Vol. 9 No. 1 (Spring 1988)

NANCY BELL, ed. Five From the Fringe. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1986. 159 p
DENIS SALTER, ed. New Canadian Drama 3: Albertan Dramatists. Ottawa: Borealis Press, 1984. 166 p


These two collections of plays reflect not only a spectrum of recent Albertan playwriting, but two different processes of play development. Where the three full-length plays in Salter's collection evolved through the usual route of initial work-shopping and then full-scale production as part of a regular theatre season, the five one-acts in Bell's book are all products of that nine-day theatrical wonder, the Edmonton Fringe Festival.

Albertan Dramatists delivers the better-polished literary product. Dwelling, like O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, on the dangers of creating then breaking a powerful pipe-dream, Gordon Pengilly's Swipe is an ambitious combination of parable, fantasy and realism, The play fails to strike a satisfactory balance between its lighter comic aspects and its darker, philosophical musings, but at its best Pengilly's rich, lyrical dialogue and exotic characterizations give his decaying world of river thieves a compelling magic of its own.

Frank Moher's Down for the Weekend and Kelly-Jean Rebar's Checkin' Out are conventionally realistic plays dealing with characters - the redneck oil rigger, the aging Ukrainian homesteader, the restless small-town girl - well on their way to becoming the myths - or clichés - of modern prairie drama. in Mother's Weekend, the collection's strongest play, the results are closer to myth. Behind Dougie Flint's personal conflict with his wife and her grandfather over whether to return to the family farm, remain working out of town at Fort McMurray, or flee to Vancouver, lies a sense of larger worlds in collision: an agrarian past once fruitful but now barren, and a materialistic present, fast-paced and rootless. Unlike Weekend, which evokes these larger forces through the metaphoric overtones of the language and a constantly mounting tension, Checkin' Out, a slighter, less complex play, focuses almost wholly on Lindsay Andruchuk's personal decision to 'check out' of small-town life. Lindsay's relationships with her husband and lover strike sparks, but the play loses some of its intensity and momentum after Lindsay's move to Edmonton in Act II.

The plays in Five From the Fringe, by contrast, are representative of the Festival's produce in being more varied in style and content but less even in quality. Life after Hockey, Kenneth Brown's humorous one-man ode to our national obsession, is indisputably the gem of the collection, with Cut!, Lyle Victor Albert's effervescent little comedy about a celestial rest home for characters cut from famous plays, running a respectable second. Of the remaining three, Laurier Gareau's The Betrayal about two aging Riel Rebellion veterans is a weaker, more static play, while the remaining two are problematic for different reasons. Although as successful at home and abroad as the first two selections, Small Change Theatre's gentle bingo romance, One Beautiful Evening, is a clown/mime show which translates less surely to the page; The Land Called Morning, about four young Cree, seems a slighter, more sentimental work, divorced from the special impact of the original actors.

It is here that the edition's sparseness of background material makes itself felt. While one wishes that Salter had said more about the theatrical environment which spawned the dramas, his inclusion of thirteen full-page production photographs and a seven-page introductory analysis of the three plays is nonetheless very useful to the reader. Bell, by contrast, provides only one small photograph per play, no discussion of the plays proper, and devotes barely half of her two-and-a-half page Foreword to a consideration of the Fringe itself. It is an omission all the more keenly felt in Bell's edition as, unlike the carefully tailored plays in the Salter collection, Fringe 'hits' like these tend to be more hit-and-miss as purely literary products. Even where a script exists, the written word seldom conveys either the electrical creative atmosphere of the Fringe or the peculiar space, cast, and audience conditions which helped make the play a theatrical success in the first place. Bell might have been wiser to have cut one of the weaker selections and devoted more space to photographs and critical introductions that would put the Fringe and the plays themselves into their proper theatrical context.

Certainly the question of the Fringe's strengths and weaknesses as a generator of new works would have been well worth addressing. Modelled on the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Edmonton Fringe has grown rapidly since its modest beginnings in 1982, when some 7,500 people attended some 45 shows in 5 make-shift venues in the Old Strathcona district. Attendance figures have doubled almost every year since then, and the 1987 Fringe, featuring 158 shows in 124 venues, exceeded the 120,000 mark of 1986 by 52,000. Significantly, as in other years, nearly two-thirds of the 1987 Festival's offerings was new Canadian work, a phenomenon which Festival founder Brian Paisley ascribes to the Fringe's artist-centred policies and emphasis on creative process over commercial product. Of course, that emphasis also means that many of the Festival's exotic hotbed growths would perish swiftly in the colder, more judgemental conditions of the main season, and even plays of better quality have often been either too idiosyncratic to be duplicated by anyone but the original creators, or too short to qualify as mainstage attractions.

Yet whatever its limitations, the Fringe has exerted a tremendous influence on the mainstream of local play development. it may be too soon to assess the impact of the increasing number of small Fringe-generated companies which have started to circumvent the forementioned problems by remaining together over the regular season and continuing to do their own Fringe-style work at festivals, cabarets, restaurants, second stages and special events in Edmonton and across the country. [more information on these smaller companies can be found in Bob Weber, 'The Fringe of What? The Fringe Festival and the Regular Season,' The Edmonton Bullet, 1 August 1987, p 10-11; Moira Day, 'Small Change and Nexus: Theatre from the Fringe,' NeWest Review, March 1985, p 15, 16, 19.] But one suspects that the Fringe and others of its ilk are likely to revolutionize the way the established theatres choose their seasons and develop new plays.

Paisley readily admits that the established theatres offer the playwright opportunities for sustained funding, guidance and development that the Fringe cannot. However, he suggests that only a small number of playwrights can be discovered and developed this way each season [personal interview with Brian Paisley, 31 July 1987]. The Fringe, by contrast, allows far more new work to be tested over a much shorter period of time before a much larger, general audience. Moreover, for $300 even the rankest rookie can have a time slot, technical crew and theatre space in which to try his material. This, in turn, has generated a much larger pool of new plays and playwrights for regular-season theatres to draw on and develop further in their own houses.

In short, the Fringe method of play development complements rather than competes against that of the mainline theatres, and with Winnipeg and Victoria promising to join Vancouver as the next outposts of the Fringe Festival movement, one can expect to find an increasing number of plays in anthologies crediting their creation to joint festival and theatre development.