"This Beer Festival Has a Theatre Problem!": The Evolution and Rebranding of the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival

By Batchelor, Brian | Theatre Research in Canada, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

"This Beer Festival Has a Theatre Problem!": The Evolution and Rebranding of the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival


Batchelor, Brian, Theatre Research in Canada


In 1982, the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival was established through a $50,000 grant bestowed by the City of Edmonton to Chinook Theatre (now Fringe Theatre Adventures), under Artistic Director Brian Paisley. Chinook Theatre aimed to produce a theatrical component to the city's Summerfest activities, which already included popular folk and jazz festivals (Leiren-Young). Inspired in part by the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Edmonton's Fringe was fueled by a general dissatisfaction with Edmonton's theatre scene: "playwrights, actors, designers, and directors, were, in general, unhappy and impatient with the 'insular nature' of the established theatres-big and small'" (Paterson 47). Unlike the Edinburgh Fringe, however, the Edmonton Fringe Festival would, for a minimal application fee, provide participating companies with a production venue, technical staff, ticket printing, box office management and front-of-house personnel, and advertising both in a printed Festival Program Guide and on the Fringe grounds. Each company would retain 100 percent of ticket revenue garnered for its production and be completely responsible for artistic content. Most importantly, the Edmonton Fringe Festival would accept productions on a first-come, first-served basis to keep selection uncensored and non-juried and to create a true equal-opportunity venture for artists. At the festival's first incarnation, entitled "The Fringe, a Theatre Event," audiences attended forty-five productions in five venues, and ticket sales numbered approximately 7,500 (Brown 88).

In 2011, the Edmonton Fringe celebrated its thirtieth anniversary with "Fringeopolis," which offered over 1,200 performances in forty-three venues. It was the Fringe's largest festival to date and "broke all box office records by selling 104,142 tickets to its 140 indoor shows in the course of 11 days and nights" (Nicholls, "Fringe"). Despite this growth the festival continued to offer artists a venue, production times, technicians, ticketing, and publicity space, and ensured that artists received all ticket proceeds. As had been the case since 1995, there was much more demand for production spots than available spaces; the shows that did appear in the festival venues had been chosen by the Fringe's lottery system. This particular draw featured 100 allocated spots: thirty international, thirty national, and forty from the Edmonton area (fringetheatre.ca). "Fringeopolis" also included two beer tents, a wine and Internet cafe, a KidsFringe recreation area, numerous outdoor stages, busker acts, and food and artisan vendors, and featured, for the first time, "Sustainival", an eco-conscious carnival consisting of classic rides and arcade games (fringetheatre.ca). The Fringe's plethora of entertainment options, in addition to its proximity to Whyte Avenue, one of Edmonton's primary retail, restaurant, and nightlife districts, also helped it set attendance records for the number of people attracted to the site: about 576,000 people visited the Fringe's grounds over the course of its run ("Fringe Fest Hopes"). While theatre remains the festival's primary focus, the fact that fewer than one in five visitors to the site attend an indoor show suggests that the festival now plays a different role within the city of Edmonton.

This paper examines the first thirty years of the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival and traces the history of the Fringe through the concept of branding. In particular, it considers how the Edmonton Fringe (known to locals as "the Fringe") brands itself; how the Fringe works within Edmonton's arts ecology and urban imaginaries to influence the city's civic brand; and how artists within the festival brand themselves and their products. (1) Edmonton's Fringe was the first in North America and is the model that other cities have followed in creating their own Fringe festivals. (2) While its attendees tend to be residents of Canada, or more specifically Edmonton (and audience demographic statistics are hard to find), the Edmonton Fringe becomes international in that it allows its localized audiences the chance to see a variety of innovative international artists, thereby bringing into contact transnational artist and audience communities. …

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