Applauding the community at the Fringe

IMG_2011It’s understood that the play’s the thing; however, it was the vibrant community found around each performance that proved an unexpected volunteer adventure at The Toronto Fringe festival 2015.

Prologue 

I’ve held a number of volunteer roles over the years, many of them board or committee participation in industry associations (LERN, CPRS and IABC/Toronto). Moreover, I’ve contributed to other areas, such as a steering committee for a charitable organization’s high-profile special event and a variety of volunteer roles (over numerous years) at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

These experiences were all good ones, including meeting new people and the commonality of working in teams towards specific business and financial goals towards betterment.

The time was ripe for me to contribute volunteer hours towards another, preferably new, endeavour.

A volunteer pitch that persuaded

This past March I opted to attend a multi-group Volunteer in Culture recruitment session (hosted by Hot Docs), where I  mulled over whether short-term festivals might provide the best ticket to a new volunteer experience. Several groups presented over the morning, but it was The Toronto Fringe’s volunteer coordinator, Natasha Boomer, who provided the most-compelling pitch.

Her presentation was akin to a comedy performance (I’ve since learned her background is theatre and improv and she remains a writer, actor and producer), which stood out amongst all of the other, more-conventional speeches. Boom (as she calls herself) promised a fun and rewarding experience, with a fierce declaration about how much volunteers were valued as stakeholders within the Fringe community. I seem to recall Boom even mentioning the annual outdoor Saturday pancake breakfast as one volunteer inducement.

In addition, when I realized that I could volunteer at the nearby, mid-town Tarragon Theatre (where I’m a long-time and valued subscriber) venue—BOOM—I was persuaded to the idea and signed up.

IMG_1997The word fringe means “the edge, the margin, the outskirts.”

Although Fringe Festivals came from a history of being outsiders or unwanted guests, we have put ourselves right in the middle of our communities.

To us, Fringe means “togetherness” and “belonging.” Artists, volunteers, audiences and organizers—we are committed to this new definition of Fringe….

David Jordan, president, Vancouver Fringe (The Toronto Fringe 2015 program)

Observations on a company of communal stakeholders

Following are things observed or directly experienced during my volunteer stint at The Toronto Fringe 2015. Note that most of this knowledge did not come via official marketing materials or during the volunteer orientation session.

Although a very different initiative and experience, I couldn’t help but compare and contrast the lack of gender and ethnic diversity, access to speak (with resulting profile) at comparable “juried” public relations and social media conferences and events. Not to mention the elitism and sense-of-entitlement cliques that often predominate in our industries.

Many of the Fringe community stakeholders are clear: the artists (actors, writers, directors, stage managers, etc.); the festival administration; the army of volunteers; and, of course, the sponsors. Others are less obvious. For example, the local small- to medium-sized theatres and site-specific locations operating as this year’s 28 Fringe venues.

It’s not clear if the venue spaces are donated by the theatres or rented at a reduced cost; regardless, I’m positive that participation is considered a “stake” investment, to uncover potential play procurement, artists to watch, as well as profile for the theatre or site-specific venue itself. At a minimum, I suspect established theatres view it as a contribution or investment to help sustain and nourish The Toronto Fringe and year-round theatrical community.

In the case of the “hot ticket” site-specific play, Served, its Epicure Café location has an existing patron-discount relationship with Theatre Passe Muraille (that hosted two of the Fringe venues).

Another bit of observation was how several of the contracted venue house managers (i.e., the shift boss for us volunteers) have ongoing roots in the theatrical world, as actors, writers, and stage or event managers.

One of my Tarragon Theatre house managers, Nolan Molfetta has his own show, Scribe (playwright and actor) at the 2015 Hamilton Fringe Festival.

Physically marketing their own plays and connecting with patrons

Almost all of the Fringe plays had creative postcards, business cards or show programs as marketing collateral (some of them pictured above). A few gave out buttons like Press Gang Theatre offered to its Served patrons.

There was also one for High Tea’s James and Jamesy; at the end of their show, the returning British duo (and popular/frequent Fringe Toronto lottery winners) requested a small donation for the buttons, to help fund their next show’s development.

