Reason #65 of '101 Reasons Why I Heart Edmonton'

The Fringe

By Emil Tiedemann

When the middle of August rolls around, some Edmontonians instinctively begin to panic. It means that summer is coming to a close, and the nippy seasons are just around the corner. Others look forward to mid-August all year round, because it means that their favourite season has arrived...Fringe season! 

Unless you count K-Days, the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival is Edmonton’s most attended and sought-after festival of them all, and one of the oldest ones too, and that means something in a town rightfully known as “Festival City.” 

There’s something about the Fringe that enlivens Edmonton, bringing out locals who appreciate authentic and often experimental live theatre at its best, incorporating all forms of performing arts, including music, dance, spoken word, comedy, improv, cabaret, burlesque, puppetry, poetry, circus, and even magic. 

Some 120,000 tickets are sold for more than 200 shows and 1,600 performances at the 11-day event, making it not only the second oldest fringe festival in the world (behind Edinburgh, Scotland), but also the second largest (again, behind Edinburgh). 

The history of Edmonton’s Fringe dates back to 1977, even before the Fringe itself, when Brian Paisley and Ti Hallas founded Chinook Theatre in Fort St. John, B.C. They provided young audiences with live theatre tours across Northern British Columbia and Alberta, eventually relocating to Edmonton in 1980, operating out of a rented space in the basement of the Princess Theatre on Whyte Avenue

Two years later, in ‘82, Paisley received a $50,000 grant from Summerfest to put together what was called “A Fringe Theatre Event,” inspired by what the Scots were doing in Edinburgh since 1947. That very first year in Edmonton saw some 200 live performances in five local venues in the Old Strathcona area, and a brand new Edmonton tradition was born, just like that! 

The following year, as Chinook Theatre underwent renovations, “Return of the Fringe” kicked off, headquartered at the former Fire Hall No.6 on 83rd Avenue. Over the next several years, the Fringe grew in the size of its staff and its audience, and became a major part of the local theatre scene, even offering presentation and workshop series and various programs for young artists and playwrights. 

By 1994, headquarters had moved again, this time to the Old Strathcona Arts Barns right in the heart of the district, while Chinook also changed its name to Fringe Theatre Adventures the very next year. 

More importantly, Edmonton’s Fringe would inspire many other cities to host their own incarnations, including all of Canada’s other major towns: Vancouver in 1985, Winnipeg in 1988, Toronto in 1989, Montreal in 1990, Ottawa in 1997, and finally a reluctant Calgary in 2000. 

As for the artists and performers themselves, they’ve come to appreciate the structure of Edmonton’s Fringe, which allows them to run their shows at very low costs, and they get to walk away with all the proceeds from ticket sales. 

Since 1992, they’ve also implemented a BYOV (Bring Your Own Venue) program that allows for performers to arrange their own performance space independently, similar to Edinburgh’s system, essentially allowing Fringe shows from around the world to be hosted pretty much anywhere in the city, from libraries and cafes to shop basements and parkade rooftops. 

No matter what the show, who the performer(s), or where they’re from, the Edmonton Fringe proudly maintains an emphasis on original and independent live theatre, bringing unique, innovative, unconventional, and even forgotten art forms to the masses every single season, and allowing talent to emerge and flourish in a town once synonymous with oil and hockey. 

The Fringe, really, was the catalyst for our “Festival City” moniker, and will always remain a staple of our proud town’s strong cultural heritage. #yegfringe


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