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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Happy Birthday Fringe!

Chris Morin
Published Thursday July 24, 05:45 pm
Saskatoon’s edgiest festival is 25 years old, and loving every minute of it

Photo Credit: Illustration by Myron Campbell

July 31-August 9
Broadway Ave.

The first time I discovered the Saskatoon Fringe was in the mid-1990s. As a teenager with an admittedly short attention span, I’d accidentally wandered into the Broadway area, where I discovered a colourful street festival populated by jugglers, actors, food vendors, buskers and throngs of people trying to soak it all in.

I was immediately hooked.

I can still remember my first Fringe theatre show as well: it was a minimalist backdrop, with a cadre of hyperactive actors jumping out of their skin for set-ups that led to raunchy punch lines, which they knocked out of the park. The audience roared in approval, and the performers beamed with comedic catharsis.

It was one hell of an introduction to the Saskatoon Fringe, an event that’s become nationally renowned, even amidst its larger and more-established sister festivals around the country.

As the 2014 edition approaches, there’s even more reason to celebrate: The Saskatoon Fringe is celebrating its 25th year. There’ve been a few rocky years over that time, but the event is happier and healthier than ever these days.



25th Street Theatre is formed in 1972 when a group of friends living in the basement of a house (Can you guess what street the house was on? Well duh!) in Saskatoon band together to form an artists’ collective. The first professional theatre company in the city, the organization would eventually expand their programming to include street theatre.

Initially billed as a “stop between Edmonton and Winnipeg,” the Saskatoon Fringe launches in the summer of 1989 as a preview to shows in Alberta. With similar festivals already running across Canada, it doesn’t take long for Saskatoon to get its own event. In 1990, festival director Tom Bentley-Fisher (who left a teaching position in Waterloo to work in Saskatoon) is part of the team that brings 34 theatre companies to the fest, with performers arriving from around the world. Rick Cranston, who would eventually become the volunteer coordinator with the Fringe, has been with the festival since the beginning — and he’s got fond memories of those initial steps.

“The Fringe had been happening in other places across Canada. Saskatoon has always had a very large theatre community,” he says, “and the people on the board of 25th Street Theatre felt like it was something that the people who lived here would get behind, that they would come and enjoy that style of theatre because it’s a very different form. And the city did get behind it.”

Among the first plays featured by the event are Hess and My Sister Next Door, written by English actor and writer Michael Burrell, who also appeared in the British live-action/animated musical film Pink Floyd – The Wall. The shows (which initially cost $6 to attend) are immediately a hit, drawing thousands to the Broadway area, with several of the shows seeing capacity audiences.

“My first venue was [what is now] the Broadway Café, which was actually an empty building at that point,” recalls Cranston. “The Café was moving from its other location further down the block, so it was open [for us to use] at the time. It wasn’t a big space, but that’s where we performed. And there were a lot of smaller venues at the time spread around the Broadway area.”

The festival starts to build momentum, expanding into different areas and adding things that supplement the indoor theatre, such as craft vendors, music and a food market.

“It was a summer outdoor theatre festival and people liked the area,” says Cranston. “It was a very different thing, though. We had a one-man Hamlet performance where Ophelia was a white balloon and Claudius was a black balloon: it was just something people had never seen, and it was a style that was unfamiliar to so many people. And they wanted to find out more.”



As the reputation of the festival continues to grow, so too do the audiences. Eventually, amid worries that the event has outgrown the Broadway area, the Fringe moves downtown in 1994, and then to the warehouse district in 1995.


“People literally protested that we be back on Broadway,” recalls Cranston. “There was a march up the bridge, and the next Fringe was called ‘Back to Broadway.’”

“The greatest successes we’ve had is making Broadway our home and integrating our activities into the neighbourhood,” says Robert Wyma, a board member of 25th Street Theatre who moves into the general manager position in 2001. “We have venues like The Refinery and the Oskayak High School. And turning the street into one of Saskatoon’s largest street festivals, which complements the theatre, I can’t imagine a better place to do what we do other than Broadway. And those two tests told us that we were in the right spot.”

Other changes for the festival include 25th Street Theatre phasing out their stage productions and transitioning into a model where the Fringe Festival was the sole focus for the company. Wyma credits the move as a major turning point, and one where the organization had to make significant investments into the festival model. “It turned out to be the right choice for us,” he says.

The reputation of the festival continues to grow amongst the performers as well. Storyteller Erik De Waal, who hails from Cape Town, South Africa, makes Saskatoon a destination for over a decade, with many other actors also returning year after year.

“We have these icons in the Fringe world who choose Saskatoon year after year and for us, as organizers, it’s a vote of confidence and it’s telling us that we’re doing the right thing, despite the fact that it is a small festival,” says Wyma.



The Fringe continues to grow both in audience size and prominence, but the promoters make the decision to carve down the number of plays involved. Why? With fewer productions there’s less competition, meaning more people at each show.

“We initially wanted to accommodate everyone, but a decision was made by the board, not to make it smaller but to keep the festival more intimate,” says Cranston. “For example we have six venues this year, but we didn’t increase the number of theatre groups.”

The move is met with approval from the traveling theatre troupes, and Saskatoon increasingly becomes a more attractive place to perform.

“In 2001, we would do a call for artists in September and would fill up in March. Fast forward to this year’s call for artists, which was in the fall of 2013, and we filled up in less than 30 days,” says Wyma.

The street festival also continues to expand, with the 2014 season bringing in 25 food vendors, for example — the highest number the event has ever seen.

It’s taken a quarter of a century, but Saskatoon has established itself as a premiere Fringe theatre destination, and is now one of the top five Fringes as an artist-earning opportunity in Canada.

“If you go back to the early years, we were number 16 out of 20,” says Wyma. “Now, we’re number five — and by the time we get to 2016, we’ll be in the top three. Which means you’ll be able to go to a smaller city and have a connected and intimate experience as an artist, in contrast to the goliath festivals in Winnipeg and Edmonton.”

“We used to be the breather, the break, the lovely little city between Edmonton and Winnipeg,” says Cranston. “Performers maybe didn’t make as much money but it was nice and you could relax. But people started realizing that this was a festival that you wanted to get into. And we had audiences that knew theatre: you had to be good at your craft. And it brought that element to Saskatoon, where performers who were good would come, and we weren’t just filler.

“We have hundreds of dedicated volunteers who see theatre as a beneficial thing in society,” he continues. “It’s something they want to be a part of, and they volunteer. That’s what’s going to lead The Fringe into the future. It has the impetus and the desire for all ages.



Well, let’s leave that question to Cranston.

“Will there be another 25 years? I think there will be,” he says.


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