Amy Blackmore, the executive and artistic director of MainLine Theatre and the head of the Montreal Fringe Festival, spoke about the challenges and excitement of creating something Fringe-adjacent with This Is Not a Fringe Festival (happening from June 11 to 21).
Nora Rosenthal: When was the moment when everyone sat down and realized that the Fringe would, like so many festivals, have to be re-envisioned?
Amy Blackmore: As a company we really went through the shock of closing down our space first, closing Mainline down as of March 14. It was probably the last week of March when we realized we needed to make the call [about the Montreal Fringe Festival].
NR: Do you think you were one of the earlier festivals to understand — in terms of these waves of denial and acceptance?
AB: We’re really lucky to be part of the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals so when all this started, we started doing these weekly calls with the other Fringe producers from around the country. It was actually the Orlando Fringe that cancelled before us, so watching Orlando cancel their event, because their event takes place in May, it became pretty clear that the writing was on the wall for us. We chose not to say that the Fringe is cancelled because the truth is it was the 30th anniversary, so postponed is what it is. We’ll celebrate 30, just not yet.
NR: Were there certain events that were cancelled outright because they can’t be moved online or did the inverse happen where new online events were conceived?
AB: To give some context, in order to be in the Fringe we do a lottery and then all the selected artists pay a fee and then they do whatever they want with their time and keep their box office. It’s totally uncensored. What we did is we actually gave all our artists an option: they could either be refunded their fee or we would not refund them and they get to hold their spot for next year. We’ve had about 50 per cent drop out so there’ll definitely be another lottery for 2021. Fingers crossed that we’ll be back by then. When we realized that it was really unsafe for people to rehearse, that’s when things really flipped and it was like, “Let’s offer people a refund, offer people deferrals and do something completely different that is not a Fringe festival.” That’s actually where the name came from – This Is Not a Fringe Festival – because it really isn’t and we don’t want to pretend that it is. It’s something to just whet our appetite, but it’s not the Fringe like we’re used to.
NR: Have you consumed any Zoom art? What’s it like?
AB: I have, actually. It’s a bizarre experience. I’ve been consuming Zoom art with people from across the world and I’m finding that really special and unique that we’re able to do these events and activities not just for folks who are in town but for folks all over the world.
We have a couple of Zoom shows in our festival and the thing that we keep talking about and discussing is it’s not as simple as taking a piece of theatre and then doing it on screen. There’s nothing wrong with that but we’re in the business of creating an experience for people who want to gather, so we’ve been asking lots of questions [like] How do you gather online? How can it be experiential in a way that isn’t just reading a news article or surfing YouTube? What can we offer that’s different or unique?
NR: Have you heard from your artists about how they’re coping with that implicit alienation that even comes with a video phone call?
AB: I think there’s two camps. There’s a camp of “I’m going to wait this out and sit with what’s happening” and there’s this other camp that I’m seeing of resiliency and desire to innovate and try something new. I don’t think that either camp is right — I think everyone’s dealing with the pandemic in their own way and that’s fine — but there’s something really interesting about that that they’re exploring right now.
NR: What festival events in particular are you excited about?
AB: We’ve really broken it down into series: We have our Signature Series [of] longer shows. For example we’re partnering with this new event called Fringe livestream. Fringe livestream is taking place online all summer every Thursday night, and we have two really great shows with them: one is called The Iceberg, the other is called Being Brown Is My Superpower. I’m really excited to see these artists perform. We’re also doing a Crowd Karaoke, with Sherwin Tjia. He typically does the Slowdance Night and the Strip Spelling Bees at MainLine throughout the year. We’ve challenged him to do crowd karaoke and it’s going to be this epic Zoom hangout where he’s projecting video onto the wall of his loft and he’s going to decorate and have lights and we’re all going to hang out and sing karaoke together as a group for hours on Saturday night. I’m really excited about that. The truth is, is it going to work? We don’t know, but we’re going to try.
I’m also really excited about this thing we’re doing called the Daily Dose of Fringe. I have to keep reminding myself to be patient with myself through this time, that I don’t need to be productive all the time, that I don’t need to overproduce. With that in mind, we’ve created this Daily Dose of Fringe which is just a range of really tiny offerings that are going to take place. So for example every day at 11 a.m. we’re going to release a Daily Dose so there’ll be a video dance by Bouge d’ici choreographers, we’re going to have a magic act, there’s going to be a short story in collaboration with Confabulation. There’s going to be these online challenges to inspire folks to get creative on their own, organized by the Festival tout’ tout court. We’re going to release a daily Q&A with an emerging BIPOC artist as well on our website so folks can go read that and see the art online and just get a small taste of Fringeness.
NR: To get back to this Q&A series, what programming do you feel particularly resonates with the global calls for racial justice that we’re seeing right now?
AB: I think definitely the articles that we’re commissioning to try and amplify voices of emerging BIPOC artists. I’m excited to meet some artists I haven’t met before and also to get to know some who have been around for a couple years but who we haven’t seen enough of yet.
NR: I know the future for festivals and for performing arts in general feels very murky but do you have any insight into moving forward as an organization?
AB: I keep saying the Fringe will survive. The Fringe will survive the pandemic, the Fringe will survive and evolve in response to the social injustices of the world. Fringe was founded as a protest to begin with, in Edinburgh after WWII, and I keep thinking about how the Fringe will evolve past 2020 around the world. I think this is a really significant year and I’m looking forward to fully embracing and adapting and evolving as a festival over time. ■
See more details about This Is Not a Fringe on the Montreal Fringe Festival website.
For more coverage of the Montreal arts scene, go to our Arts section.