What is it with the Winnipeg Fringe Festival? How is it that this city has maybe the third largest Fringe on the planet? I don’t ask this facetiously. I’m honestly curious. I was speaking to a friend of mine who is a veteran of the Winnipeg theatre scene and she said that she’s just as at a loss for an explanation, so I began theorizing. Maybe it’s because the festival is aimed at the everyman and the everyman’s grandmother as much as it’s aimed at theatre aficionados, artists, and twenty-somethings taking the summer off to drink beer and soak in culture. It’s a festival for everyone.
She pointed out that she didn’t recognise most of the faces in the crowds, to which I conceded that I also went most of the nearly two weeks without seeing a familiar face. These weren’t the Winnipeggers who filled the Tom Hendry Warehouse or PTE during the regular season. These were people who came out to see live theatre maybe once a year and who knew a good bargain. I mean seriously, you couldn’t do better for your money than taking in five or six plays at the Fringe. If someone tying themselves up with rope wasn’t your thing, no sweat. It was only ten bucks. If you happened to stumble into a hall where two people were playing truth or dare on stage and you suddenly recalled (with horror) the first kiss you ever had as a sweaty pre-teen in a basement closet at your best friend’s birthday party playing the same game, don’t worry—the show was only an hour and there were 170’ish other shows to pick from.
If it sounds like I’m ragging on the festival you should probably come to a play with me next year and see how happy I am to be in attendance at a show. Any show. I love it. I love the smell of street meat wafting over me as I gulp down my reasonably priced beer and take in the music at the cube. I love showing up an hour early to a show only to find out it’s already sold out, because I know that that means an artist who has worked very hard is getting the audience they deserve (I’m looking at you, This Is Cancer). The Fringe might be the strangest festival that Winnipeg has to offer, which is the root of its charm, because you honestly can’t predict what you’re going to get.
That was how I kicked off my Fringe experience this year. I started with Chris Gibbs’ Like Father, Like Son? Sorry, expecting it to be a one man show about the trials and joys of fatherhood. After ten minutes of what I would describe as a straight stand-up comedy act, I wondered to myself when the actual show was going to start. It then occurred to me that this was the show. This guy was a stand-up comic and the story of fatherhood was expertly woven into the comedy as the through line. That’s one thing about the Fringe, reading the byline for a play will only tell you so much. Whatever my expectations were at the onset, I ended up leaving that show with laugh fatigue, something I’ve only experienced after binge-watching Arrested Development.
Your Fringe experience is bound to be unique. It not only depends on the show you pick but the crowd you end up seeing it with. For instance, I saw Ryan Gladstone’s No Tweed Too Tight at 7pm on a Tuesday night with a room full of grey hairs in the upstairs room at the Kingshead Pub. The show was one part Pynchon, one part Starsky and Hutch, one part Memento and one part Elmore Leonard. Needless to say, the plot was an entanglement of double crossings, sexual liaisons, fast-talking profanity riddled one-liners, and heads being blown off. I loved it. The audience, however, was hard to read. When Gladstone’s line, “His head exploded like a cargo ship in the Halifax harbour” elicited a groan from the audience, he broke character and asked the audience, “What? Too soon? You guys know that happened like 100 years ago, right?” But that was the crowd there that night. No amount of beer and scotch eggs was going to change that. And you know what? That’s the Fringe for you. Anything can happen and it probably will. The really good performers just roll with it.
Comedy isn’t the only thing that the Fringe had to offer. I learned that the hard way when I attended the last Winnipeg showing of The Untitled Sam Mullins Project, thinking I was in for a one-man comedy show. Don’t get me wrong, Sam Mullins is very funny, but he’s also existential and he’s also a really, really, really good storyteller who knows sentimentality’s address, but never walks through the front door. Do you remember that scene in the Todd Solondz movie, Storytelling, when the writing instructor tells a student that just because something is true doesn’t mean it is good storytelling? Well, Sam Mullins got that memo. After his performance I thought, somebody give this guy a radio show so I can listen to him every day.
Sam Mullins is not an anomaly. He represents the high caliber performers that are in the majority at Winnipeg’s Fringe Fest. That was why I could show up to a venue on a Wednesday night with no idea of what was playing and feel fairly confident that whatever I bought a ticket to was going to be entertaining. And if it wasn’t? Well, it’s like I said before, it was only ten bucks.
Maybe you missed Fringe this year. Maybe you’ve never been. May I recommend that you put it on your calendar for next year?
I can’t stress it enough: it’s worth checking out.