4 Things We Liked (And 3 Things We Didn’t) At The 2014 Toronto Fringe

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We Liked 100% Presale. This was the most financially-successful Toronto Fringe Festival in recent memory, with artist revenues skyrocketing and a record number of sellout performances. Every festival has their winners and losers: for every company who raked in a few thousand bucks, someone else lost their shirt. But that’s the nature of the beast — and never before have there been so many winners.

We Disliked 100% Presale. The presale policy was fantastic for the artists, but angry Tweets and indignant queue-chatter both suggest that the resultant parade of SOLD OUT signs has left plenty of theatregoers with 10-packs burning holes in their pockets and beefs to pick with the festival. Maybe there’s a sweet spot between 50% and 100%; maybe Fringe should sell rush tickets next year (10 names on the comp list, but only 2 showed up? Why aren’t you selling those 8 seats? [editorial clarification: If someone is on a comp list the spot can be released and ticket sold. However, if they have been issued a *physical* comp ticket – for instance a member of the media – their spot can *not* be released unless they have been able to notify ticketing in advance. The feeling seems to be their empty seat, visible by a final check before closing the doors, should be up for grabs by waiting list folks. – Megan Mooney]); maybe Fringe just needs to do a better job communicating which shows are sold out. But however they repair this damage, Fringe has to get on it soon.

We Liked The Sideshows. 2014 was the year FringeKids grew up, acquiring an all-day activity centre with plenty of attractions for smallfolk and their parents. While there have been some bumps and lessons to be learned, we’re pleased with the result — and not just because they let us play in the bouncy castle.

We’re also thrilled to see the AlleyPlays really hit their stride, with a whole array of experiential and personal theatrical adventures. We met HP Lovecraft; we got blowjob tips from a clown; we flipped a table; and we loved every minute of it.

And while we’ll only have Ed’s Alley for two more years (or if we’re *really* lucky, maybe three), the Fringe Club remains one of the highlights of our summer. Where else can you party all night at an underground rave, play bingo with Dolly Parton, sample an always-fresh selection of local restaurants, and spend an hour or two catching up with friends — and fawning over our favourite artists — while surrounded by all the colour, energy and good vibes that the Fringe Club inevitably attracts?

We Disliked The Al Green Theatre. While the location is ideal, this venue’s a real doozy, with a stage so massive you can drown in it, and a huge gaping maw between the stage and the front row. (For context, the back row of the Annex Theatre is closer to its stage than the front row of the Al Green. Oh dear!) It’s a fine way to see a full-flight song-&-dance musical, but trying to watch a one-hander or a tender drama in this space left us cold and disengaged: it’s hard to connect with a Fringe performance when you need opera glasses to see the actor’s face.

We Liked The Dialogue. Between a full slate of Tent Talks, the usual blog-based pot-stirring, and the penny-for-your-thoughts conversations which break out all over the Fringe, this turned out to be one of the most dialogue-heavy festivals we can remember. Even the Twitter arguments were better than usual, especially a massive bust-up over trigger warnings which will doubtless have an impact on policy and decision-making at future festivals. The theatre community tends to talk a lot about the importance of talking; this summer, it felt like we got over that and started having some important conversations.

We Disliked Misbehaving Patrons. Did you hear about the guy who was turned away from a show (No Latecomers!), so he pulled the fire alarm? Or about the grandmother who reduced a 14-year-old volunteer to tears? And that’s setting aside your garden-variety abuses: the people who sneak in through back doors; the people who print off new passes at Kinko’s; the people who try that old chestnut about “don’t you know who I am?!”…

There will always be patrons with entitlement issues, and the presale policy has given more people more reasons to feel disappointed than ever before. But disappointment is no excuse to ruin some volunteer’s day — or, indeed, ruin a show for a room full of paying customers.

We Liked The Fringe! But despite our misgivings and discomforts, this was hands down the best Fringe in years when it comes to the sheer volume of outstanding theatre available to the public. More of our writers enjoyed more shows than ever before, a sentiment we’ve heard from other outlets as well. Even more importantly, growth in other areas — especially the emergence of a more formal year-round program — suggests that the Fringe is growing in other ways, too.

