With lockdown, Vancouver Fringe Fest was formed from afar

New executive director Rohit Chokhani has created a pandemic-ready event from the other side of the planet

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      It speaks to these bizarre times that the Vancouver Fringe Festival’s new executive director should have found himself running the annual theatre event from 12,243 kilometres away.

      The unique situation called for a personal pivot as dramatic as the one being made at the Fringe itself, as the fest moves to a staggered series of performances—indoors, outdoors, and live-streamed—throughout the fall.

      Back in February, Vancouver theatre artist, producer, and cultural leader Rohit Chokhani decided to visit his elderly parents in Mumbai before he dived into his new position. India went into full lockdown in March, and until recently he’d been stuck there. In the last few weeks he’s watched his populous home nation’s COVID-19 numbers skyrocket.

      “One sixth of the world lives here and numbers are high, but I’ve felt like I’ve been safe in my parents’ home,” he told the Straight philosophically over What’s App when he was still quarantined in India. “But it’s been difficult for the folks out there on the street.

      “Once I started in the job, I had this huge sense of disconnect between being here and majority of my team being in Canada,” he admitted. “I am born and raised in India, but I’ve been gone for two decades, so my entire social life and professional life was in Canada.”

      Still, like the rest of the world, Chokhani learned to adapt—starting with his sleep patterns. Mumbai sits 12-and-a-half hours ahead of Vancouver.

      “In India, my work day starts at 9 p.m. and I go to 3 or 4 a.m.,” he said. “I sleep from 4 to 8 and then take more calls. I sleep again for four hours in the afternoon.”

      Flexibility was essential

      The Fringe team had some months to prepare for the new pandemic reality, so it started with its artists, sending out surveys to find out how they wanted to proceed—acknowledging that any troupes travelling long distances internationally or nationally were off the table.

      “It was clear we were not going to find a one-size-fits-all solution,” said Chokhani, whose diverse credits include heading up the Monsoon Festival of Performing Arts, codirecting an Indian-set All’s Well That Ends Well at Bard on the Beach, and directing Pick of the Fringe award-winner Bombay Black.

      “There were artists who were not wanting or comfortable with live performance. What we also heard was there were significant concerns about productions that were [created to be] live and how significantly they’d have to be translating that over to the digital realm.”

      The manifold solution is a far cry from last year’s celebration, which hosted more than 700 performances around town by more than 90 artists over 11 days.

      This year, the Fringe allows artists to withdraw applications and get a refund, and reduces fees for those who want to take part in a few concentrated series over the autumn. Events are going to happen live in several limited-audience indoor and outdoor venues, and digital content will be largely offered for workshops and gatherings.

      The first block of programming takes place from Thursday (September 10) to September 20 on Granville Island at Performance Works, the Picnic Pavilion, and the Yellow Crane Pad. Further intimate programming will be announced for blocks running October 1 to 10, October 29 to November 8, and November 26 through December 6.

      “We managed to do certain things I would have done even pre-COVID—long-term visionary ideas,” Chokhani said.

      Quelemia Sparrow, seen above in this year's Skyborn: A Land Reclamation Odyssey, will be part of a curated series of staged readings at this year's Fringe fest.
      Emily Cooper

      An inclusive Fringe

      One of those pillars—equity, diversity, and inclusion—has been a mandate the Fringe has been working aggressively toward since about 2017. Though it also encompasses structural changes at the organization, it plays out immediately in 2020 Fringe programming such as Advance Theatre: New Works by Diverse Women.

      The staged readings curated by Métis, Cree, and Haudenosaunee artist Tai Amy Grauman feature pieces by Quelemia Sparrow, Yvonne Wallace, and Lisa C. Ravensbergen.

      “I’ve been an artist at the Fringe and I was already a part of the conversation as a community representative and consultant, so these lenses give me a certain understanding of the festival,” said Chokhani of the diversity push. “We want to include these folks and invite them in, but also we want to do it right. The last thing we want is folks who are marginalized to come here and not have a good experience.”

      He’s also committed to turning the Fringe into even more of an incubator for new work than it already is: “If a show is successful at the Fringe, what happens to get it into another city, what does the second show look like?”

      For the present moment, however, the intricacies of health and safety measures may pose the biggest logistical leaps. The shows’ limited capacity will meet the guidelines in the B.C. Restart Plan for patrons, volunteers, and artists.

      “It’s been quite a ride,” Chokhani reflected. “Of course, I’m saddened by the impact and deaths. But I feel like there’s an opportunity for change in all this. And the amount of love and support from volunteers and donors and community is really heartwarming.”

      The Vancouver Fringe Festival runs at various Granville Island venues and online from Thursday (September 10) to September 20, October 1 to 10, October 29 to November 8, and November 26 through December 6.