare their all, sometimes literally, people who don’t do this for fame or money but do it because they can’t help themselves.”

Gemma Wilcox, another UK artist who has performed the circuit since 2003 and whose solo theatre show Magical Mystery Detour is touring this summer, agrees: “You’ll find lots of camaraderie. Touring across Canada and the US for two to four months builds quite the family. I always got the sense that Edinburgh has a way more competitive environment between the performers and the companies.”

And it’s not just the performing, as Dawe explains: “See as many shows as you can. You can probably exchange comps and get in for free. You’ll learn a lot – what to do, what not to do, what people are doing, what isn’t being done. Theatre is an art form that’s learned best by osmosis. On the CAFF circuit there are monologues, sketch, improv, burlesque, magic, jugglers, plays, physical theatre, dance – but unlike Edinburgh, there’s rarely stand-up.”

Another feature of CAFF is its touring lottery, run annually, which guarantees the winners a pick of the festivals so long as they do a minimum of five. It is a chance for the artists to plan their tour eight to nine months in advance. Those not lucky enough to win – and I haven’t – must apply to each festival individually and plan their tour accordingly.

Performance poet Jem Rolls, whose experiences on CAFF inspired me to go over, won the touring lottery in 2003 and has performed ever since. He says: “Apply for everything, and find out from those before as much as you can about each one. Try to do one or both of Winnipeg and Edmonton, as being the biggest fringes on the circuit those are so much easier to do well at. The people in Winnipeg literally take their vacations so they can fringe.”

5 top tips for taking a show to North American fringe festivals

Obviously, returns vary for each show. Based on her experience, Wilcox says: “On average, over the past 12 years of fringing, I have grossed anywhere between C$2,000-C$9,000 (£1,000-£4,750) per festival depending on the festival, my reviews and showtimes, the buzz and word of mouth, my reputation from past shows and how many seats are in the theatre.

“Certain festivals are younger, smaller and have less shows – such as Regina or Ottawa festival – and others are older, bigger and have more shows – such as Winnipeg and Edmonton fringes – so I expect to make more or less depending on these factors. I would love to gross an average of C$5,000 (£2,600) per festival this year.”

Each festival pays slightly differently but along the same lines. At the London Fringe Theatre Festival in Ontario, for example, performers get paid their cash ticket sales after each performance right at the venue. Advance tickets and multi-ticket passes are paid out at your final performance of the fringe. Something else to look at is how to traverse between festivals. I prefer to pre-book travel by plane well in advance because of the huge distances involved, while Dawe’s advice is: “Go by car. With other touring performers. Someone usually has space. Or find a car there and others will ask if you’ve got room. A road trip is inherently an adventure, far better when it’s a shared adventure.”

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