Obsessive Compulsive DarrylThe most-creative marketing I saw was the “pill” bottle (containing Smarties) for OCD — Obsessive Compulsive Darryl. The first bottle I “found” on a staircase shelf during a visit to the volunteer office (I honestly thought someone had dropped a prescription bottle by accident); the second one was handed to me by Darryl Pring himself, as I exited from a Factory Theatre show. Creativity and chocolate are good inducements, as I did make a point of travelling over to see his play at the Robert Gill Theatre….

This brings me to another point. Many of the artists, particularly those located at the more-remote venues, made a point of visiting the patron line-ups at other venues, to engage with potential audience members and describe their Fringe 2015 offering. Occasionally artists offered complimentary tickets to that day’s play. Fringe lineup I first encountered the Caws & Effect partners at the most-northern Tarragon Theatre in a line-up. Later I chatted with one of them as I waited to get into High Tea at The Toronto Fringe’s centrally located Randolph Theatre. I knew the Mind of a Snail women are from Vancouver, so I asked this partner whether she found Torontonians unfriendly. “Certainly not the people attending the Fringe festival—they’re great,” was her smart answer. And yes, I did make an effort to see their show…travelling down to The Toronto Fringe’s most-southern venue, the Factory Theatre!

Personal endorsements of other productions

One of the Endorsementsmost-generous aspects of the Fringe festival(s) community is the tradition of endorsing other plays in the program. Some endorse a handful of plays within their show program itself. Others give a verbal endorsement at the end of their own play’s performance, generally taking the line of, “If you enjoyed my/our work, likely you will also be interested in X by X at the X theatre or….”

But it’s not all word of mouth. Fringe participants happily point to positive reviews, of their own plays or that of their friends, in traditional and online media. On the final weekend, they would proudly indicate receiving an award or being a Best of the Fringe or Patron’s Pick show.

Valuing volunteers

It quickly became apparent to this first-time volunteer that many of the artists and house managers know one another from the Canadian “Fringe” circuit. Yet because Fringe shows are the result of a lottery win, partiality towards reputation and profile (converting to ticket sales) mainly rests with patrons in terms of how big the audiences will be, particularly as the festival advances.

Earned media—advance profiles and positive reviews—particularly from The Fringe Toronto’s official media sponsor, NOW Magazine, remains important. Because of the plethora of Fringe options, reviews provide a road map to interested patrons on where to devote resources; reviews are are particularly valued when theatregoers’ respect a critic for being knowledgeable, balanced and fair.

IMG_1973The artist-to-artist endorsements previously described is one WoM community aspect of “performance marketing,” but Fringe veterans also value volunteers in each city and festival, for two main reasons:

      1. The huge army of volunteers means administrative costs are manageable, which allows practical continuance of a Fringe golden rule: 100 per cent of ticket prices go to the artists. Ergo, volunteers at any given show are de facto members of the show’s team.
      2. Many patrons trust what volunteers tell them about a show, good or bad.

Artists engaging with volunteers during the festival result in excellent public (as well as personal) relations.

Although not the only factor, I suspect genuine connections amplify a volunteer’s desire to champion a superb performance to patrons. Conversely, if one appreciates the friendliness exhibited by the artists, but found their work less than stellar, likely normal criticisms are more gentle or muted.

Although a one-to-one relationship with each volunteer is not practical, at the end of almost every show I attended, volunteers received heartfelt thanks in the actors’ concluding speeches. Plus many Fringe play print programs had a volunteer-specific thank you in the show notes.

Each shift I worked, the artists (actors, writers, directors and/or stage managers) made a point of stopping by and saying hello prior to the performance, and introduced themselves by name. Often volunteers received a personal invitation to sit in on that performance, too. (Ultimately, this was the house manager’s decision.)

That’s a part of the “community stakeholder” aspect, whereby the “talent” treats The Toronto Fringe volunteers like equals.

Extending the volunteer’s sense of being valued and trusted to keep a confidence, sometimes there was sharing of community insider information. For example, when I asked co-writer and director Graham Isadore which Toronto restaurant inspired the (management and patrons) satire in Served, he told me. This was unreservedly and with no proviso about keeping the information quiet–but I will, even without his asking.

