Vancouver Fringe is “summer camp” for artists

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      “Being on Granville Island, when the weather is just starting to cool down and getting a little windy, or leaves are starting to change and fall a little bit, all I can think of is, ‘It’s Fringe time,’” enthuses Duncan Watts-Grant, executive director of the Vancouver Fringe Festival.

      This is his first year running the festival, but he’s been attending it since he was a kid. Around 13 years ago, he first got involved behind the scenes, stage-managing “a one-woman show in a yoga studio.” The Vancouver Fringe has gone through a few iterations in its 39 years in Rain City—from Main Street to Commercial Drive to its current home on Granville Island—but it remains a little slice of community quirkiness, where performers can showcase whatever they can dream up. This year, there are 85 shows packed into 12 venues across 11 days, as well as another handful of digital performances—all ready to present the weird, wild, and wonderful.

      What we think of as fringe festivals began in 1947 in Edinburgh, UK, when the city put on its first high-falutin’, high-culture International Festival. A ragtag group of performing arts companies decided to turn up uninvited at the same time, and stage their productions at alternative venues around town. Nowadays the Fringe is the number-one reason to go to Edinburgh in August, with thousands of shows, plays, and especially comedians crowded into hundreds of spots for a month-long, knees-up weird-off.

      By the time the Fringe festivals crossed the pond, the kooky shows were the rip-roaring main events. While Edmonton set up its Fringe in 1982, taking the crown as the oldest and largest Fringe Fest in North America, Vancouver quickly followed suit in 1985. Vancouver also closes the North American circuit, which starts with FRIGID New York Fringe in February and has stops everywhere from Orlando and San Francisco to Sault Ste. Marie and Victoria.

      “This is the last stop, so it tends to be a party,” Watts-Grant says. “These are shows that [performers] have been doing for upwards of two months, if not longer. So by this time, they have them really well under their belts. The artists really come out swinging.”

      While the Edmonton Fringe spreads all over the city, concentrating Vancouver’s festival on Granville Island creates a little bubble: an atmosphere where nothing else feels real outside of the shows.

      “As unusual of a space it is to produce, it also creates an almost summer camp-like feeling on Granville Island,” he reflects, “with artists coming to each other’s shows and sort of bouncing around the island.”

      He consistently hears from artists that they love coming to Vancouver. 

      “We have a reputation for really being interested and inviting weird and oddball performances,”  Watts-Grant says. “They feel like they have great confidence to bring different kinds of shows to Vancouver because they know they’ll find an audience here.”

      In true Fringe fashion, there’s a bit of everything on offer this year—from bumbling clowns and classic standup to international dance troupes, with plenty of music, magic tricks, drag, poetry, and surreal goodness thrown into the mix.

      Productions are picked by lottery, and there are more than twice as many interested artists as there are spots. This year, Vancouver Fringe specifically earmarked half of its slots for performers from underrepresented backgrounds in an effort to improve diversity and inclusion. Separately, around half of all artists are from Vancouver—making the festival both international and local. Shows are also capped at both length (75 minutes) and price ($20), encouraging festival-goers to make a real day of it.
      The truly dedicated can purchase multi-show passes and wend their way between the dozens of performance spaces on and around Granville Island, taking in whatever show happens to be playing next.

      Watts-Grant demurs on whether there’s anything he’s especially looking forward to, but he notes his fondness for site-specific theatre. Performers find out the results of the lottery draw in January, so there’s a while for them—especially the locals—to come up with ideas for how to incorporate the location into their work.

      “We’ve had artists that have written shows to be performed in a dumpster parked on Granville Island, to be driven around Granville Island in a bus,” he recalls. “There was a wonderful clown show many years ago that was in the duck pond.”

      With 2023 being the Fringe’s first year back to full physical theatre mode post-pandemic restrictions, there’s a bit of anxiety over whether audiences will show up. There’s also a bit of fighting entropy for Fringe events.

      “People don’t want to go see things unless they’ve seen reviews,” Watts-Grant notes. “But we bring people’s guards down. Folks come to the Fringe without a strong sense of what they’re going to see. I’ve certainly had the experience of walking into shows, knowing almost nothing about it, and—I mean it sincerely—those are still shows I still think about.”

      So take a chance on aging twink autobiographies, or existential vaudeville dance, or a musical biography of Pierre Trudeau. Who knows: you might just be pleasantly surprised.

      Vancouver Fringe Festival

      When: September 7 to 17

      Where: Granville Island (various locations)

      Tickets: From $15