The Hamilton Fringe Festival is one of the most anticipated, and flagship events of the city’s theatre community. Forced to cancel its annual two-week festival due to COVID-19, the Fringe responded with What the Fest?!, an “in your face festival. . .from (at least) six feet away.” While Fringe Festivals are historically known as a place for theatrical experimentation and unique experiences, adapting live shows for a pandemic-era festival of online performances and limited, distanced audiences allows for experimentation- and challenges- previously unimaginable. Despite this, there are some similarities connecting this year’s Festival to past iterations of the Fringe, and trends uniting this year’s cohort of artistic experimenters.

Local Love

Despite offering opportunities to all companies and artists who were expecting to participate in the 2020 Festival, and having a virtual option to accommodate out-of-town participants, the majority of shows in What the Fest?! come from Hamilton-based artists and familiar faces. In several cases, artists and local companies are offering several shows during What the Fest?!, allowing audiences to attend multiple productions from the same troupe. Femmepire, for example, offers performances as part of both the Stream Out Loud (When Karen Met Katniss) and Skip the Glitches (Femmetastic (on the lawn)) series, while members of the Hamilton 7 are behind < inboks / outboks > and Lullabies for Tiny Spaces.

For local audiences, this provides an incredible opportunity to see and support favourite artists, and for those in multiple shows, to witness their theatrical range in a short span of time. However, it may limit the number of new faces that audiences will be exposed to- minimizing the fun of the Fringe that discovers previously unknown faces and talents.

The Visual Fringe and Shorts Showcase, which have come to be stand-alone aspects of the Festival also follow suit, with Hamilton artists being prominently featured.

Theatre for All

The Fringe Festival has made incredible efforts to be at the forefront of the arts in Hamilton in terms of accessibility and social justice. This is aided by the Fringe’s goal of promising unjuried content, allowing the words and vision of an artist to be conveyed directly to their audience. Additionally, the Hamilton Fringe has explicit categories to encourage and promote artists of colour or those with disabilities to ensure diverse voices have an opportunity to be heard.

This work is continuing through What the Fest?!, which has included underrepresented voices like Karma Kameleon (presented by the House of Adam and Steve) and 2020 Disability Justice winner Just Look Normal Productions in its Fringe Club; Blackberry (Red Betty Theatre) into Skip the Glitches, and young theatre creators from the Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts Creation Collective in NOW as part of the Stream Out Loud series.

Ticket pricing structure has also been dramatically altered for this new festival format. With tickets as low as two dollars, the Fringe has ensured that anyone with internet access is able to tune in. And for those where it still might be a stretch, the Fringe Club (which mixes live and online activities) is always free.

Long Live the Mini Series

The Hamilton Fringe’s Gallery Series originated with short performances in a number of centrally-located art galleries. The series evolved to eventually present works in a single location (Tourism Hamilton in 2019), but still keeping the length of each production under twenty-minutes. This format allowed artists to try out new concepts on an interested audience, experiment with characters, or enjoy performing a work that they felt could not be developed into a full-length piece.

In What the Fest?!, almost all performances run thirty-minutes or less. Waiting For Mark (Haven Theatre) and radio-play Sarah/Frank (Minmar Gaslight Productions) in the Stream out Loud Series are the longest offerings in the festival, each just over thirty-minutes each.  For those who experience a large number of Zoom calls in a day, or are familiar with Zoom fatigue, these shorter works are an optimal length. For those missing a full-length performance experience, thirty-minutes may feel too short- particularly in the curbside delivery of Skip the Glitches, which require the shorter length to travel to multiple spaces over the course of an evening. It will be interesting and exciting to watch how performers choose to utilize the short amount of time for their work, rather than the standard sixty- or ninety-minute length the Fringe typically requires.

Group Efforts

One-person shows are a staple of Fringe Festivals. These shows really shine when the performer is also a gifted storyteller who not only shares their journey with the audience, but also brings them along for the ride. There are a few examples of this within What the Fest?!, notably 3B Virtual Piano Bar Series (Great Blue Dram) and Conspiracy of Michael (Same Boat Theatre), where the show’s creator is also the only performer.

However, solo shows at What the Fest?! are at a minimum- perhaps a signal that performers, like many audiences, are tired of spending the pandemic in isolation. Instead, collaborative efforts, both onstage and off are heavily featured. The Fringe Festival itself leads by example, kicking off What the Fest?! with an online Fringe Club that showcases the organizing team and Festival artists. Other Fringe Club partnerships include events with Collective Arts Brewery, Hub of the Hammer and Supercrawl.

While all three Skip the Glitches performances are troupe efforts, Open Heart’s I Really Wish You Knew Me promises music in addition to a dramatic piece, written and performed by its collective. Those interested in bringing this production to their home may be disappointed, as the run has sold out before the Festival has opened- but is available to be viewed by streaming on demand. In Stream Out Loud, Prairie Odyssey (Bon Mots Productions), Bad Ideas Too (Notapom Productions) and Strange Bedfellows (Rivers Productions) all demonstrate that it takes a team to build and execute a show.

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