Other “Fringe community” confidences included things such as:

      1. Which theatre training appears to be held in the highest regards by producers and booking agents (one is at a college, the other a private theatre company);
      2. Criticisms about poor writing in some plays (in one play the writers/actors misappropriated a culture not their own; another performance grossly misrepresented one arm of the healthcare profession).

From an industry perspective, my most-valued confidences were artist disclosures about how much they valued (or not) various print and online theatre publications. In particular, how much credibility and weight they gave to individual theatre critics.

The social Fringe community

The majority of artists have a website, Twitter or Facebook account—sometimes personal accounts, sometimes by company and just as often, both. The more social-savvy artists made use of accounts to profile their Fringe play during its festival run, as well as engage with patrons who enjoyed the performances, and share additional information about upcoming schedules and career moves.

Interestingly, the only performance I found with an advertised Twitter hashtag in the print program book was the UK’s James and Jamesy #HighTea show.

The other hashtags I discovered when visiting one or more of the artist’s Twitter accounts.

It was through Coko Galore’s Twitter account (her play at The Toronto Fringe—one of my favourites—was Mixed Chick) that I learned about a secondary #FringeTO hashtag: #FringeFemmeTO. This was the “social endorsement” version for female-oriented Fringe plays (happily, many of which won this year’s lottery); a great “road map” addition to the feminist theatre sub-community of Fringers. 

Meet CuteThe playwright (also co-actor) of Meet Cute, Erin Norah Thompson, has a Tumblr blog, where she posts about her theatre and life experiences.

As she explained to the enraptured audience at the end of their (“Best of Fringe”) performance, sometimes her posts about real-life experience or musings end up in a play or at least the epilogue.

 

IMG_1971

Likely the biggest “social success” story of The Toronto Fringe festival 2015 was the Indiegogo fundraising campaign initiated by the very-popular Morro and Jasp clown duo, to take their Do Puberty show to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. (Morro and Jasp Do Puberty ended up being both a Best of Fringe and Patron’s Pick selection.) Prior to and during The Toronto Fringe festival (including in their show’s program), they reached out to their supporters and fans, with great success. (Here is a sample tweet of encouragement, from the creator of another 2015 The Toronto Fringe hit, The Philanderess.)

They estimate the cost for them to participate in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to be $30,000 (what the money will go towards is detailed in the very amusing promotional video); thanks to Heather Marie Annis and Amy Lee’s (aka Morro and Jasp’s) Fringe community, they reached their Indiegogo online funding goal during the 2015 The Toronto Fringe festival.

How did The Toronto Fringe 2015 perform?

According to NOW Magazine (official media sponsor of the Choose Your Own Adventure The Toronto Fringe 2015):

“This year’s Fringe Festival was one of the smoothest-running in recent years…. With 148 [unjuried] shows [that won the lottery out of approximately 800 submissions] in 28 venues from July 1 to 12, 2015, viewers had plenty to see. Audiences took full advantage of the wealth of local, national and international theatre and dance.”

The NOW wrap-up article goes on to indicate that it was a record-breaking year, with Fringe Toronto artists receiving more than $467,000; audiences purchasing 64,000 plus tickets; and the Tip the Fringe donations (placed within a variety of plastic watering cans found at each venue) “filled” to the tune of $40,000.

IMG_1975Here is the St. Vladimir Theatre’s house manager encouraging patrons attending My Big Fat German Puppet Show to “Tip the Fringe.”

One of the defining features of Fringe festivals is how 100 per cent of ticket sales go directly to the artists responsible for a production. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons that Fringe companies are very appreciative of the volunteers.

The Tip of the Fringe donations and (presumably) various levels of government and cultural NGO grants, not to mention the valued corporate sponsors, fund attendant administrative salaries and costs.

A standing ovation to the great Fringe community, plus appreciation for my own volunteer role

It’s been awhile since I’ve written an original post for PR Conversations, mainly because much of what I’ve observed or participated in—particularly of the online variety—has seemed either stale or over-inflated with hyperbolic pronouncements and promises, rather than actual, measurable outcomes. For example, the ballyhoo around many tribes and their online “communities” particularly when related to a consumer product or service.

After my final, figurative Fringe curtain came down on that last Sunday afternoon, I reflected on how creatively “invigorating” was participating in this year’s Fringe Festival; it was a multi-faceted experience of shifts, performances, venues and human relations. (I had an MRI that evening, so it was good to have expansive memories to feast upon during my 30 minutes in a claustrophobic space.)

