Tuesday, October 4, 2022

2022 Hamilton Fringe Festival Wrapup

Following two years of virtual and outdoor-only events, the 2022 Hamilton Fringe Festival returned this summer, with a promise to make up for lost time. At both its July 20 opening event and July 30 closing party, Festival Director Christopher Stanton announced this year’s edition was record-breaking in terms of companies, shows and venues presented during the Festival period.

Only time will tell whether this will translate into record-breaking ticket sales or not. As late as April, two thirds of audiences were either unsure, or not willing to attend events, with many stating that restricting attendance was of importance to helping them feel comfortable. With mask restrictions and proof-of-vaccination requirements were previously lifted by the province of Ontario, there was no obligation for the Fringe Festival to require either for entry to productions; however, individual venues were able to enforce their own requirements.  

While never explicitly cited, the pandemic remained prevalent in the background of this year’s Fringe Festival. Discussions on the Fringe’s internal message board had producers sharing COVID-19 policies and plans, and as the Festival continued, several shows- including early hit, Killing Time: A Game Show Musical– dropped out midway through their run. 

For those not yet ready or able to attend an indoor event, virtual productions continued to be welcome at the Fringe Festival. The Fringe also offered outdoor programming at its “Fringe Club Stage” with mixed success.  

As with past years, the Festival’s geographic scope continued to evolve. From a venue on the Mountain to the Fringe Club at Theatre Aquarius, to the Bridgeworks, the official Festival had a large footprint. With the addition of many venues added as “BYOVs” (Bring Your Own Venues), the Festival stretched from Westdale, to Upper James Street, making transit, walking and biking not possible for those eager to take in as many shows as possible. With so much distance between venues, the Festival feel of past years didn’t come together. Whether because of distance or the pandemic, few artists could be found at lines sharing information about their shows, and in conversations, regular audience members shared with me that they were choosing one or two sites to experience, rather than a greater variety. 

Fringe Awards

A total of eleven awards were distributed at the closing night party; one for each of the Fringe’s official venues, plus an award for each of the Mini-Fringe, Virtual, BYOV and Family Fringe series. These awards recognized the highest overall ticket sales in each respective category. 

An additional three awards were given for Audience Choice (voted on by Fringe audience members), Critics’ Pick (voted on by critics of the Festival) and Best in Fest (highest overall ticket sales among all live ticketed productions at the Festival).

To determine Audience Choice this year, the Fringe Festival provided a link to a jot form, allowing ticket buyers to vote when they received their ticket. However, there was no limit to the number of times a person could vote; a fact shared just prior to the close of the Audience Choice poll closing when one of a show’s directors shared on social media that the cast had been voting “hundreds of times” before each show to ensure their victory, despite only being able to accommodate less than one hundred audience members over the course of the Festival. The show, The House Key Project, subsequently won the Audience Choice Award. To ensure the integrity of future awards, the Fringe Festival would do well to provide a mechanism to restrict voting to those who are eligible to vote for audience choice.  

Physical Venues

Bridgeworks, one of the official Fringe venues, proved to be a difficult choice for audiences and performers alike. The summer heat, paired with the lack of air conditioning in the venue, resulted in extremely hot conditions at most, if not all, shows. Accessibility also was an issue, with walking instructions to the venue directing patrons through a path that was blocked, requiring audience members to hop a fence for access. The heat and accessibility issues made this venue not a safe one for audiences or performers, and it’ll be interesting to see whether the venue returns next year- or what modifications may be made in the interim to accommodate future summer productions. 

Like past years, BYOVs remained a prevalent part of the Festival, with just over a third of the Festival’s in-person shows taking place under the BYOV category. The Fringe Festival provides marketing and box office support to BYOV shows; but not a venue or technical support. Venues are also able to program or curate their own BYOV as they see fit. While this created a “dance” hub, or a hub for young creators, it also conflicts with the concept of a Fringe Festival as an event that is uncurated and determined by lottery. 

Some of the BYOVs in this year’s Festival were past “official” Fringe venues, while others were made-theatre spaces. In some ways, this shines a light on the need for more purpose-built, publicly available performance spaces in Hamilton. It also shines a light on the capacities of the Festival, who require volunteers and paid staff to support each BYOV, but are reliant on these venues to expand the Festival beyond the four “official” venues. 

Virtual Venues

Several of the “BYOVVs” (Bring Your Own Virtual Venues) were from outside of Hamilton, and even outside of Canada. One of the virtual shows noted that its Fringe appearance marked their Canadian premiere.

In terms of providing a diverse audience experience, the BYOVVs were incredibly successful. Some required specific participation (and instructions); others were a more straightforward viewing experience- and everything in between.

Less successful were the inconsistencies within the BYOVV offerings, as most were on different platforms, making accessibility tricky. While it became clear that this was a product of the show’s delivery (eg: audio only productions were available on Soundcloud or audio-only platforms), the inconsistency of access did not make for a smooth festival experience. Several shows were only available at set times, making the BYOVV option less convenient than anticipated, as they could not be accessed “on demand.” 

Regardless of the medium, it was incredible to see so many performers and companies- and so many local artists- return to the stage and screen. As promised, this was one of the biggest Festivals in recent history, and Festival organizers, audiences and artists alike were ready to make up for lost time.

Editor’s Note: In keeping in line with our values, it is noted that both the producer of End with a Kiss and writer of Whale Fall work with Beyond James.

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