In theatre, there’s an expression “chewing up the scenery” which basically refers to an actor’s propensity to act melodramatically, to ham it up so much you think s/he is going to take bites out of the scenery. In other words, to overact.
At the Winnipeg Fringe Festival that theatrical phenomenon happens frequently. Having witnessed it numerous times, I became convinced I could write and stage a play that was at least as mediocre as what I was watching.
In 2004, I wrote a play specifically for the Winnipeg Fringe. I knew virtually nothing about how to get involved but checked out the process and discovered the first required activity was to apply and to pay an application fee.
Step 1: Apply
Although the process has evolved considerably over time, the application required me to identify: the type of performance we planned, how long it would be, how many actors and crew there would be, what type of venue we needed, the audience capacity we expected, the size of the stage needed, the entrances and exits required, how many sound and lighting cues we anticipated, what props we would use, how much storage space we would require and so on.
As a Fringe participant newbie, I didn’t have much of a clue how to answer most of those questions. I contacted an individual who had worked with Fringe plays previously and asked her to direct my first play with the caveat that I would shadow her to learn how to direct. She also provided advice on how to complete the Fringe application.
Just applying for the Fringe does not automatically ensure one will be able to stage a play or perform. Although many attendees think a Fringe acceptance is based on an evaluation of quality or talent, that is not the case. The Fringe acceptance, in Winnipeg at least, is based on a lottery system.
Many Canadian and international performers will apply to several Fringe Festivals across Canada and basically follow a “circuit” where Fringe Festivals can be fit into their summer touring schedule. For example, there are Fringe Festivals in Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Guelph, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, among others, held over the summer. A touring theatre company can manage to perform in several of these cities over those two to three months with proper scheduling so the dates do not conflict. If they have a successful production, they can earn enough revenue to help with post-secondary tuition or to live during the winter.
There are 110 play or performance slots available at the Winnipeg Fringe although there are other local venues performing companies might rent that fall outside the base number. This number varies at Fringe Festivals across the country. The 110 acceptances in Winnipeg break down into 55 “local” performances, 33 “Canadian” performances, and 22 “International” performances. Canadian performers are those outside Manitoba; international performers are outside Canada. They include the United States, Great Britain, Australia, South Africa and so on.
Generally, the Fringe lottery is held in early December to determine which performing companies will get one of the 110 “slots”. Typically, there are far more applications than slots which means some performing companies will not be successful every year. Over 12 years of Fringe play involvement, and the production of 16 plays, our company, Run Ragged Company (RRC), was fortunate to “win the lottery” 10 times.
After the lottery, selected performing companies must pay a larger entrance fee to continue. The fee during our last Fringe involvement in 2016 was $725. The fee covered the rental for the assigned venue, ticket printing, and the services of a trained theatre technician who managed the lights and sound for a guaranteed minimum number of performances, usually seven.
Step 2: Audition
Once a performing company has been selected in the Fringe lottery, the hard work begins. Unless a performing company is a long-established theatre group such as the Shoestring Players, which some Fringe enthusiasts among you might have seen, it generally means auditions must be held. Audition calls are required to attract the attention of actors who might be interested in participating in a Fringe production. An audition generally involves an actor monologue and reading “lines” from the intended production, often without seeing the dialogue previously (a cold read).
The audition process may go on for a while depending on the number of roles to be filled in the production. The objective is to identify the best persons possible for the roles, but sometimes it means settling for the best persons available.
Step 3: Rehearse
After the actors have been selected, the rehearsal process begins. This process is more difficult than it sounds because rehearsal space is at a premium locally and in most cases has a rental cost associated with it. This could mean several hundred dollars of cash outlay in addition to the entrance fee, before poster, handbill and program printing, before the set production and props acquisition, and before generating any revenue.
While some performance companies like to live on the wild side and tend not to begin rehearsals until about a month before the Fringe starts, my experience was it was best to start at least three months in advance of the Fringe and to rehearse about twice a week. This required a time commitment from all involved that could be quite onerous. Further, some actors have difficulty memorizing lines no matter how much rehearsal and may not be “off book” (have memorized all their lines) before the production is staged. More about this later.
