My Fringe Retrospective

So I’ve already talked about my emotional state during the Fringe this year, so I thought I’d talk about the plays (I mean, this is supposed to be a blog about the arts in Vancouver, right?). I felt as though the calibre of the plays this year was higher than the past couple years. More than that, I just loved how diverse it was as well. While I was waiting in line for the Fringe’s Cabaret of Bullshit, Charlie Petch from Mel Malarkey Gets The Bum’s Rush, told me how much they loved seeing how queer-forward this Fringe was in comparison to other Fringes in Canada. They were totally right, too: there was a heart-wrenching play about a monogamous lesbian falling in and out of love with a polyamorous bisexual woman, and that was the one that ended up winning a lot of the awards! It wasn’t just about the diversity. It was about the stories being told and the stories being written during the festival itself.

There is something about a well-told story that hits the pleasure centre of my brain. There were so many plays that managed to leave me shocked, crying and/or laughing. So I thought it might be a good idea to talk about the plays that affected me during this year’s Fringe Festival and why. I won’t talk about all 12 of them, but I will say that none of them were bad, only varying degrees of good, great and absolutely amazing.

The first play I saw was Carlyn Rhamey’s The ADHD Project. No lying, when her Squirrel Suit Productions was announced during the Fringe’s lottery, I literally jumped up while punching my fist in the air and saying ‘Yeah!’. There is something so genuinely compassionate, gentle and intrinsically charismatic about Carlyn’s storytelling. Her Saor last year was one my top five favourite plays because of those qualities. The ADHD Project embraces people’s differences. It was a joy to see Carlyn share her personal story on a stage again.

The second play I saw, and one of my top five from this year, was Diana Bang’s SELFish. I even ended up seeing it twice. She’s one person but used the space of the venue so well. The play was about a Korean-Canadian woman dealing with life and the recent death of her father. Using only six or seven packing boxes, Diana Bang told a story of someone unsure of herself that rang true to me as much as the next person. It was fantastic, and, with Diana’s excellent comedic timing, funny, too.

Skipping to the first Sunday of the Fringe, I managed to catch four plays in East Van before going to Granville Island to bus tables at the Fringe Bar. I was actually really happy about that because last year I wasn’t able to go to any venue outside of Granville Island. Besides, I’d already bought a ticket for Travel Theatrics and The Shape of Things ahead of time, so I knew I’d be on that side of the city. So the first up was a Neil Labute play called The Shape of Things. If you know anything about Neil Labute plays, they tend to skewer gender politics. This play was no different. The play discusses the concept of art and artist by following a pair of couples in an unnamed Midwestern university. Well directed, well stage managed, and brilliantly acted, it was such a great play to see at the Cultch Lab.

There were a few surprises along the way, too. By the third day, I’d decided to get rid of my spreadsheet (or, in this case, not look at it, since it was on my phone) and be more adventurous. A one-man bouffon show, Red Bastard, certainly checked that more adventurous box for me. For those of you unaware, bouffon is a different style of performance work. Its main focus is the art of mockery. In this particular show, he talked a lot about how people lie and the rules of love. He nitpicked. He pointed out glaring fallacies. He had the audience squirming. But that’s the point of this style of comedy. It was brilliant. And it totally took me for a loop, making me examine what I thought of as my own boundaries.

Another surprise along the way was one of the last plays I saw: Big Sister. A one-woman play, Naomi Vogt talks about having lost a lot of weight and her relationship with her little sister. Only Naomi didn’t write the play – her younger sister Deborah did. And it just so happens that Deborah is sitting in the front row. So, including a level of improv, Naomi follows through with the script, only to negate what is being said, because while the words on the page she’s saying are about her, it may not necessarily the truth as she sees it. After all, her sister Deborah may know some of the facts, but she doesn’t know all of the them. Adding to the improv, Deborah also writes letters to her in an earnest way to get to know her sister, too. These are written the night before the show and put in an envelope for Naomi to read during the show.

Big Sister was extraordinary. I had seen Naomi before at the Fringe. She was in a musical called Carry On: The Musical (Britt McLeod (?)’s musical about the goings on of an airport). I’ve never seen someone so alive, so vital, on the stage. The play was the biggest surprise for me this year. It’s also one of my top five plays from this year too. I loved it so much that when I saw Naomi and Deborah at the Fringe Bar on the last night of Fringe, I nearly shyed away from telling Naomi how much I loved her and her sister’s play.

