If it hasn’t been said out loud before, then I’m going to make the claim now: nowhere in North America has any institution or festival created as many new playwrights as the Edmonton Fringe Festival.
It was over three decades ago that I first led a gaggle of drag queens to the Edmonton Fringe. What I didn’t realize then was that I was taking the first steps on a journey that would completely change the direction of my life.
It all became very real as two taxis full of drag queens unfolded themselves onto the sidewalk in front of the Edmonton Journal building for our photo shoot. It got even more real as I floated down Whyte Avenue in a mermaid tail as part of my first Fringe parade.
We didn’t have a clue what we were doing. And yet, people showed up. They clapped. They lined up for tickets to see something they had never had a chance to see before.
This is what the Fringe is all about for me—the surprise of a new idea as it bursts into the world, and the willingness of Fringe audiences to take a chance and have their eyes opened to something new.
It’s precisely the hands-off, jury-free aspect of the Fringe idea that makes it the perfect artistic incubator. I learned quickly what worked and what didn’t. And a decade later I decided to write my first real play, and create my own one-man show. Again—I had no idea what I was doing, but the Fringe gave me the place to try. That was the year that writing seized me and I realized I could chart my own course.
In my 31 years of Fringe-ing, I have written over 40 plays. This is remarkable when you consider I initially had zero plans to be a playwright.
Every writer needs a deadline. For many of us, it’s the only way anything gets created—deadlines hold us accountable, force us to keep our word and actually deliver the pages. What you get with the Fringe is a constant, inevitable annual deadline.
As August looms, creators and producers all over Edmonton scour Value Village for costumes, do photo shoots, schedule rehearsals and of course, put the final touches on the precious script that will soon make its debut in front of an audience at the largest theatre festival in North America—and the second largest one in the world.
It’s heady stuff, and every summer, thousands of artists take the leap. What’s fascinating, though, is that the Fringe creates more than just playwrights: it creates producers—artists that take control over their own careers and start to steer it themselves. It creates opportunity—so many plays that have launched at the Fringe go on to lead a long touring life, become a main stage production or even result in a book deal.
And so, the next time you attend the Fringe, remember: whatever show you buy tickets to, you may very well be witnessing the first steps in an artistic journey that could last for decades.
Darrin Hagen is EPL's Writer-in-Residence and works out of the Highlands Branch, opens a new window for 2018. His office hours are Monday to Thursday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. You can drop by or make an appointment by calling 780-499-0680 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, opens a new window.