I mean, let’s be frank here: not that long ago, Fringe was little more than an opportunity for a company from Saskatoon (or Nanaimo, or Lansing…) to land a Toronto venue. But in the decades since, the festival has grown to become a year-round cultural hub, and a nexus of creative energy and interaction which goes way beyond this week-and-a-half in July. Emergent artists, established companies and ancillary partners (including know-it-all reviewers like Mooney on Theatre!) have all come to depend on Fringe as a source of income, inspiration, connections, education, professionalization and stabilization, and Fringe has grown into this role beautifully.

The Fringe tent doesn’t just include theatre, dance, comedy and cabaret — and it doesn’t just include artists, either. The Fringe tent is where you take your children on their first theatrical adventures; it’s the first stop careerwise for emergent arts administrators; it’s a source of rehearsal space and funding for nascent companies; it provides badly-needed opportunities for emergent playwrights; and it keeps theatre on the minds of tens of thousands of Torontonians, and — by extension — creates a year-round market for great theatre, as well as companies to serve it.

Photo credit: Toronto Fringe Festival

This article has been modified from an earlier version, based on clarifications from the Fringe Festival as to the state of Tip-the-Fringe donations and policy regarding venue sizes.

18 thoughts on “4 Things We Liked (And 3 Things We Didn’t) At The 2014 Toronto Fringe”

  1. I have to say that as someone who’s spent a lot of time at the Edmonton Fringe, I love 100% presale. It’s fantastic for the artists and helps theatregoers know not to waste their time queuing up for tickets they won’t be able to get and instead leaves them open to check out other shows.

    I don’t think that Toronto Fringe should change the 100% presale policy, simply adjust the information and services around it. The website is horrendous to buy on (for multiple reasons I won’t go into here) but especially for the way you find out a show is sold out, via a failed purchase attempt. Really it should say next to the showtime on the schedule listing that a show is sold out once that point is reached.

    As for the frequent Fringe passes Toronto Fringe should simply follow Edmonton Fringe’s way of handling those. Edmonton Fringe has put in place a system whereby their Frequent Fringer passes are redeemable in-person, via phone, or online (the latter two using a code/password system to ensure FF passes can be used in advance and won’t be taken advantage of).

    As well, I hope they revisit the costs associated with buying tickets online. It’s an awkward system charging both more money per online ticket ($2 that I don’t -think- the artists see, if I recall correctly) plus an additional fee per transaction. The way it’s designed discourages patrons from buying an advance ticket when they, for example, hear about a great show that wasn’t on their radar. Paying an extra 40% of the ticket cost when getting a single advance ticket is rather discouraging.

  2. The 10-pack seems to be the real loser in the new 100% advance ticket world. Instead of being encouragement to go see more shows, it’s more of a punishment, what with having to get to any popular show super early in order to get on the wait list (and they were selling off any comp tickets that weren’t picked up, but that still doesn’t leave many chances).

    Maybe Fringe should offer an equivalent deal on advance tickets – buy advance tickets for 10 or more shows at one time, and get a discount.

    1. Hi Chantal,

      The issue with offering discounts for bulk advance purchases is that it would mostly just exacerbate the everything-is-sold-out problem. Why would anyone buy a 10-pack when they could buy guaranteed tickets to every performance they hoped to see?

      In addition, part of why Fringe offers discounted bulk packs is because buying a pack is a sort of investment: because you’ve got to use those blue tickets, you’re going to be fairly open-minded as concerns which shows you might want to see, and hopefully this means you’ll wind up going to shows which are somewhere off the beaten path. That’s good for the festival’s ecosystem (it’s already quite a struggle to get people to see NNN shows, let alone NNs…) and it also means that an artist makes a little more money. (Not quite the same amount of money as a full-price ticket, but it’s not like it costs them any more to perform for a crowd of 21 rather than 20: given the choice between $7.50 or an empty chair, most artists would take the $7.50.)

  3. But Mike, isn’t telling the the patron that you have to use these tickets you bought but not for things you necessarily want to see essentially lowering the incentive to purchase the packs? I knew I’d see enough shows to justify a 10-pack but when I learnt that, unlike the Edmonton Fringe system, I had to rely only on what was available at the door, I immediately knew it was a poor investment. If I couldn’t choose what I wanted to see and had to potentially waste my time running from show to show, hoping there’d be availability at the door (because, as I said above, it’s not exactly easy to see what’s sold out on the website), what sort of Fringe experience would that be? Ye,s I’d rather spend a little more to ensure I see the shows I want to see but, really, I’d prefer to actually be rewarded for seeing more theatre (like the 10-pack discount does) and actually see shows I’m interested in. As I said, in this regard the Edmonton Fringe gets it right and I hope Toronto Fringe follows their example.

