For many, the Hamilton Fringe Festival has become a treasured summer tradition. And although this summer may look a little different than past years, the Fringe Festival is determined to try to keep the tradition of summer theatre alive and well for Hamilton audiences.

Following the April 7 announcement that the 2020 edition of the Fringe Festival would be cancelled, Festival organizers held a virtual town hall meeting earlier this week for artists who had planned their summers around the 2020 Festival.

“We wanted to kick around ideas and have a brainstorming session,” Festival Director Chris Stanton said of the town hall. “And see who, if anyone was interested in other formats or who would be interested in exploring things with us.”

Stanton is clear that anything that the Festival may produce this year will look extremely different than anything the Fringe has produced in the past. However, he insists that whatever does get planned by the Festival will stay true to the essence of the organization’s work.

“No matter how we think of it, it won’t be a Fringe Festival.” He acknowledged. “But how do you take the spirit of it and adapt it for the age of COVID?”

Complicating the uncertainty around theatre-making in the age of COVID-19 are the public gathering restrictions that may change between now and the time any event takes place. Venues are still shuttered, leaving artists without rehearsal spaces. In addition to logistical challenges, the Festival is still awaiting confirmation of its funding from both the City of Hamilton’s Enrichment Fund and provincial program Celebrate Ontario. In 2019, the Festival received over $134,000 from these two sources alone, representing approximately twenty-five percent of the organization’s annual budget.

But the Fringe Festival is ready to dream with artists about what may be possible. Stanton cited the idea of virtual performances, porch performances (where audiences can watch from a safe distance) or even performances at a drive-in theatre, where audiences can watch from the comfort of their car. While artists may not be able to reimagine their previously planned Fringe show for these formats, new opportunities may emerge- which is part of the Fringe fun, notes Stanton.

In addition to creating performance opportunities for local theatre artists, the Festival is also exploring ways to continue the momentum of its successful Fringe Club programming that exists each year alongside the festival. An online Fringe Club experience could encompass classes or parties that participants could engage in from the comfort of their own home while also allowing for the creative and spontaneous interactions that the Club has become known for.

Next steps are still uncertain. Artists on the call expressed concern about monetizing their work in new formats, and whether artists or audiences will be comfortable in gathering together.

Technology was also a concern cited on the call, according to Stanton. However, he noted the prospect of collaboration in this manner, as one individual on the call who had knowledge in streaming and digital platforms offered to share their knowledge on a later call. In this way, the Fringe may be able to assist and connect local artists together for professional development.

“The learning curve (in technical support) is incredible,” Stanton noted. “A lot of these artists are interested in learning about the platforms and tech and how to navigate these platforms in an artistic and interesting way.”  

Despite what programming may emerge for this year, it is likely that the Fringe Festival will face a significant deficit for this fiscal year, which will also be felt by the artists who were scheduled to perform. All of the box office revenue earned at the Fringe is passed on directly to the artists involved, while the Fringe collects donations at the door and funding through its Fringe “backer button” to support their ongoing operations. This is an ongoing concern for all arts organizations in Canada, where it is estimated that over seventy million dollars are lost weekly in ticket sales due to COVID-19.

Even with this gap, Stanton noted that there was a hunger from local artists to come together and collaborate, and that the Fringe was eager to support. Even coming together in a conference call format was much appreciated by the artists involved, and Stanton promises that the first one won’t be the last.

“We want to do something. We want to support people in some way, shape or form. But the capacity is up in the air.”

*Editor’s note: This article has been amended after publishing to include quotes from Chris Stanton.

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