The coronavirus isn’t stopping the Hamilton Fringe Festival from celebrating theatre and theatre artists in Hamilton.

Following their official announcement in April that the 2020 edition would be cancelled, Festival staff began working quietly behind the scenes to determine how they could share the spirit of Hamilton’s signature theatre festival with local audiences. Meetings were held with participants in the 2020 Festival to gauge interest and concerns in what a different type of event might contain. The only remaining piece of the puzzle was whether the Festival’s funding would be confirmed if the event didn’t take place as originally conceived.

“A lot of artists responded with great ideas for shows.” Festival Director Chris Stanton said of the process. “As soon as we got word that we had funding, the starting pistol sounded, and we hit the runway.”

The result is What the Fest?! a new iteration of the Festival that organizers promise will embrace the spirit of the Fringe, but with precautions in place to recognize the special circumstances of this year. What the Fest?! will take place from July 21 – 26, 2020.

Unlike the traditional festival, which in past years has contained over fifty different performances, often with origins from around the world, this year’s festival will contain three separate components; a virtual Fringe Club; a digital series called Stream Out Loud; and Skip the Glitches, which promises shows delivered to audiences’ doorsteps.

“It’s been incredible to watch everyone come together, reimagine what we can do, work within the constraints of what we’ve got and support people going forward.” Stanton acknowledged. “The Hamilton Fringe is such an integral part of the performing community in Hamilton.”

Veteran audiences will recognize the Fringe Club and its eclectic programming. Like past years, the Club will serve as a central gathering place for artists and audiences alike. Keeping in the spirit of the Fringe and the priorities of the Hamilton Festival, engagement with artists and audiences is a key focus. The spirit of the Fringe is also maintained through the presentation of unjuried performances and the payment of artists, who will continue to receive 100% of box office proceeds.

Otherwise, this year’s Festival will look a little different with a combination of online and physical events, although Stanton noted that there is an offering for everyone. Skip the Glitches offers small audiences a physical, live performance that can be performed in an outdoor space for those who miss an in-person theatrical experience. The Fringe’s final offering, Stream Out Loud will feature over a dozen different performances scheduled throughout the six-day festival with shows lasting up to thirty minutes in length.

Stanton acknowledged that by embracing a different format, this year’s Fringe Festival is what he calls an “artistic experiment.” However, like any experiment, the Hamilton Fringe has done a lot of planning and research in preparation for What the Fest?!. The organizing team has been in frequent contact with the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals, whose members are also exploring other formats, providing great learning for the Hamilton Fringe team.  Stanton is quick to note that if successful, What the Fest?! or elements of it may become a regular occurrence in future Fringe Festivals.

“Rather than looking at this as a one-off and that it’s just because of COVID, I think everyone is excited to take this learning forward and reach new audiences through digital initiatives. If something works, we are willing to integrate it into the larger festival.”

For those Festival performers who were chosen to participate in the 2020 Fringe Festival, but unable to, they have been provided the opportunity to present their show in next year’s Festival. This includes many of the partnerships the Fringe has built in recent years, including with the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion and the Disability Justice Network, both of whom supported diverse artists through mentorships, producing support and a cash bursary. These ongoing efforts, Stanton noted, are a critical part of the Fringe’s efforts to ensure representation in the programming and organization of the Festival to build a safe and inclusive place for people to explore their work.

Tickets, passes and detailed programming information for What the Fest?! can be found on the Fringe Festival’s website.

What the Fest?! Programming Highlights

Virtual Fringe Club
Following the success of past years collaborative programming, the Fringe Club is moving to a completely online format. Similar to past years, the Fringe Club will offer a central hub and gathering place for participants and audiences to interact while also featuring a variety of programming, including networking opportunities, social hours, family activities, panels, and music performances.

Stream Out Loud
The Fringe’s digital series will offer a daily dose of the festival, featuring the eclectic ticketed performances that the Festival is known for. Unlike the traditional physical festival, multiple performances will not take place simultaneously; instead, performances will be scheduled concurrently, ensuring that audience members don’t have conflicts when building their ideal schedule. However, like the traditional festival, audiences can purchase tickets to a single show, or a festival pass for savings.

Skip the Glitches
Physical shows on demand offer audience members the opportunity to prebook a performance that will be delivered to their sidewalk, driveway or other outdoor space. Upon arrival, the show begins, with artists performing live and in-person from a safe distance. These portable shows offer the opportunity for a small audience of families, neighbours or friends to come together as restrictions allow to share in the theatre experience together.

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