Five Rules to Break at Fringe

The first rule of Toronto’s Fringe theatre festival is not to follow any

The notion of there being a “proper” way to “do” Fringe is odd, right? Here’s a festival dedicated to independent and outside-the-box arts: how can you possibly have rules? Doesn’t that completely miss the point?

But the truth is that, yes: Fringe has rules. And not just rules about sex in the beer tent. There are unspoken rules: things we all do, patterns to our behaviour, assumptions we all make.

And some of these unspoken rules are very, very silly.


Rule 1: Stand in line to get a good seat.

If there’s one thing people know about optimal Fringe technique, it’s the importance of standing in line. Do you want to get a bad seat? Of course not: so get there early, and stay put!

This advice is completely, completely wrong.

A typical Fringe venue might seat 30 people. In a venue that small, there aren’t any bad seats. In fact, if you can keep a secret, the best seats for most Fringe shows are right down in the very front row–and people usually avoid them like the plague!

So why are you standing around in the sun? You’re in the Annex! The neighbourhood’s bursting at the seams with book stores, art galleries, coffee shops, neat little parks, discount stores, and pleasant, leafy streets which are just perfect for idle wandering.

You might need to wait in a line to get a ticket. And Fringe never seats latecomers, so you absolutely must be back at the venue a few minutes before the curtain. But once you’ve got your ticket, go explore! Go taste! Go read, go gaze, go walk, go do literally anything but stand around waiting for the doors to open. You’ll thank yourself later.



Rule 2: The programme is a one-stop guide to the festival.

The dirty little secret of Fringe is that a lot of companies have no clue what they’re doing. Because the Toronto festival chooses participants through a lottery, there’s no quality-control. And this creates some unexpected results.

Now, some participants bring a full show to the Fringe: in many cases, they’ve been nursing a project for months, years, or even decades. Maybe it’s already toured to other cities; maybe it’s even already been in the Toronto festival. These people are fully-prepared, and the information they provide to the Festival will be full and complete.

But some participants, well. They have an idea for a show: a neat title, a brief description, but nothing more. And they win the lottery! But now the real work begins. In a little over seven months, that idea has to advance from a title and a description to an honest-to-goodness show–and the finished product doesn’t always resemble what they thought they would produce when they entered the lottery.

In choosing shows to see, theatregoers absolutely must read beyond the programme. The progamme’s a great guide, but if you want to get a handle on where a production actually stands, how it might have changed during the development process, and–above all else–what you’re actually going to see on that stage, you need outside sources. Press releases, websites, Facebook pages, posters, postcards, reviews, any source you can get your hands on will be useful.



Rule 3: Fringe with friends.

Don’t get me wrong: I love friends. Friends are great.

But friends don’t always have the same taste, and the worst thing you can do to yourself during Fringe is endure a lousy show that you never wanted to see and knew you were going to hate on the basis that your friend wanted to catch it. Don’t do that yourself, and–more importantly–don’t do it to your friends.

This doesn’t mean you get to break social rules: ditching someone for a few hours is still going to leave a dent in the friendship. But if this is a common problem for you, set aside an evening or an afternoon just for you: just for the shows you want to see. There’s nothing shameful in going to the theatre by yourself, and you aren’t “cheating” on your Fringe-crazy friends by taking a personal day.

Friends are still great. Fringing with friends is still great, too. But don’t just Fringe with friends. Taking some time off to fly solo will do you a world of good.



Rule 4: If it got a bad review, skip it.

In every Fringe season, there are three types of shows:

  • A small number of “good” shows: shows which appeal to a large, broad audience; shows which everyone can relate to, and which everyone seems to love; shows which are polished and well-executed; shows which are totally ready for prime time.
  • A small number of “bad” shows: shows which, for whatever reason, simply aren’t ready for an audience: deeply offensive or insensitive; catastrophically under-rehearsed; merely dull.
  • massive (massive!) number of shows in between.

A good critic can help you identify the good and bad shows–but when it comes to in-between, you’re on your own.

A typical Fringe performance will consist of either one or two performers who also wrote, directed and designed the show. This means that Fringe theatre is extremely, extremely personal. If you like the performer, you’ll also like the director, the writer and the designer because they’re the same person. And if you hate the performer, you’re probably going to hate the entire show.

And I do mean “like” in a very visceral way. If you can relate to that person, if you understand where they’re coming from, if their approach to the show appeals to you, then you’re going to love the show, even if other people seem unimpressed.

Conversely, if you have a visceral distaste for the performer–if you just don’t get it–then you’re probably going to have a bad experience, even if everyone else is raving about it.

“Winning” at Fringe involves optimizing the number of shows you loved while minimizing the shows you hated. Don’t rely entirely on critics to make that distinction for you: remember, Fringe is personal, and you’re the only one who knows your own taste.



Rule 5: See as much as you can.

If you’re anything like my mother, your approach to Fringe goes like this: pick up your programme, take out your highlighter, and go to town. Mark that programme like it’s a colouring book.

Then whip out your day planner and get scheduling. Build in bathroom breaks. Account for travel time. But, above all else, shows! Shows! Gotta see all these shows! Schedule until things get so tight that you won’t have time to breathe. 11 AM to midnight, HERE WE GO!

I love my mother dearly, but she’s missing out.

Virtually every arts festival in the city has “outside” events: beer gardens, openings, closings, speeches, panel discussions, meet-and-greets, and–in the case of Fringe–drunken yoga.

And for all the emphasis that these festivals usually place on inclusivity and being open to the public, in general these events tend to subtly exclude not only non-artists, but anyone who isn’t within the specific clique which forms around that specific festival.

Fringe isn’t like that. At all.

If you don’t go to Honest Ed’s Alley with some friends, you’re missing out. If you don’t wander through the Annex, looking at books or giggling at the hipsters or even just stretching your legs between performances, you’re missing out. If you skip Visual Fringe altogether, you’re missing out. And if you spend half the festival chasing streetcars because you’ve overscheduled yourself, you’re really missing out.

See shows. Please. Your artistic community needs you, and the shows are the point of the exercise. But don’t forget to build time into your schedule to relax; to have a nice, leisurely meal rather than stuffing a slice of cold pizza into your mouth as you rush off to your next venue; to finish that novel you’ve been reading; and to gawp at the naked Australians.

If you need a PDA to keep track of your “appointments”, you’re doing Fringe all wrong. No matter how badly you want to see a show, it’s running for 11 days: you can afford to catch it later. Relax! Breathe! Enjoy!


Images by, top to bottom:

(Personal: Forgive me, mom.)

5 thoughts on “Five Rules to Break at Fringe”

  1. Rule 3: Fringe with friends.

    If you go to a show alone, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll make new friends, too.

  2. One benefit of standing in line though? Getting to hear the buzz about other Fringe shows. What people liked, what they didn’t, and, unlike a review, you get to ask questions about why.

    The questions part requires talking to people though. Personally, I’m often not into talking to people. So I just eavesdrop. (you’ve been warned people standing around me talking about shows who happen to have read this comment!)

  3. There is one benefit to standing in line for James & Jamesy’s show 2 for Tea – We serve tea to all the patrons before the show! Bring a teacup, because we always run out of fine china.

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