|Fringe fest is turning into a festival of headaches for the people trying to secure a stable Calgary home for the international theatre event.
Hindered by civil bureaucracy, less than co-operative businesses along 17th Avenue S.W., and the many challenges of holding a street festival in vehicle-saturated downtown Calgary without the benefit of road closures, organizers Jason Rothery and Blair Gallant hope to break the curse that has denied Calgary a consistent theatre festival.
The plan, for now, is to hold performances at Western Canada High School and the surrounding area, as well as Olympic Plaza, Stephen Avenue and the Epcor Centre, making the festival quite spread out. To address this, shuttle service is planned to take people between shows.
What is by far the biggest Calgary Fringe Festival to date will run August 11 to 20, featuring buskers, a film festival, bands, body painters and a much larger lineup of plays than past events. In recent years, the Loose Moose Theatre Company achieved relative success with smaller fringe festivals, however, the loss the improv troupes home base, the historic Garry Theatre, in 2003 effectively killed their ability to organize further festivals.
For a time, the future of fringe festivals in Calgary was in serious doubt.
"The trick is you have to stick with it," says Stephen Schroeder, managing producer of the experimental One Yellow Rabbit Theatre Company, which, in part, got its start from the Edmonton Fringe Festival. "A theatre festival is one of the hardest things you can do."
The job is not easy, but the potential is too good to pass up, according to Rothery, who has worked in theatre as a writer, performer and administrator.
"The audiences came out in droves despite last-minute planning," he says of a previous festival in Calgary. "You actually had people seeking it out despite short notice. It certainly seems like the audience exists here."
Rothery, along with Gallant, a businessman turned patron of the arts, has worked tirelessly since November to bring Calgary a fringe fest on the scale of Edmontons, the second largest in the world. But the more infamous side of the last Flames playoff run is not making the job easy. Some businesses, Rothery says, worry fringe fest will be the Red Mile reborn.
"The businesses along 17th (Avenue) are in a bit of a shellshock as a result of the Red Mile," says Rothery. "I can understand certainly how that could potentially freak you out. There is reluctance among a minority of the businesses along 17th and 16th to have any event taking place. But Ive been to 14 fringe festivals its just a completely different audience."
Another major concern expressed by some members of Uptown 17, the areas Business Revitalization Zone, is parking.
"About one-third of the businesses are reluctant, particularly when it comes to parking," says Rothery. "To them it seems like were gonna kill their business. But if you cant attract customers with 40,000 people outside of your store, I dont know how you stay in business."
Despite resistance from what Rothery calls a vocal minority, many other businesses in the area support the festival. Ro Allen, manager of Steeps Urban Teahouse, even offered to canvas the other businesses on the fringe fests behalf.
Uptown 17 is remaining somewhat neutral on the matter, stating that it supports the fringe festival and that it will be beneficial to the community.
Gallant says the sheer bureaucracy involved in launching a new festival in Calgary is staggering, but once its established, the process becomes more streamlined.
"If we were the folk festival, wed have a 10-year history. After a few years, the Edmonton fringe fest is welcomed with open arms and the city bends over backwards for it. But we werent able to close down a secondary one-way street for 400 feet." says Gallant, referring to the stretch of 16th Avenue by Eighth Street S.W..
Gallant says that while individuals at city hall have been helpful, the permit process for a festival that is both indoor and outdoor in nature is extremely convoluted, taking several months and a great deal of phone time, paperwork, etc. And when one thing goes wrong, the whole process grinds to a halt.
He adds that the fringe business model is challenging if one is to turn a profit or even cover costs, because 100 per cent of the revenues are passed on to the artists. The festival itself, then, must rely on food sales and donations.