Back in the days of yore when the first Canadian fringe festivals were just starting out, the definition of a fringe venue was “anywhere we can fit a bunch of people, that has a flat-ish surface for the performers. Electricity might be good too”. It was kind of like The Little Rascals putting up a show in Uncle Bob’s barn, with Auntie Mary making some costumes, and it would be awfully swell.
Back then, setting up a venue consisted of finding some used wood in a landfill to make risers, a bunch of home made lighting fixtures made from coffee cans and discarded asbestos lightbulb bases from the same landfill, your younger sister’s My Little Pony compact cassette player, the barely working portable gasoline generator from your parent’s cabin, and an abandoned or condemned building, hopefully with squatters that you could turn into ticket sellers.
I mean come-on, it was only thirteen years ago when there were three venues running at the same time in the abandoned Eatons building while demolition experts were trying to figure out where the explosives were going to go to bring the building down.
I’m not even going to talk about Oseredok…
My, how times have changed…
Today, all of the main venues, and most of the BYOVs are in spaces that were designed for presentation in some way and are equipped with sophisticated computerised lighting, audio, and sometimes video playback systems. The seating risers are no longer made from landfill wood, the coffee can lights have been recycled and replaced with state of the art intelligent light fixtures, although some of them are My Little Pony brand intelligent light fixtures (when you bring them to full power, they smell like strawberries!)
Venue two is one of the first venues to be set up. Two weeks ago my venue partner and I, accompanied by a small army of stage hands, stripped the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s mainstage rehearsal hall to bare walls.
Then my valiant venue partner hoisted himself thirty feet into the air on a hydraulic man-lift in a pain staking process of blacking out the rehearsal hall skylights. It goes like this:
Step one: Move man-lift into position with a crew of three.
Step two: install outriggers and outfit ground riggers with hardhats, steel toed foot wear, safety goggles, bullet proof vests, and underwater breathing apparatus.
Step three: Do a forty two step safety check culminating in a three minute ascent to the sky light.
Step four: realise that the tool used to fasten the blackout piece to the skylight was forgotten.
Step five: go back down (cursing while descending is optional)
Step six: get the tool, make sure you have everything you need, ascend again.
Step seven: insert the blackout piece to the skylight using Chinese acrobat flexibility, everything you learned from level 57 of Tetris, and shakeing your fist at the air, cursing whichever God you think is responsible for skylights in a performance venue.
Step eight: descend.
Step nine: disassemble man lift, removing outriggers and and all gear from the bucket.
Step ten: move the man-lift three inches.
This is a big change from what we would do in the eighties in Edmonton when Fringe first started. We would just get a yellow camping rope, tie it off to a sprinkler pipe, tie the other end to a stage hand, haul him up, and swing him back and forth until he got the blackout piece in place.
The My Little Pony intelligent lighting fixtures that we use require a lot of power, and we use 44 of them. Gone are the days of powering a venue with Christmas tree extension cords all plugged into each other into one outlet over the mop sink in the utility closet. These days we use 20-ought gauge socaplex cable that weighs slightly less than an aircraft carrier.
This cable, which is about the circumference of a tree trunk, and in 1200 inch lengths, needs to be lifted eighteen feet into the air and tied off to the lighting grid so all of the My Little Pony lights can plug into them and be happy and shine.
Following that, we screw and tape some masonite to the floor, erect flats and draperies to create a backstage area and a crossover, install a handful of computers in the booth that do a bunch of stuff, create a tablet and phone charging station complete with every type of connector ever created, and call the guy to make sure the snack machine in the greenroom is refilled.
By the end of two days and sixteen working hours, venue two is ready for fringing, and in a few hours we are expecting our first group for their technical rehearsal, and we will be able to offer them many more technical options than we ever have before, because blackout pieces are keen, socaplex cable is hardcore, and friendship is magic…