Quantitatively, during or between my volunteer stints, I managed to see 24 performances (my only financial outlay being regular Tip the Fringe donations. Volunteers are gifted with the opportunity to see many performances—companies provide “volunteer” access to 50 per cent of their scheduled slots, unsold tickets space permitting).

Nine of them I rated excellent, a mere two I really didn’t enjoy, and the rest of my chosen Fringe performances were fair to good.

IMG_1976Qualitatively, I had numerous, stimulating conversations with other volunteers. They ranged from students (many enrolled in Greater Toronto Area high schools for the arts) accumulating necessary Ontario volunteer hours, to millennials who hope to make a career out of theatre acting/writing/stage management/directing, to working professionals—who volunteered for evening and weekend shifts—to septuagenarians with 20 plus years of Fringe volunteering under their belts.

I also enjoyed engaging with administrative staff (primarily Natasha Boomer, and assistant volunteer coordinator Heather Gillis) at The Toronto Fringe office. Volunteers are invited to visit before or immediately after a shift.

As well, it was fun to exchange thoughts with various Fringe patrons, and several of the actors, writers and directors who won this year’s lottery, when I had a scheduled shift at their performance venue.

During those conversations, many of us shared honest impressions and word of mouth recommendations (or pans) of what we had seen or heard, as well as personal histories and anecdotes to layer on to our reactions.

Best of all during my 12-day commitment was the artful act of being embedded into this non-elitist (authentic) community, one that proved to be very warm and welcoming to this newbie internal Fringe stakeholder.

This is why my final role is to volunteer some public relations for this theatre festival before making a 2015 stage exit. I encourage others to experience being “on the Fringe” of communal artistic freedom and affordability—as a volunteer or patron—should a similar festival be held in your city.

Learn more about the Toronto Fringe Festival via its website or Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts. You can also check out the dedicated Twitter hashtag or download the free festival app.

“The Toronto Fringe is proud to be a member of the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals (CAFF). Like all CAFF festivals we follow three golden rules:

        1. All shows at the Fringe must be chosen at random by lottery, or on a first come/first served basis.
        2. Last year [2014] the Toronto Fringe received almost 700 applications to our lottery! 100% of the ticket price is returned to artists. Last year, CAFF festivals returned more than five million dollars to performing arts companies!
        3. We will never intervene in the artistic content of participating productions. These are your stories, this is your art.”

All of the photos used in this post are mine.

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3 Replies to “Applauding the community at the Fringe

  1. Thanks for embracing my post, Heather, and finding it useful and worthwhile for your own evolving research and thinking about careers in public relations. A part of me hesitated before hitting Publish, as I felt some might find it self-serving to write about my experience of volunteering. However, with you building on my community focus and talking about being a rhizomatic (or “in the middle”) participant does position it as being less random and experiential, to more focused and—even if organic—intentional stakeholder roles.

    I am going to respond in two parts, to mirror your comment.

    1. Being in the middle (or “rhizomatic”)

    The concept of “fringe” in regards to these festivals definitely speaks to both the way performances come about (100 per cent by lottery) and, yes, not a ranked hierarchy from the professional (profit-driven) theatrical world where a form of bums-in-seats (elite commercial success!) is often the main motivation for producing, rather than artistic experimentation.

    For the most part Fringe artists answer to themselves, although commentary on success of any given effort comes from both patronage numbers and colleague approval or disapproval. (Artists, house managers and volunteers did gossip about a handful of self-indulgent and/or “irresponsible” plays that won the lottery—usually echoed in formal reviews and poor ticket sales.)

    The middle definitely will embrace successful productions, even if conceptually something is “on the fringe” (of experimentation); the Caws & Effect performance illustrates this perfectly.

    From a geographical point of view, The Toronto Fringe festival isn’t so much on the “fringe” of the city as it is deeply rooted in an existing “corridor” of (mainly successful) small-to-medium-sized theatrical (commercial, university- or church-based) “communities” around the north-south major artery of Bathurst Street. The Tarragon, Theatre Passe Muraille and Factory Theatre locations (three of the anchor venues) have a yearlong patronage base, many of whom come from the Greater Toronto Area and who already are used to programming that isn’t as commercial as the bigger theatres.

