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Festivals and theatre evolution

VANCOUVER, B.C. - Until recently I hadn’t realized just how many small independent theatre festivals there are across Canada, an indication of the vast pool of writing, producing, directing, acting and technical talent waiting to take their turn on stage. Of course like most people I know of the Fringe festivals, although I hadn’t realized that the first Edinburgh Fringe dates all the way back to 1947. The Fringe site archival notes attribute the Fringe title to a 1948 comment by Robert Kemp of the Evening News who said “Round the fringe of the official Festival drama there seems to be a more private enterprise than before…I’m afraid that some of us are not going to be often at home during the evenings”. Over the next ten years fringe events in Edinburgh increased and in 1958 the official Festival Fringe Society was constituted to administer the Festival.

According to the Canadian Theatre Society web site, “Canada has more Fringe Festivals per capita than any other country in the World”. Edmonton led the way in Canada, organizing the first Edmonton Fringe in 1982. Current listings on the CAFF (Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals) site show eighteen Fringe Festivals across Canada from Victoria, British Columbia to Dartmouth Nova Scotia. And this only lists festivals who want to use the word “Fringe”.

Then there are the New Play Festivals, the New Playwright Festivals, and myriads of other independent festivals with names ranging from the conventional like Summerworks Theatre Festival (Toronto) to attention-grabbing like Mutton Busting (Calgary) or the festival that prompted this column, the aptly titled Walking Fish – theatre evolution (Vancouver).

This is the fourth year of the Walking Fish Festival, produced by Daniel Martin and David Mott of Upintheair Theatre. The program featured three sets of 3 plays each with an additional dance piece included in set B. The plays I saw were a highly eclectic mix of works. Although there were a couple of scripts that had me wondering exactly where they were going with the storyline, the performances were overall well done and certainly held my attention. This sort of festival of original works is a great opportunity for emerging and “partially emerged” theatre artists to get to do their stuff.

I often look around at the people of my age who make up the majority of the audiences in the larger or established regional theatres and wonder about sustainability. But I also get the sense of a vast underground pool of bubbling energy and creativity among students and young theatre artists across this vast country that bursts up like little volcanoes in the form of these independent festivals. Funding is often tenuous and that’s one of the reasons why so many festivals come and go. Hopefully Walking Fish will be back next year.