Optimistically Cautious

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Fringe Opinions: Fringe Festival Town Hall

I seriously considered abandoning Anna on Monday night. With the choice to either return home on a frigid evening or brave the cold and head to the Arts Barns in Old Strathcona, the former was without a doubt the more inviting option. Still, I didn’t want to go back on my word, so I bundled up after work and headed to the Town Hall Meeting organized by the Board and staff of Fringe Theatre Adventures. Advertised as a means to gather comments and suggestions from artists, volunteers and patrons, among other stakeholders, Anna and I were banking on some intense drama to arise from the perceived “us versus them” mentality between the Administration and the “Other”.

After checking in, Anna and I joined about 40 other people seated in the Westbury Theatre. A brief welcome and introductions of the Board quickly led to a description of the meeting format. Al Parsons, Vice President of the Board, would recognize up to four people per round of speakers, each entitled to a three minute comment. The pre-selected topics included: 1) Ticket process and procedure; 2) Grounds and site; 3) Volunteer issues; and 4) Other (the catch-all basin).

I suppose I shouldn’t really comment on the lack of attendance by certain parties who had heavily criticized the new ticketing procedure in the media, as I really wasn’t there to do anything more than passively observe the proceedings, but I was still expecting a larger presence from Edmonton’s artistic heavyweights. That said, there was quite the breadth of representation in the group, from past and current volunteers, patrons, vendors, media (Liz Nicholls and Colin McLean) and a handful of artists (including Fringe favorite Kenneth Brown).

Over the course of the evening, a theme emerged from a majority of the comments - artists and volunteers felt that the Fringe had stopped being about them. These two groups felt ignored, undervalued, and couldn't see themselves represented in Board leadership. From the jilted ex-volunteer Team Lead who claimed he repeated the same ideas of improvement year after year with no results, to the artists who resented not only the inability to usher in last-minute ticket sales at the door, but also having the opportunity to market through posters and handbilling patrons at the beer tents withdrawn.

Some less obvious effects of top-down decisions were made clear by the green onion cake and mini doughnut vendors, and provided a perspective I had never before considered. When the busker circles were moved away from their stands, they noticed a significant difference in their profits. When they approached staff about the changes to the site layout, they were confused with the response that "vendors had requested that their areas remain congestion free." The vendors had already met amongst themselves and decided unanimously that more traffic ultimately meant more business potential.

Along with the very vocal opinions were several good suggestions from the audience. While everyone expressed that the online ticketing system was a plus, changes had to be made. For example, setting up two lines at the advance ticketing booths (one for express pick up and the other for general purchases). As well, a percentage of tickets should be held at the door (10-25%), or, at a set time before the show, all unsold tickets should be returned to the door (a tactic that would make better use of otherwise drifting Front of House volunteers).

Ken Brown, the penultimate speaker, really stayed with me, and not just because of his status in the Edmonton theatre community. He had been involved since the first Festival, he said, and in the last 25 years, last year's Fringe was the worst in his entire experience. He even essentially offered a thinly veiled threat that if something drastic wasn't done, he would be taking his "gems" elsewhere.

At the end of the meeting, the Board President actually read from a prepared statement, but did end it with an improvised note that the Board would take the issues expressed into consideration, and as standard for such an administration, would produce a report in a few months with recommendations.

For the sake of the Festival, one that has grown to such prosperity and currently maintains a worldwide reputation for great theatre, an inclusive philosophy, and an atmosphere unrivalled in North America, it would be a shame if last year's changing of the guard results in a continued downward spiral.

At any rate, I will be eagerly looking forward to The Big Kahuna, and not just for the plays.

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