I am generally not like that when it comes to the artists at Fringe. If an artist has done something that has moved me, I generally don’t screw around; I just tell them (albeit occasionally just blurting it out sometimes). There was just something in me that was weirdly shy about introducing myself to Naomi. If I can be completely honest with you readers, the idea of meeting Naomi intimidated me because of just how thrilling she was to watch on stage. I did eventually walk up to her and thank her for the beautiful, heart-wrenching play (but not before fretting about it for 10-15 minutes). Deservedly, the play will be at the Cultch, so anyone who missed out on seeing it, will be able to see it there soon enough.

Another one of my absolute favourite plays ended up winning big during the Fringe Awards. I mentioned it above: Poly Queer Love Ballad. There was something so simple and yet so intricate about the play. Adding elements of slam poetry, music and a heart-wrenching love story, the play shows a love story between a monogamous Christian lesbian and a polyamorous bisexual woman. It plays the entire relationship out from its sweet beginnings to its bittersweet end. The music was great, the poetry amazing, but, at the heart of the whole play, were the identifiable characters, and, in this day and age, the identifiable problems found in all relationships. I knew people who loved it so much that they saw it twice. The play seemed especially emblematic of the entire Fringe Festival this year. And yes, it was my favourite play of the festival. Though, I will admit, up until I saw Big Sister, I didn’t think any play would be able to come close to it.

I saw a couple more traditional improv plays, one by a couple called Virginia Jack, and another noir-based improv, Ruby Rocket Returns. I saw, as the trend as been since last year, more plays run by women. In fact, my five favourite plays (Chelsey Stuyt’s The Shape of Things, Keara Barnes’s Traveltheatrics, Diana Bang’s SELFish, Sara Vickruck & Anais West’s Poly Queer Love Ballad, and, Naomi & Deborah Vogt’s Big Sister) were all female-run.

You may note that, of those five, I haven’t actually talked much about Keara Barnes and her play called Traveltheatrics. That’s because there’s another post that’s centred around my feelings about that particular play. I felt as though if I started talking about Keara as a storyteller and the substance of her play, it’d make this particular post much (MUCH) longer – I mean, it’s about travel, something I can’t stop myself from talking about for hours. It’s just another story to tell.

So now that I’ve talked about the stories of other people, I thought I’d finish the post with one of my own. Working at the info centre with either Lo, Becky or Teigan, my job was relatively simple: answer questions, sell merch, help donors (both new and current), and assist artists. I love my shifts with info centre so much, I took six shifts of it. If I could have, I’d taken every shift at info centre possible. Especially considering how well I got along with the aforementioned box office personnel (truly, the real highlight of my time at Fringe this year were my conversations with them at the Info centre).

Another one of my jobs was to answer the Info Line, Fringe’s phone line. One afternoon, an 80 year old woman called to ask about the accessibility and parking at the Firehall venue. After answering her relatively easy questions, she decided she’d tell me her life story. It turns out that she had worked for the government, she had a husband from Eastern Canada that was once a fighter pilot, and so on.

It was 10 minutes into the conversation that she said ‘oh, you know, you are such a kind man to answer all these questions and listen to me. Are you single?’

I had no idea where this was going, so I answered her ‘Yes, I am single – I don’t have a girlfriend.’

And then she replied: “Well, you know, I have a daughter. She’s incredibly beautiful and smart. She has a Masters from Stanford!’

I wasn’t sure how to get out of this, so I just said ‘Oh, wow, that’s great. She sounds remarkably smart!’.

To which she then said ‘Would you like to meet her?’.

A pause from me.

This older woman was clearly trying to play matchmaker for her daughter. I have no doubt this woman had done this before, too, as she was very good at it. I can only imagine how her daughter would feel about her mother trying to make her a match through a Festival info line.

I had to say ‘No, I’m afraid I’m too busy right now. I hope you have a great day, and enjoy the Fringe!’

To which she replied back ‘Of course, you too!’.

And that was the end of the conversation.

It was a pretty funny conversation and a great story to remember to tell during future shifts at the Fringe Festival.

I know I’ve said this before, but unless I’m seriously ill or work is just too much at the time, I will volunteer at the Fringe Festival until I die – that’s how much I love and believe in it.

I loved this year’s Fringe even more than the last two (and though I may not have seen the 16 plays I saw the first year I volunteered, I definitely beat the eight plays I saw last year.

One part of that feeling comes from being in a better head space. Another part comes from having such high calibre level plays. And frankly, another part comes from seing good people working hard to provide amazing entertainment to others.

It was a great year for the Fringe.

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