In the face of some recent economic hardship, London is trying to remake itself as a civilized city of the 21st Century. During the festival, I was a guest of Sean Quigley and his family, who live a quietly sane life in a comfortable, inauspicious condo in the northern part of the city. Because Sean lent me a bike for the duration of the festival, most of my transportation around London was by pedal, and I thoroughly enjoyed my early morning and late night rides through elm and maple-canopied streets. I like the way the sidewalks all seem to have wheelchair-access ramps, and I like the way that no one objects to sharing the sidewalk with bicycles.
Londoners are very typically Canadian. They are polite, they use irony in many economic exchanges, and they are neighbourly in a way that people from my oil-booming home town of Edmonton have forgotten. On three occasions, strangers pursued me down the street to restore something that I had left or dropped. Twice, it was because money had fallen out of my pockets. The guy I bought a bus ticket out of town from cracked a really funny political joke about how my bus ticket would be used to profile me. People still say “I’m sorry” a lot, like proper Canadians do when they mean “let’s pass each other without getting in each others’ personal space.”
The physical beauty of London is, to someone used to the utter industrial utilitarianism of Edmonton, a pleasure for senses. Massive trees, dignified brick and stone buildings, old churches, a kind of attention to attractive detail make this Westerner envious. Yes, I did pass grotesque, aesthetically-controlled (that is to say impoverished) mass suburbs under construction in the outlying reaches of the town. I pity the people who are trading the aesthetics of the old town for that extra thousand feet of space and the three-car garage where they can store their internal combustion engines.
Our Edmonton contingent, comprised of three different theatre companies with crossover membership, brought five very divergent kinds of shows: a small-cast new American classic, a satirical one-man show, a raucus collective creation that a friend of mine once described as “rock and roll theatre”, a drama about aging, and a very delicate and sensitive one-woman show about a Bosnian refugee. Having all decided to apply for the London fringe (on the strength of the relative success of last year’s Letters In Wartime), we all had high hopes that these shows would find an audience that would more than pay for the expenses of traveling three thousand kilometers.
We were greeted and welcomed graciously by everyone. Our London Fringe organizers and hosts could not have been kinder or more helpful. Joe Belanger, of the London Free Press wrote a huge preview article that was focused on me and my collegues. Our technicians at the two venues we used were excellent; I can’t say enough kind words about Stephen Mitchell at the McManus Studio; he was simply wonderful, helpful, and good humoured. We placed posters in all the strategic places we could find, we tried to find opportunities to get the word out, we put the shows up, and waited for the audiences to appear.
To say they didn’t would be unfair. There was a dedicated core of Fringe-goers who attended several shows. Joe Belanger did yeoman work coming out to as many shows as he could in order to get the word out in the Free Press. The volunteers not only served their time in lineups and ticket booths, they made a real point of coming into the theatre to see the shows that their labour was supporting. But the critical mass of ticket-buying customers willing to lay down ten bucks (a very modest outlay, in 2013) and be taken to some imaginary world for an hour or so never materialized. Only one single performance of one of our five offerings put enough people in the theatre that they became, not a collection of individuals, but that vitally different entity, an audience. That is to say, a group of people who breathe, respond, imagine with group consciousness. Anyone who makes theatre for a living knows how important that critical mass is. There is an energy in the room that is unique to theatre. The full house differs from the sporadic audience in an exponential way.
And then there’s the problem of money. And yes, it does boil down to money, sad to say. “It’s Just The Fringe” is a phrase that doesn’t make sense to one who has spent as much of their life as I have making my summer’s living producing Fringe plays. Fringe is not an opportunity to indulge myself in a little theatre. It is my way of making a living by my wits for four months of the year. The hard fact is that, where amateurs (and I use that word in its strictly economic sense) can AFFORD to do Fringe for love, I do it, as I have for over forty years, for money. Not much money, but enough to pay the bills. So I wont be bringing work like this summer’s back to the London Fringe; I simply can’t afford it. So although Anatolia Speaks was so generously received by Londoners, I won’t be taking that risk again. Even with the honours it was done by the London public, as our most successful play this year, it just barely paid its expenses while we lost money on the other shows we presented.
This has happened to me only once in 30 years of fringing at a dozen festivals in Canada and the USA (in Toronto, of course, where I took the first episode of a trilogy about a Canadian Spitfire pilot, and resolved thereafter never to bother with that festival again). It’s a bit of a shock to the system. My unfragile ego took a little correction. The main point, however, isn’t about how one theatre artist feels. The main point is that the London Fringe as an entity will have more trouble attracting artists from far afield to share their vision of the country, the world, or the human psyche. I believe I share the whole Edmonton contingent’s feelings. Great people, lovely city, economically unviable theatre-making.
I truly hope that London comes to embrace the Fringe, that young people in this city come to see theatre as something as sexy, as important, as stimulating as a blockbuster movie or a night at the pub. It’s certainly no more expensive. I hope that the brilliant Jason MacDonald continues to work his subversive theatre magic (he is, by the way, a real star on the Western fringe circuit). I hope the Fringe finds that central gathering area where you can put up a beer tent, and get people together chatting and arguing the merits of plays. I truly believe the city would be a better place for it. Close the damn screen and get out amongst your fellow citizens. That’s what theatre is good for.
Maybe next year Sean Quigley and I will write a show together and we can have an excuse to visit, hang out, blather absurd Gaelic humour at one another on stage. And hope to pay for Fringe fee and the airline ticket. After 31 years, I’ll be back to being an amateur.
Kenneth Brown, June 2013