Fringe Preview: Tent Talks – “Theatre is Dead…Long Live Theatre!”

A preview of the Toronto Fringe Festival Tent Talks and the burgeoning discussion on the importance of the indie theatre community

“Theatre is dead…Long Live Theatre!” may seem like a self-contradictory theme for this year’s Fringe Tent Talks (yes, it’s a pun on Ted Talks), but as Claire Wynveen, the Creation Lab Coordinator at the festival tells me, it echoes a dominant sentiment in the industry today.

Nobody should be surprised that the arts are struggling, and theatre is no exception. Most creative industries are increasingly difficult to break into, and a challenging existence once you’ve accomplished that much. However, the juxtaposition of the doomsday type sentiment with the toil that goes into many of these performances, and the increasing attendance at Fringe is very real and apparent.

“There’s something neat in this positive spin on the pessimism,” says Wynveen. “We’re constantly reading about the struggles of a lot of the theatres in our community, but we see our audiences growing and growing every year.”

These hour-long panel events are an opportunity from people at different ends of the industry to connect and share opinions, beginning a conversation, which can only help us move forward and improve. “It’s a great way to just level the playing field between the indie emerging artists and the people who are making big time decisions in the community,” she says. “We’re engaging with the hot topics of the year and trying to be a little bit sassy with them.”

Besides the “Theatre is Dead” tent talk, a definite highlight of this year’s Fringe Club programming is the “How Indie is Going to Save Theatre” discussion, to be led by Fringe Executive Director Gideon Arthurs. This will highlight the positivity in the indie community, the source of much of the momentum driving theatre forward today.

“A lot of the people who’re doing shows at the Fringe will rehearse till 3 in the morning, they’ll rehearse in their own living room, they’re driven and they’re passionate and they really care about theatre,” she says, “so that talk will be about how those people are going to save this community.” This is also Arthurs’ last year as executive director so that will be his opportunity to reflect on how things have changed over the last five years.

The festival has extended its focus into the future of theatre by launching a new youth program this year called the 100, consisting of 100 young people between the age of 17 and 24. On their application they were asked how they personally would save theatre – which gives the opportunity for fresh perspectives, and looking forward rather than backward.

“There’s going to be this group of people who are going to graduate from university and get out there into the industry and shake it up and mix it up and we think that’s a really optimistic thing,” she says, “we want them to tell us why does theatre suck for them, why did they hate theatre in high school and what was that thing that changed their mind.”

Fringe exists for and is all about the theatre community, so it’s great to see them examining things that could help their industry move forward into our increasingly digital future. Like many areas in the arts, it may not be a question of theatre dying, but perhaps something more Darwinian: their ability to adapt. It may be (hopefully) that theatre’s not as dead as some may think.