“I’ve been testing myself my whole life. Whenever life gave me a fork in the road, I took the hard way.”
The Nanaimo Museum where Kennedy is performing has no stage, so he’s perched atop a simple wooden stool, putting him a head above the audience. He’s flanked by three black curtains on his right, left, and back, hiding the Arctic exhibition on display during the day. The makeshift venue, composed of these curtains, two speakers, and three spotlights, is assembled every evening, giving Kennedy and his fellow artists a space to perform. The barebones set matches Kennedy’s minimalist act. The one man show sees him stuck to his seat for a majority of the hour, splicing his tales of the wilderness with the occasional insight, burst of song, and even a pantomime of a frightened bear. He practiced the whole way down from Whitehorse.
“Nobody really notices when I leave. My kids say goodbye, but I don’t think they know what I’m heading for. Just dad leaving on another crazy trip. My wife has a better idea of the risks, but she doesn’t try to talk me out of it. She knows not to interfere with my obsessions, my quest for adventure… and then I hit the trail.”
Wolf Trek follows Kennedy through Wood Buffalo Park, Northwest Territories, where he spent three weeks alone, hiking on decades-neglected trails with a broken arm. It’s packed with revelations— on Kennedy’s relationship with the wild, his childhood, and his failing marriage with his wife at the time. The middle-aged college instructor is now taking his insight on the road, on a “pilot tour” at Nanaimo’s Fringetastic Theatre Festival, the Victoria Fringe Theatre Festival, and the Vancouver Fringe Festival.
Plays like Wolf Trek are standard fare for fringe theatre. They typically eschew large casts and props, and it’s not uncommon for “costumes” to consist of whatever the performers threw on in the morning (a grey button-up and brown khakis in Kennedy’s case.) This stripped-down approach to theatre makes the stage more accessible to less-experienced troupes and individuals, allowing them to travel the fringe circuit, which extends from Victoria to Halifax. A smaller budget also means less financial risk, which means more creative freedoms. This can result in bizarre or surreal concepts. Last year’s Fringetastic featured both Cardboard Robot, a comedy about a scientist communicating with his ever more intelligent cardboard creation, and The Cult of Brother XII, a musical comedy following Cedar-by-the-Sea’s notorious cult leader. Although not every play embraces such unorthodox subject matter, many are deeply personal.
“The fringe style of theatre tends to be a lot more raw and intimate and paired down technically,” says Chelsee Damen, operations manager for Fringestastic. “In a lot of cases it’s one person and they’ve written this show themselves and they’re performing in it and often it’s autobiographical so we get a lot of heartfelt, personal stories. Or perhaps somebody really cares about a particular social issue and that’s why they want to perform. Whatever it is, people do this because they really, really care. The idea is that it’s really democratic and it’s available to anybody and it’s easy to travel so they keep it really simple and focus on the art of storytelling.”
Damen and her partner Jeremy Banks started Fringetastic in 2011. Although Banks holds a technical theatre diploma from VIU, Damen had little experience in theatre—her first gig was the sole role in a production of Diane and Me at the Victoria Fringe Theatre Festival, which she performed just three days before the premier of Fringetastic.
“I arrived in Victoria and met all these other artists and felt welcomed in their community,” says Damen. “A fringe festival is really a mixture of people with a lot of experience and people with no experience. A lot of local groups just applied for fun and performed with people who tour around the world for a living. They all come together and they’re all just part of the same community… I think it’s really important to have some insight into the experience of the artists in the festival. My job is really to make sure the community is happy and that the artists are happy. They’re really all the same thing but I want to be good at communicating with the artists and meeting their needs and resolving issues if they come up. It’s really all about teamwork and communication so experiencing what it’s like to come into an unfamiliar town and jump up on stage and perform a show is essential.”
Fringetastic ran from August 13-25 this year and featured eight different acts, a long way from the original four-day, six-play festival of 2011. Damen says the 25 applications they received were literally “drawn from a hat,” though four of the eight slots were reserved for Vancouver Island artists. While Damen has a clear vision of what Fringetastic could become in the future, she says she’s waiting until the waters are warm before diving into any long-term goals.
“We don’t want to present Nanaimo with a huge elaborate festival before they’re ready for it,” says Damen. “We need to take our time and we don’t want to have too many shows going on at once. Meanwhile, our crew of volunteers is growing every year and the level of engagement is growing every year and it’s the same with the public– we’re seeing a lot more people at the fringe hub getting in touch with us and talking to artists and these are all signs to me that we’re going in the right direction.”
Fringetastic represents only a subset of smaller, more focused fringe festivals. The idea of fringe theatre dates back to 1947 in Edinburgh, Scotland in an origin that seems half legend. After failing to secure a spot at the Edinburgh International Festival, eight separate theatre groups decided to perform in pubs and other venues on the fringes of the festival. Over the next decade, more groups followed suit until the formation of the Festival Fringe Society in 1958 made the new festival official. The most recent Edinburgh Festival Fringe, held for nearly the entirety of August, saw 2,871 shows performed on its stages—an average of 115 plays per day. After gaining ground in Europe, fringe theatre saw its North American debut as the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival in 1982, which founder Brian Paisley has said was directly inspired by its Scottish predecessor. The Canadian fringe scene has grown to house over 17 festivals, according to the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals, including three on Vancouver Island.
Proponents of fringe theatre often cite its low cost barriers as a defining factor of its popularity, but can such a minimalist craft hold onto its own talent, or is the fringe stage merely a jumping off point for artists?
“In some cases that’s their goal from the outset, and in some cases they don’t really think that far ahead but it just ends up happening,” says Damen. “There have been lots of success stories like Charlie Ross. Ten years ago he had a show in fringe. He was new to the theatre world, he was a young emerging artist and he wanted to do a show where he re-enacted the entire star wars trilogy by himself. It was a huge success and he is still touring that show and he has toured it in all the great theatres and he’s a huge celebrity. He’s been on Conan O’Brien and met with George Lucas, so he’s doing very well for himself. I don’t know if that would have been possible without the fringe circuit—he was just a kid with an idea and he succeeded because people liked what he did.”
“Many companies and theatre-makers start in fringe as it’s a place where they can develop their craft and showcase new work,” adds Rhian Hughes, media manager of Edinburgh Festival Fringe, in an email. “There are artists who have started at the Fringe but return year on year. Much of the work presented at [Edinburgh] Fringe goes on to tour nationally and internationally, some to mainstream venues. There is often crossover between artists working on the Fringe and in the mainstream and the two aren’t mutually exclusive.”
Regardless, fringe theatre has spread across the world, growing from a few rebel plays on the outskirts of a festival, into enormous international events. In a province where arts funding is seriously lacking, new bylaws are making it increasingly hard for theatre companies to stay afloat, and the public is becoming apathetic, fringe theatre is tightening its grip, turning enthusiasts like Kennedy into stars and outsiders like Damen into torch holders.
“I have nothing against traditional theatre but there’s something exciting and fresh about how fringe works,” says Damen, “I think in one way it makes it relevant again because anybody who sees a show may say ‘hey I’ve never thought about making a play before but now I‘m thinking that’s a possibility’ and the people most likely to have a feeling like that are the ones who have a message they really want to get across. That’s how you keep theatre relevant.”