It takes money
Generally, as the playwright, stage manager, producer, director and sometimes actor, I covered the pre-production expenses for our company with the expectation the revenue from audiences would cover the costs and generate some spending money for the actors. While none of our productions ever lost money, there were a few years when the money left over after expenses was not too substantial.
In most cases, actors created their own costumes for the production, but sometimes it was necessary to visit the Thrift Store to find and to modify inexpensive clothing to fit the actor’s roles. The need for stage furniture was kept as simple as possible, but occasionally actors brought a few furniture pieces from home. Other props were purchased or borrowed.
Getting the word out
Every production requires advertising and marketing. Our company was fortunate to have someone with a graphic design background who created our posters, handbills, and programs. A long-time Fringe enthusiast, he also acted in many of our productions.
The most common methods to advertise are sandwich boards, posters and handbills. Sandwich boards are best placed in areas where people are likely to see them. Two such locations are in front of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (RMTC), where advance tickets are sold, and near Old Market Square.
Postering is a pre-Fringe activity that has some limitations. For example, it is not appropriate to attach posters to buildings, private property, or public property, unless authorized. Traffic, street, road or building signage may not be covered. Early postering is the norm partly because those who do not get their production posters up early in authorized locations are likely to find there is no space left.
While those productions selected in the lottery will have a description and performance dates/times printed in the Fringe program, handbills for distribution are generally printed in the hundreds, if not thousands. It’s the responsibility of cast and crew members to distribute handbills at Fringe venues and at Old Market Square (Fringe Central) prior to performances to attract audiences, particularly those Fringe attendees who are undecided about what they want to see.
One question asked on the application form is if there is a preferred venue. Our preferred venue was “Venue #2 – MTC Up the Alley”, which is a rehearsal stage at the back of the RMTC building for the main stage performers throughout the professional theatre season. The stage is large with several entrances and exits, and there are dressing rooms in the back. There are also excellent lighting and audio controls, air conditioning and access for the disabled through the front of the building.
We were fortunate to stage several productions in that venue. However, while it might have been our preference, it was not guaranteed. During rehearsals one year, we prepared our blocking (positioning where actors will stand, sit and move during the performance) based on the requested Venue #2 stage only to discover just prior to the start of the Fringe we were in another venue (RRC at Princess Street). The RRC “stage” was much smaller with fewer entrances and exits which meant everything had to be re-blocked and re-learned in a short time.
Venues can make a difference in audience attendance despite the quality of production. Some Fringe venues are up or down stairs, which can make attendance difficult for disabled, older and less agile attendees. A lack of air conditioning in the venue will also affect choices, particularly if the weather is hot.
Prior to the start of performances, there is a required “technical” rehearsal in the assigned venue. This is to give performing companies an opportunity to conduct a full dress rehearsal in the actual venue they will be using. However, it is also used to determine where lighting will be placed and when sound cues will be utilized during performances.
There could be 8 to 10 performing companies assigned to any one venue. To ensure fairness, the guaranteed seven performances are scheduled at different times of the day for every company except those companies that have rented their own venue. For example, a company might have a performance scheduled at noon on a Tuesday and at 11:30 p.m. on a Thursday. Preferred times are when the performance is likely to attract the largest audiences such as 7:00, 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. on a Friday or Saturday evening.
Cast and crew members are expected to be at the venue at least 30 minutes prior to the performances to set up the stage, get into costume, apply make-up, run lines, where necessary, and receive any last-minute instructions. The first performance is always the scariest because it is the first time in front of an audience. Other scary performances are when there are reviewers or critics in the audience because less-than-complimentary reviews can affect attendance. However, generally the cast and crew don’t know when a reviewer has attended until after the performance.
Strange things happen, or don’t happen, during live performances. The most common one for our company was that someone would forget their lines. If they had an experienced acting partner that person could usually pick up the dialogue until the “forgetful” one could get back on track. This usually meant a few lines would be missed and, if done smoothly enough, most audience members might not even realize it. However, sometimes an actor would forget one or more lines and skip a couple of pages of dialogue, which could contain some information critical to the plot. In those cases, the audience would realize something had happened because sometimes the plot no longer made sense.
