Are you experienced?
You’ve had 25 years to get experienced if you’ve been alive that long. If not, make this the first year you swim in the sea of madness that is the Montreal Fringe Festival. Dip your toe in and try a free event at Fringe Park (Rachel and St. Laurent). Wade in a little further and buy a ticket to a show (we’ll have some sure-bets here in coming days). Dive in with a 10-pack pass or go full monty with a superpass. If you can hold your breath long enough, stay awake for the 13th hour every night.
At my first fringe show (or maybe it was my 10th… but it sounds so much better to say it was my first), I saw Amy Blackmore naked (or maybe it was topless) with cat ears on in HardCore Pussy. I called my only two theatre-going slightly pervy friends in the city at the time to report that they should buy tickets stat. “She was about a foot in front of me,” I reported. Clearly, I’d not spent any time in a Montreal strip club or I’d have realized this was not as weird as it seemed at the time.
Now, years later and only ever seen with clothes on (by me, that is. I can’t speak for others), Amy Blackmore is both the Fringe Festival and Mainline Theatre’s Executive and Artistic Director. Just as Blackmore has grown into this role and the festival itself expanded, my appreciation and devotion for this festival has only increased exponentially.
Blackmore explains that the Fringe is and always has been about promoting the artists. “We’re organized by artists, for artists. We’re artists ourselves,” she says and explains how her own path into Fringe began as a volunteer at age 17. “I quickly fell in love with the community aspect of it, the all-inclusiveness of it. All different people of different ages were involved and I remember being 17 and thinking ‘Wow, people care about what I have to say.'” Then she adds, “It’s not an unfamiliar story for lots of people who do it.”
The Fringe Festival is the biggest project run by the not-for-profit organization that also handles the MainLine Theatre. The actual theatre space was acquired in 2005, but the corporation started in 1991. Its mandate is generating new audiences for theatre and performance, while facilitating affordable and sustainable opportunities for artists.
Over 25 years, the Montreal Fringe Festival has grown, in part by developing areas that make it unique from other fringes. In comparison with others on the Fringe circuit, Blackmore notes that it is multi-disciplinary. “Not all, but many other Fringes are focused heavily on theatre,” she says. “Ours includes a strong dance component and music component. This year, we have a lot of circus acts. Our visual art component is unique.” In fact, this year, that visual art has is a six-day exhibition at the MAI. She also notes that “There’s a whole francophone component to it now and that’s amazing. The cross pollination of cultures is important.”
Another feature that distinguishes the Montreal Fringe is how easy it is to get from venue to venue, taking in all the different types of performance and visual arts on display. “There are days where you can hang out at the MAI and go and see a show there, then go look at artwork, then go and see another show at Black Theatre Workshop. There are mini hubs all over the place. We try to make it easy for people,” Blackmore says.
To celebrate the big two-five, there are plenty of anniversary events. There will be a “silver” reunion party on June 19. Uncalled For are doing a double header of their biggest Fringe hits: Hypnogogic Logic and It’s All Your Birthdays.
I ask Blackmore if she manages to make it to the Thirteenth Hour, a post-performance party that takes place nightly at 1 a.m. “I go to every single one,” she says. “It’s definitely where staff and artists and media and the public gets together and parties.” She mentions that Al LaFrance will be hosting every 13th Hour event with a different co-host.
Blackmore praises the volunteers too. “Once everything starts, our volunteers are the lifeblood of the festival. We rely on them. They are overnight security. They sell tickets to the show.” She tells a story about how the Uncalled For guys used to guard the beer tent overnight.
“Guard the beer tent?” I ask. “People hang out overnight at the Parc? You don’t pack everything up?”
As it turns out, there’s a Fringe beneath the Fringe, or what Blackmore refers to as “the hardcore fringe.” “These are the lifelong volunteers who come year after year and make the hardcore fringe happen and do those shifts. They even pass on knowledge of the Fringe to us. Every year, I get reminded about the history of the fringe and how things were at one point, and why we made changes,” she explains. “Some festivals have a specific artistic direction with an artistic director who leads the charge. My job isn’t to sell people what they should think about art. It’s about holding up the integrity of our festival and passing it on.”
In particular, its missions are that “Everyone has a right to make art, which is why [shows are selected] by lottery. There’s no limit on what we allow, which allows both some gems and some terrible shows come through. Artists deserve to keep 100% of their box office take. We’re the only festival that does that. We keep the tickets affordable. My job is to make sure that that is always the case.”
I ask if Blackmore gets to see shows. “It depends on the year if I get to see stuff. If everything goes well, I’ll see about 20 shows. There have been years where I only see five. You never know what will happen when you run a festival and everything has happened — criminal activity outside the venue, fire alarms that go off during a show. Once the beer tent flooded and we had to save all the equipment.”
I ask her if there’s a moment she describes as the highlight. She goes through a few. “It starts on Monday with Fringe For All… but the day that most of the shows really get going and things get hectic is Friday the 12. My favorite thing to do at 6:05 on Friday, when all the shows just started, and the walkie talkie chatter is going, I just sit on side street by myself and listen to the chatter and go ‘Aah, it’s okay.'”
The Montreal Fringe Festival starts June 1 with the Fringe for All at Cafe Campus (57 Prince Arthur E) at 7 p.m. Free. For more events, click HERE.