Published on April 16th, 2012 | by Sharilyn Johnson


10 Things I Learned on the Canadian Fringe Circuit

In my secondary writing life, I penned a stage show about comedy and toured it to festivals the Canadian fringe festival circuit last year.

For the uninitiated: the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals includes festivals across the country, plus south of the border from New York, to Orlando, to San Francisco. If you secure a spot in a festival – usually through a lottery – you pay a hefty fee to the festival. In return, they set you up with a venue, a tech, and a place to stay if needed. The box office belongs to you.

I’ll be doing it again this summer, armed with some knowledge that would have thoroughly helped me the first time around.

So for those embarking on their first fringe experience, or those thinking about taking the plunge, here are some lessons learned:

10) That horrible audience member is probably a volunteer.

The girl who sat in the front row, and dipped her head down in 5 minute intervals so she could text under her hair during the show? Volunteer. The woman who traipsed in late and noisy, audibly complained about curse words, and interrupted me to explain why she was leaving after the first 20 minutes? Volunteer. Actual conversation with a venue manager: “What was that woman in the second row DOING the whole show?” “Oh, her. Yeah, she was making puppets.” Of course she was.

9) The box office is yours, eventually.

The only times you’ll be allowed to pick up your money at the office are between the hours of preparing for your show, and performing your show. Except Saturdays, when you can pick it up after your show when you’re laden down with all your gear because the venue isn’t secure. However, the office will be open extended hours the day after you fly home.

8) “First-come first-serve” entries aren’t a race to be won.

Non-lottery festivals are like that for a reason. You’re a new Fringe performer, eager to take whatever you can get after failing to be drawn in any lotteries. Then you get yourself into a smaller fringe and you feel like you did win the lottery! Except this lottery is much more like the Shirley Jackson short story. (Look it up.)

7) Numbers don’t tell the whole story.

That huge dollar amount that the festival brags that they paid out to artists last year? Includes the local 24-member teen theatre troupe whose second cousins and great aunts filled the largest venue to capacity every show. (I’m looking at you, London.) Commence grumbling about these goddamn kids nowadays.

6) Just because the beer is “sponsored”, does not mean it will be “affordable”. Or “good”.

Another shout-out to London here, for allowing the “fringe central” venue to jack up the drink prices during the artist parties.

5) Know how you rank compared to the dog.

If you want to adopt a pet, the Humane Society will thoroughly screen you and your home. But fringes aren’t nearly as concerned about the qualifications of a billet to provide a homestay for a performer. I got lucky – the worst things I encountered were lack of wi-fi, lack of drawers/closet space, and a generous carpeting of floor-pubes in the guest bathroom. But another touring artist was put in a cold basement where black ants ate her alive, and was given couch space by a woman who liked to loudly wash her floors at 7 a.m. every morning. Park bench, anyone?

4) The festival also sees you as half cash cow, half lab rat.

As soon as your cheque clears, they’ll announce that year’s “experiment”. Maybe it means that the popular preview show will be moved to an outdoor stage with not enough microphones! Maybe it means that too many new venues will be added so nobody can sell out! It’ll be one fun adventure after another, none of which will end particularly well for the artists. (But don’t worry – the staff member who decided it will still get paid.)

3) Lottery conspiracy theorists are the 9/11 truthers of the theatre world.

“Isn’t it WEIRD that his show got into ALL the good fringes this year?” Perhaps it would be if he didn’t win the CAFF lottery. Calm yourself.

2) Theatre audiences may be the cultural elite. But they are still people, and people are kinda dumb.

My show last year was entitled An Inconvenient Truthiness. Despite the program description, and my pitch when I flyered the lineups, an alarming number of people expected it to be about Al Gore. I suppose this is good news for anyone wondering if there’s a market for their one-woman show about global warming. (Needless to say, I’ve changed the show title.)

1) All of this is still better than what anyone ever experiences at the Edinburgh Fringe.

About the Author

is the author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy for longer than she cares to admit. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy programs LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.

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