    (I don’t know if you are aware, but Toronto is one of North America’s largest theatre cities. I think it is second only to New York City in terms of number of theatres and performances mounted.)

    I think where your rhizomatic concept is worthy of consideration, though, is where the Fringe festival programming pulls in new patrons, who up until now primarily attended more-commercial theatrical productions. (For example, Kinky Boots is currently on stage for Mirvish and already received rave reviews. Prior to that Closer ran for months. Mirvish owns three large theatres and rents out space in a couple of other places.)

    Whereas bigger, commercial theatre is quite expensive, the Fringe tickets are very reasonable ($10 at the door; $12 if pre-ordered in advance for a guaranteed seat). This means the financial investment is minimal—so why not take a risk, and go outside your usual theatrical experience comfort zone? And it’s not just the performance itself, but the whole “experience” of standing in the lineups, or visiting The Fringe Club (where the Saturday pancake breakfast took place) and being a part of a community of “alternative” (or fringe) theatre for a few hours or days.

    For the artists, the Fringe format from within the lottery-won middle allows exploration of other options at some financial risk, but less than that of a conventional theatrical run.

    Although I had attended The Toronto Fringe festival in the past (many, many years ago, though), in this first-time volunteer role I did deliberately plant myself in the rhizomatic “middle.”

    This leads me to the second part of your comment, about the amateur and her (or his) love of something….

    2. An organic (amateur) versus controlled experience

    When I “applied” to be a volunteer (a series of questions about past Fringe/other volunteer experiences and what I could bring to the role), I noted my PR/communications industry focus, as well as my existing social media profile. (I wondered whether anyone from the administrative side would reach out to formalize a “volunteer” communication role—no one did.)

    Ergo, it’s true that my personal “amateur” status was in the theatrical sector; for the artists themselves it is in their grassroots marketing and public relations efforts.

    I think in my particular case, I’d agree that my amateur status translated to a form of love—or at least a great liking—of the vast majority of artists, volunteers and patrons I met. Moreover, an outcome was writing this post.

    But back to the artists. Many graduated from theatrical or arts schools. Some artists are changing roles—for example, from improv comedy (Second City or CBC television) to more-dramatic roles. Alternatively, hands-on writing and directing and/or producing. Some are changing careers (I don’t mean simply being wait staff—more along the lines of a very different direction.) Even if the “artist” has no formal training, remember that they have to bear all of the travel and accommodation (and a lot of the marketing) costs, so it’s not like many “just in it for the fun of it” people would apply for the lottery.

    For the “love of theatre” amateur cost is an issue (as everything is self-produced), but the opportunity to spread their wings and change directions I believe is the greatest impetus for entering the Fringe lottery. Followed by success and profile and even bigger things….

    Success stories are legend. Probably the most famous (and cited) is The Fringe Toronto hit, The Drowsy Chaperon, which was later mounted in a medium-sized theatre. Later, Canada’s largest theatre company, Mirvish, included it in a season. And the ultimate mark of (North American theatrical) status was a run on Broadway. (And it is still performed in numerous theatres and other countries.) Update: According to the Wikipedia entry: “The Drowsy Chaperone debuted in 1998 at The Rivoli in Toronto and opened on Broadway on 1 May 2006. The show was nominated for multiple Broadway (2006) and London (2008) theatre awards, winning five Tony Awards and seven Drama Desk Awards. The show has had major productions in Toronto, Los Angeles, New York, London, and Japan, as well as two North American tours.”

    Speaking of the amateur versus the professional, what I’ve found interesting is how almost all of the artists I mentioned with social media accounts (and “tagged” on Twitter) have embraced this post and shared it (including volunteer coordinator Natasha Boomer). On the other hand, I’ve had no acknowledgement from The Toronto Fringe Twitter account itself (which I suspect might have been outsourced to a marketing agency); zero acknowledgement of this post or any of my festival tweets. Nor has NOW Magazine, the official media sponsor. Surely they couldn’t think this “volunteer” is trying to steal their (professional role) “thunder?!”

    Ultimately, my acknowledgement by the artists is more important than the marketing administration or (alternative) traditional media.