  4. I’m glad the discount packs were useless this year. It’s an insult to the artists to discount a $10 ticket. The shows that sold out through 100% pre-sale were spared that particular rip-off. The presale service charge is too high, of course. A typical example of how the Fringe skims money while still claiming that the artists receive “100%” of box revenue. That’s been untrue for quite awhile now for many reasons.

    I wish they would get rid of the phony “VIP” passes. We lost ~$500 in potential box from so-called “VIPs” taking up seats in our venue. And the media needs to be accredited properly. Everyone and his gerbil has a fringe review site these days. 2/3rds of them are just mooching free tickets.

    The Fringe also needs to step back and take a good look at how it became so popular in the first place. Walk-ups should always be part of the fringe experience. As efficient as the 100% pre-sale is, it is classist and kills line-up buzz. This is the Fringe. Not TIFF.

    Also, a visual rebranding is in order. Something other than that tired no-frills cheapo look from the Gideon years.

  5. The problem isn’t so much the 100% pre-sale, but the ticket packages being only good for at-the-door ticket purchases. With 100% advance sales, those people who committed to seeing 10 shows are left hanging. That’s a slap in the face to their committed patrons.

    The ticket packages must be re-tooled to give value to the volume-ticket-buyer who is buying in advance.

  6. Also, for Fringe, when buying a 10 pack before the festival, you don’t completely know which shows will be great and which won’t. You should choose your 10 shows up front, and the 10 packs should be long sold out by the time the festival actually starts and before most reviews come in, if they are of good value.

    If sell-out of only a few shows is a concern, then they could also follow TIFF: when you buy a TIFF package you indicate which shows are on your wish list. Then they allocate as best they can. So you may or may not get your first choice, but you might get the second choice on your list, and so forth.

  7. Hi Mike,
    Thanks for your review of the Toronto Fringe.
    As a long-time volunteer, I agree with your criticism of the 100% pre-sale format. I also heard considerable grumbling from patrons, especially from 5 and 10 pack holders. If the National Theatre of Britain can make 10% of all performances available on the day, surely we can arrange an equitable balance. I’ve always felt that the “spirit” of Fringe has been to create a buzz on the street and get patrons involved in theatre. The 100% pre-sale has dampened that spirit.

    As for the Al Green, I agree that it is a monster. However, with the loss of the Factory (undergoing renovations), the organizers were forced to seek alternate venues. Here’s hoping Factory returns next year. As an aside, Al Green insisted that all volunteers undergo separate safety training, in addition to our regular pre-Fringe session. As I have to come from north of the city and volunteer at several other theatres, I replaced my Al Green assignment with another venue.

    As for Misbehaving Patrons – what can I say? My last assigned performance was sold out. The box office manager had counted the tickets very carefully beforehand, yet we still had too many people in the audience. I was fairly certain that a group of people rushed the ticket-takers and not all of them were ticket holders. Several of them claimed “oh, he already took my ticket”. As well, some people don’t seem to know what show they are seeing, the name of the venue (Tarragon had 3) or the time of their shows. Then they expect the volunteers to read their minds. One old dear expected us to choose a show for her! Thank goodness I can laugh at these situations. Sometimes!

    Nevertheless, it’s always fun working the Fringe. I hope to continue doing so until they take me away.

  8. I bought a 10 Pack this year and was able to use all of it. I do agree that if they are going to sell 100% in pre-sales they need to post 3 hours before the show which shows are sold out. Now that they have the app for smartphones I hope they can sort out a way to let patrons, using the app, know which shows are sold out.

  9. From talking to the folks at the Fringe, their complaints from patrons are actually down this year. Its True! So perhaps we’re getting an echo effect on this subject now and the online complaining makes things look worse than it is.

    I loved the 100% sales in adavance AND finished my pack. Yup, used both and saw 3 shows over my average because of the new system. And I will get a larger pack next year as many shows I pre-booked didn’t sell out. Although I do understand the commenter who mentioned that wanting to pay less than $10 to an artist is a bit… cheap… my husband and I spent $300 on tickets this year. That’s alot of money for most people!

