indicatorCommunity initiatives and programs during COVID-19

Keeping the arts alive in Alberta

By ATB Financial 14 September 2020 6 min read

Almost 40 years ago, the term “fringer” entered Edmonton’s common phrasebook, denoting someone who enjoys taking part in the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival. The 11-day Fringe has carved out a huge and loyal following among theatre and culture enthusiasts and artists, with its dynamic, eclectic and sometimes bizarre offerings on the streets and in the makeshift theatres of the city's Old Strathcona neighbourhood.

But this year, COVID-19 forced the cancellation of North America’s largest and oldest Fringe Festival for the first time in its history. For festival producers, artists and local businesses, it was a staggering blow.


Arts and culture as an economic driver in Alberta


The Fringe costs about $3.5 million to put on each year. It’s an economic driver for the city, bringing in about $1.7 million to the festival and artists, and $15-$17 million to the business community. It’s part of an overall arts industry that contributed $5.3 billion to the provincial economy in 2017–2018, and employs nearly 60,000 people, according to the Alberta Foundation for the Arts.

Like other Alberta entrepreneurs in the new world of COVID-19, producers and artists pulled up their creative socks after a brief period of mourning and the Fringe that Never Was started taking shape. The live theatre festival had pivoted and within four months, new skills were learned, virtual venues took shape and events were taken to a different level.

“One of the key elements for us, having taken this on, is that we wanted to be the organization that’s there to help our community rebuild,” says Fringe Theatre artistic director Murray Utas. “So, we literally have been prototyping, testing, falling down on our faces, whatever it took—our main goal was to open this up to the community and make it accessible to them.”

While some artists hung onto the concept of live art, others embraced the opportunity to explore new ways of connecting with the audience—and their larger Fringe family. Over the last four decades, 38,000 artists have come to Edmonton to take artistic risks with the festival. The journey often takes years of dedicated work that unfolds in front of audiences through the equally dedicated work of Fringe staff and volunteers.

“It’s important to note that the festival itself manifests a community connection that doesn’t exist in other ways,” adds Megan Dart, communications specialist with Fringe Theatre. “We have many Fringe volunteers who take their vacations with us, have a Fringe family they only see during the festival. There is this higher community that revolves around what the artists bring.”


Finding a way to support artists and performers


One of the Fringe’s main attractions is its unpredictability, which has led to decades of experience fixing things on the fly, Utas noted. The festival drew on its DIY strength to create what they called creation pods for artists, as opposed to performance venues, and rigged out its major theatre venue in the ATB Financial Arts Barn as a broadcast studio.

Two things artists said were important—to get them back in front of an audience, and how they missed their Fringe friends and family.

“So we had to think about how to make those gatherings happen,” says Megan. “We had to think about what does it mean and how does it look in this new world.”

Events were scaled back. Approximately 100 artists performed, compared to 1,600 pre-pandemic, and stage time was revamped.

“There is content that has been recorded in theatre, but it’s generally thought of as an archival tool,” said Utas. “But now, we’re going ‘how am I reinventing this to work to take a 60-minute show and reimagine it to 30 minutes to account for where the viewer is sitting?’”

Fringe That Never Was 2020

Fringe festival pivot leads to new realizations


The production team threw themselves into using technology to stay connected with the audiences, a steep learning curve that offered challenges—like finding out the hard way they were hostage to wifi connections—as well as rewards. People with mobility challenges were thrilled at being able to enjoy the festival in ways they hadn’t been before.

“One of the most rewarding parts of this whole process is the entire theatre and art community is learning how to do things in a new way at the same time, and there has been such generosity from our artist community,” Dart says. “So many have answered the call to support us in creating this new version of the festival. And it has been so incredibly cool to see how that has been manifested.”

The realization of that now-virtual seat led to a major “aha” moment, when an actor/playwright adapted his work with a look, Utas says.

“The artist landed in his chair and you watched his face tell the entire opening of the play. And I went ‘Oh my gosh, you don’t need to say anything, you can literally watch it.’”

The artist didn’t have to follow the theatre convention of playing to the furthest person in the back. “With this, you were all there,” says Utas.

While the festival turned a technological corner, the Fringe, like many organizations in Alberta, faces an uncertain future.

“We’re not speaking from a place of abundance,” says Utas. “We’re speaking from a place of survival. COVID has impacted everyone and has been an interruption of our normal lives. In that pause, there’s a lot of positive stuff. But if it continues much longer, the repercussions could be quite catastrophic for us.”

Supporting the arts is critical for communities to flourish and is particularly important when things are going wrong, he noted.

“During times of strife, stories get us through,” says Utas. “When we are down and out, we have to forget our troubles. Artists have a thumb on where we are at, socially, and they reflect that through their art. Those stories often sum up what people are feeling, but can’t find the words for.”


How can Albertans support the Fringe and artists?


The Fringe launched an ongoing fundraiser, Tears, Beers and Tickets You’ll Never Use, to raise $1 million towards the festival’s recovery, with 30 per cent going to a newly established artist endowment fund.

“We’re asking people to donate a $7 beer you’ll never drink or a $10 ticket you will never use or your annual Fringe budget—what you would have spent on plays, the program guide, green onion cakes, you name it—in support of the Fringe,” says Megan.

“A ton of people make this festival happen. But the Fringe wouldn’t happen without the relationship with our local sponsors, like ATB. They are the reason why we can do the things that we do and why we can activate the community the way that we do.”

Connecting and strengthening Alberta’s arts community means helping create a stronger province overall. Dart shares four ways Albertans can show support for artists and performers:

  1. Sign up for their mailing list or give them a follow on social media—stay up to date on what they're up to!
  2. Share, share, share! Love what an artist is doing? Tell other people about it!
  3. Stream artists content, attend their (safely distanced) shows if you're comfortable, buy their merch, or make a donation to their company or Patreon so they can keep creating.
  4. Not able to donate or purchase at this time? Send your favourite artist a note of support. Quotes from fans are an awesome boost (and can be great fodder to help promote their work)!

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