During one of our plays, one of the actors, in dialogue with another actor on the stage, realized he had forgotten a prop, and walked off the stage to look for it as if this was part of the play. The actor left on the stage with no one to talk to looked like a deer caught in the headlights.
I persuaded my wife to act in a few of the plays (yes…nepotism), which gave her an appreciation for the considerable work that goes into a production. While she enjoyed the experience, she concluded the required time and effort were not worth the rewards, either tangible or intangible.
On the Road
For about six years, once the Fringe was over for the year, we took the production to the A-Spire Theatre on Second Street in Gimli for a Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon matinee performance, generally in August.. My wife and I used it as an opportunity to relax a bit for the weekend by staying in a hotel or motel. On several occasions other cast and crew members were able to rent or use a relative’s lake property which allowed them to swim and sunbathe on Saturday before the evening performance. Some cast members commuted back and forth from Winnipeg for all three performances.
The A-Spire Theatre was a bit challenging as it had a two-tier stage which meant the blocking was completely different from the Fringe venue. However, after the first year of performing in Gimli, we were aware of that and adjusted accordingly.
Most of the time we brought all our props, sets and furniture we needed to use at the A-Spire Theatre. On one occasion, we were transporting a table and other furniture in a borrowed pick-up truck on Friday afternoon. There happened to be a bit of wind that day which picked up the table like it was in a tornado and carried it off into the trees. When we went back to pick it up, all we could find were the table legs. The top had completely disappeared. Fortunately, we were able to borrow a table from the local Gimli Theatre Company.
At the Fringe, payments based on revenues from audience attendance were made to each company twice by cheque or whatever other arrangements had been made with the Fringe administration. The first revenue cheque generally covered most expenses up to that point. The second cheque provided whatever revenue the actors were going to earn for the Fringe evenly split among cast and crew members.
In Gimli, the arrangement was a revenue share. Whatever revenue was generated for the three performances was shared between the performing company (75%) and the A-Spire Theatre management (25%). For those who stayed over the weekend after accommodation and meal expenses, it generally meant a breakeven situation.
I have been asked fairly frequently where the play ideas come from. Truthfully, they can come from anywhere. The first play I wrote, which happened to be the last one our company staged, was called “Travails with my Aunt”. It was based on my experience watching one of my favourite aunts deteriorate from dementia. Daves of Their Lives was a parody of soap operas. During two Fringe years, we staged four, 12 – 15 minute plays each year (Four on the Floor; Fourplay). One longer play was about three seniors feeling trapped in a seniors’ home and wanting to escape (Hide and Go Creak).
I tended to mull over other plays for about three months, created a plot outline, and tried to stick to it. Often the play I started writing turned into something quite different. Most plays were attempted farces or comedies; a few were more dramatic (Room at Both Ends; Travails with my Aunt).
Strangely, the most successful play was the first one we staged: Nothing Much in Common, about therapy group members who discover they have lots of similarities and connections. It had the best reviews of all the plays we staged and numerous folks over the years following commented about it.
Participating in the Fringe Festival was fun, but it was also a lot of work. At various times, I was required to be playwright, stage manager, producer and director. On a few occasions I even chewed up some scenery as an actor.
During our 10 years of staging Fringe plays, we watched the local Fringe grow significantly. The world’s biggest Fringe Festival is in Edinburgh, Scotland, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. In Canada, the biggest Fringe is in Edmonton, but Winnipeg follows closely behind.
Most Fringe participants don’t make a living just through Fringe performances, but some successful Fringe plays have evolved into something else. For example, the series Kim’s Convenience, by playwright and actor Ins Choi, was based originally on a Toronto Fringe play that evolved into a main stage production and finally a TV series.
As far as benefits are concerned, those 10 years provided some local actors with a bit of revenue and gave them acting opportunities to build a resume. From a playwright and producer’s perspective, the earnings amounted to pennies an hour. The truth is if I had to rely on my earnings from Fringe plays to survive, I would have starved to death years ago.
Another thoroughly absorbing article to add to our Celebration of (Retired) Life series, Thank you, Dale!
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