    Eleiminating the pre-buzz shows that have taken over the Fringe by having them sell-out right away makes the whole experience more about the Fringe shows again. Only 4% of shows were sold out runs by the Wednesday (several of which were in small venues) and many well reviewed peices remained available the whole run long. lots of chances to see top notch things. The complaints will evaporate as we all get used to the new system.

  10. The Fringe was sensational, but I disliked the 100% presales. As a result of that, I was done out of a ticket to a show I wanted to see. I prefer the older system of ticket sales, so I would at least have had a chance of getting one.

  11. I’m going to have to disagree with you about the Al Green Theatre on this one the venue is excellent for many Fringe shows…perfect for dance and musicals. Why not use Randolph and Al Green both for that purpose?
    What we like about Mooney On Theatre? Sometimes well written thoughtful reviews. What we dislike about Mooney on Theatre? Sometimes unnecessarily negative bitch fests….

    1. Hi Pro Scenium,

      As the copy has always read, “[sitting in the Al Green Theatre is] a fine way to see a full-flight song-&-dance musical, but trying to watch a one-hander or a tender drama in this space left us cold and disengaged”, which seems like it should address your remarks.

  12. Just to clarify about the advanced box office fees, I understand that all of the extra fees (extra $2 per ticket plus $2 per order) all goes to the company running the ticket process. I say they need to get a better deal from them or switch companies plus design a better system where it is easy to see what has sold out/etc.

    Fringe also has a policy where they don’t resell advanced tickets. I say if someone hasn’t claimed their ticket 5 minutes before start time they should resell the ticket. I am guessing they don’t do that because the artist has already received their money and they don’t see a need to create potential conflict.

  13. It’s easy to see the VIP tickets as phony and a loss in revenue when you are on the other side of the table. I don’t work for Fringe but I have twice held VIP passes and I can assure you, they aren’t. If the Fringe didn’t happen, you would loose revenue, surely! Many of those VIPs are sponsors of the festival – sponsors the Fringe needs so they can give you back your profits. In my case, I was a sponsor getting Fringe programs to food outlets across the city and giving the festival money to run. This year I was on the best of the fringe jury, hoping to give a few shows a shot at a remount. Be gracious and give the Fringe some credit, you need VIPs at your show and so do they. My bugaboo as a fringe artist are media who get a free ticket but then don’t review your show or VIPs who book in advance but don’t show up, taking revenue and a seat from those who want to pay. Think that’s changed this year though

  14. The Al Green seating set-up was not great even for musicals… From the edge of the stage to the first row of the audience was about 25 feet, and considering that actors don’t stand at the very edge, it was generally about 30 feet. The audience experience was more similar to watching a movie than theatre.

  15. I’m going to jump in on the new 100% presale policy – firmly on the side of HATE. It kills the friendly, seat-of-your-pants atmosphere of the Fringe and replaces it with cold commercialism. How the heck can one know – before the Fringe even opens – exactly what to see? What about leaving options open for shows that one might hear about in lineups, at Fringe Tent, from friends, social media, etc.? The Fringe program is printed so early that many shows don’t have a cast listed, which for most people is a big factor in deciding what to see. Usually I purchase a 10-play pass (and often a 5-play AS WELL). This year I saw 4 shows. The Fringe is not a big Mirvish show, so don’t treat it like one. The rules and policies that work in “commercial” theatre do not necessarily apply to the Fringe.

  16. I don’t generally like speaking for others, but in this case I think I’m safe in doing so…

    As media I just wanted to say, when we book tickets in advance and don’t show up, it’s not because we’re inconsiderate assholes, it’s because we’ve been thwarted by TTC, or we’re rushing from another show that we really truly honestly thought we had time to get from and get to the venue 30 seconds after the house closes, and there are no latecomers admitted, no exceptions (which is just fine, but it means we’re not there).

    If there is enough warning I always connect with the Fringe ticketing folks and have them release the ticket, but that’s not an option when you are arriving just as the house closes or something like that.

    There are also the embarrassing times when you could have SWORN the show was at 7:30, but it was actually at 7:15, but that one might just be me. There’s usually at least one of those per year for me though.

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