    I wrote this as a tribute to the greater Fringe community itself, which starts and revolves around a merry band of artists. Their success is equal parts the excellence of the productions they mount and the quality of the relationships they build, with a variety of stakeholders (including volunteers).

    This translates to “fringe” (public relations) “reputation, value and relationship building”—whether of the amateur variety or working practitioner/volunteer, but indeed firmly in the middle of a community.

    1. Judy – I will write a post soon about ‘rhizomatic middleness’ to explain my thinking further. But the idea of connecting organic, community and amateur to rhizomatic is quite interesting. Indeed, I came across the Rhizome Cafe in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories (http://rhizomecafe.ca/) which is/was a social justice project, so the idea is already there.

      The rhizome concept itself is actually a botanic one (although of course academically, it was developed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari – but I’ll save that side for later). It refers plants that spread horizontally on or just under the surface, with new shoots growing up from nodes in the interconnected roots/stems to the surface. One example is Canada thistle – and although common for ‘weeds’ also applies to bamboo, clover, water lilies, ginger, tumeric, iris, etc.
      ” alt=”Canada thistle” />

      So in terms of community and the fringe, your experience beautifully illustrates the rhizomatic way of extending connections in that horizontal manner – whereby a ranked hierarchy would be more arboreal (ie treelike). I suppose another aspect is that such plant forms are resilient – with the ‘success’ in the connections and ability to spring up in different places. But this sense of the casual (amateur?) is deceptive as anyone knows who has ever tried to eliminate a rhizomatic plant (eg bamboo) from their garden.

      Where I bring in ‘middleness’ is that essentially it gets difficult to know where the start and end of the rhizome can be found – and to be honest, that’s pretty immaterial. So wherever people encounter the Fringe is in the middle as everything is connected (except for the time frame of course – although these days that can be extended online if videos, posts like this one etc continue the spread of the rhizome – along with the stories of those who include a start at Fringe events in their career paths). Your reference to geography also illustrates this concept nicely – and how people are drawn in. Again with their experiences enabling them to connect with the rest. It seems quite unlike something like Disney World which although could be seen as interconnected activities, doesn’t feel so rhizomatic to me – and there’s a sense of order in how you are allowed, or encouraged, or tend to experience it.

      This again connects to the organic aspect – as you know, I don’t use the term amateur in a derogatory way and feel that a binary distinction with professional is unhelpful (so we have another middleness idea as being located between the two). Again in terms of authenticity, communications are undoubtedly enhanced by the amateur, ie love for what you are doing rather than it just being a paid job (the basic pro concept). Fascinating that you connect this to how people engaged with you using social media – which itself is undoubtedly both rhizomatic and supports middleness – and as you say, the connections in the community seem to be strengthened more by those rhizomatic nodes among those who communicate as amateurs.

      Thanks again for the stimulating post.

  2. Judy- thank you for this fabulous, and highly original post. I love the way that you are drawing together so many different threads, that illustrate how a community builds authentically around something that everyone is – or becomes – passionate about. In this way, the stakeholder relationships become part of the promotion and vice versa.

    A couple of specific thoughts. I’ve just mentioned my perspective of ‘rhizomatic middleness’ in a response to Paul on my last post (about Tribes). And then I read your post and it seemed to apply again.

    First, the idea of the ‘fringe’ being in the middle of the community, rather than at the margins as the word implies. Is this where being rhizomatic could be relevant, as what the ‘fringe’ is doing is pulling the middle in a new direction, rather than being forced into a centre that is dominated by the traditional, mainstream, elite and commercial? It avoids the arboreal tendency to place performances in some form of ranked hierarchy and just offers a wonderful collection of things that find their own place in the middle.

    Second, what you describe is a highly personal experience where you found your own connections (again rhizomatic) and did not simply follow a set path as is so often prescribed in ‘entertainment’ these days. But do you feel this organic versus controlled experience relates to the sense of the amateur rather than the overly-professional?

    I wrote a blog post in January in praise of the amateur (in PR) [ https://greenbanana.wordpress.com/2015/01/25/in-praise-of-the-amateur-in-pr/ ] – my point there being about how we often ‘other’ those who aren’t professionals (in the paid sense). But there is much to be learned and enjoyed by those who aren’t just doing a job, but really enjoying what they are doing.

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