Facing its 30 year anniversary, Montreal’s spring-summer theatrical highlight, the Montreal Fringe Festival, was ready to par-tay in 2020. But, then a metaphoric Spanish Inquisition (Monty Python style): pandemic, quarantine, social distancing, all that. Verboten: dance, theatre, really anything performative with audiences indoors. What’s a Fringe Festival to do? Do you say a Hail Mary and hope for a miracle? Civil disobedience? The team behind Montreal’s Fringe decided to postpone because 30 is too big of an anniversary to skip. But the Fringe gang isn’t the sort to have a summer pass with no activities. Instead, Montreal won’t have a Fringe. It will have a This Is Not a Fringe Festival: Ceci n’est pas un Fringe.
This Is Not a Fringe Festival is 11 days of online activities that embody the spirit and and general format of typical Fringe. Amy Blackmore, Executive and Artistic director of the Fringe Festival and the Mainline Theatre, talks about how this shadow festival was conceived and run.
In the wake of the COVID pandemic, two seasonally earlier Fringe Festivals that are held under the mandate of the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals (an international organization despite the name) didn’t happen. Orlando cancelled its Fringe Festival, but held some online activities, and London postponed its Fringe to the fall.
“It’s such an important part of my life from spring into summer, and a kick off for so many folks for summer,” says Blackmore. She emphasizes that the impact on the community of cancelling the Fringe would be especially disappointing. “It’s been a tough spring for everyone, including us at the Mainline Theatre when we closed the doors on March 15. That was a difficult moment for us and for our community. We realized we needed to offer something else because the Fringe has been a beacon of light for so many people over the years, not only in that it’s an arts festival, but also a community festival.”
With a desire to stay engaged with its community, the Fringe team began to think about how to hold a festival while facing problems such as not pressuring people to attend or participate and the overall energy level and mood of both performers and audiences. The goal became to focus on what was important to the Fringe, scale it down, and gather around ideas that they were excited about.
To the Fringe team, though, they also knew that certain components make a Fringe festival a Fringe festival. “The truth is without the artists, without the lottery, and the no censorship policy, it’s not a Fringe festival,” says Blackmore. “Then it hit us, it’s not a Fringe festival. So we decided to roll with that and we put together online activities and socially distanced activities, so people can have a taste of the spirit of the Fringe.” Ceci n’est pas un Fringe is the result. Blackmore notes that the This Is Not a Fringe Festival will have many elements in common with the Fringe. “It’s definitely multi-disciplinary and bilingual.”
Blackmore explains further, “The beauty of this event, or not the beauty, the interesting part about how this was conceived, is we’ve all been inventing it all as we go. It’s such a different experience for all of us.” For example, events are curated, rather than awarded by lottery. She also notes that there are some advantages they can leverage with the online programming. Ceci n’est pas un Fringe can engage its community globally as well as have performers from different countries. Not only does this mean new community members, but anyone who has moved to the west coast or even another country can be present for events as they happen.
In order to adjust, the Fringe team has to double down on its tech skills. Putting events online is involved. “I’m so tech right now and I used to not be,” says Blackmore. “It’s learning about the culture of seeing things on line and thinking about it. How long should events be? What time of day? What about people with kids? It’s forced us to think about the choices we’ve been making and knowing that things might pivot again, and being able to go with that.”
Blackmore talks about some of the things to expect at Ceci n’est pas un Fringe and the list is lengthy. There is a kick off with an online concert on Facebook. Then there will be events that include lip sync bingo and crowd karaoke.
In place of the daily performances in a variety venues, there will be a Daily Dose, which includes challenges and videos. Local choreographers, magicians, and storytelling will be featured each day. In particular, le Festival tout tout court are creating a series of online challenges, getting people not just to consume art but to make it as well.
One of the best things about all of it is that familiar faces are present. Among those to expect are Nisha Coleman, Derrick Chung, Helen Simard, and Allison Elizabeth Burns will be participating. Internationally, Cameron Moore will be hosting a Smut Slam from Berlin.
According to Blackmore, each event will take place on the platform that “is the best medium for it.” Some things will be on Facebook, some on Youtube, some on Zoom, and possibly others. “Here’s the thing, and this is important to me,” she says. “Not everyone knows how to use this stuff. Everyone is still figuring out.” In order to help people access all these events, Blackmore says the Fringe is releasing videos on how to use these online tools and is running a phone-in help line that will always have someone on the other end to help with access.
An especially interesting thing is how the Fringe is going to try and reach out to those who are unable to participate online. The Fringe Postcard project is planning to send out 2500 postcards with the bee logo and a poem on the other side of the card created by a volunteer. “There are a good dozen organizations, like the Mile End Mission, who are helping us connect with folks who aren’t able to join us online. We still want to give them a piece of the Fringe,” Blackmore says.
Finally, there’s the 13th hour, the legendary late night show where the entire community gets together. “Definitely,” says Blackmore. “There will be a variety of 13th hour events and gatherings. But are we all gonna be down to hang out at 1 a.m.?” Instead, they’re looking at an alternative time.
Blackmore is optimistic that the This Is Not a Fringe Festival will help people feel the Fringe spirit even if it isn’t exactly the way it usually is. “I’m just excited and hopeful for this event,” she says. “I think people will be able to get into the Spirit of the Fringe. We’re going to do it even though we’re Fringing differently. We can all get our Fringe on.”
Ceci n’est pas un Fringe takes place June 11 – 21. Tickets are on sale now. Tickets and information can be found on the website HERE.