I was sitting on the patio of the Bridgehead at Dalhousie and Guigues in the Byward Market about two days before the start of the 2010 Ottawa Fringe Festival. As I got up to leave, I noticed a lady wearing sunglasses sitting at a table with a Fringe program, leafing through it. I stopped and asked her what she had plans to see.
“I don’t know,” she said. She asked me if I was involved with the Fringe; I said that I was, indirectly, writing reviews for FullyFringed.ca.
“Oh,” she said, “well, I’ll probably only see one thing. What’s good?”
It took me a couple of seconds to realize what she was saying, and what she was asking. Never mind that she had plans to see only one out of sixty shows, she didn’t know which one. And, two days before any of them had hit the stage, she wanted me to pick—or at least make a suggestion. Could I even remember a third of the names of the productions in the program? Worst of all, I didn’t even know her; how could I tell what she might like?
So I asked, “Do you like comedy?” She nodded. “Well, Jonno Katz is coming in from Australia, and he hasn’t been here for a while, and his show Cactus—The Seduction… is probably going to be really good.” I mean, not knowing you from a hole in the ground. You might not like Australians. Or cacti. “It’s a safe bet.”
I said goodbye, reminded her to buy a Fringe pin, and hurried away.
The problem with making recommendations for Fringe shows is that it’s largely guesswork; unless it’s a show that’s been touring for ages, most of the productions are completely new and unknown, and even in a close-knit theatre community like Ottawa’s, many of the performers are unfamiliar. Before the Fringe opens, you have to go on word-of-mouth, promotional materials, video trailers, press releases, and reputation—and that’s about it.
Bearing that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of shows that I think people must see at this year’s Ottawa Fringe. (In the interests of full disclosure: I am under contract to the Fringe—I compiled this wonderful 15th anniversary commemorative book called OFF The Record that you can purchase as of this morning—but my duties and responsibilities do not involve the promotion of any individual productions. In fact, the Fringe only benefits financially from the sale of the Fringe pins (which I insist you buy—collect all four!) and other merchandise, not from ticket sales. Those funds go directly to the producing artists. The opinions I express here do not necessarily reflect those of the Ottawa Fringe Festival, its staff members, or its Board of Directors, and I’d like to see you get them all in the same room and have them come to an agreement on which shows you should see, because that’s a pretty diverse group with a wide range of tastes and opinions. Right? Right.)
This is not that list. (That list is here.)
This list is the list of shows I must see at the Fringe.
There are some overlaps, but it’s a different list. Why? Well, for one thing I have my own tastes and preferences. I work very hard at not inflicting my personal taste on others (unless they ask, poor souls). When I write a review or discuss a production I strive to remain aware of what my tastes are and separate taste from criticism. There are some things I don’t plan to see because they aren’t to my taste (and I have no other compelling reason to see them). I’m not huge, for instance, on social issue theatre—that doesn’t mean that I don’t believe it serves a purpose (let’s talk about that sometime) or has artistic merit, I just personally don’t care for most of it. (Strangely, this does not include political satire, which I eat like candy.)
For another thing, there are a number of productions where I know (or know of) the people involved, and I’m curious to see their work. This is known as peer pressure or puppy-dog eyes.
Also, I happen to like the really outrageous, even if it’s bad—and I don’t know that it is bad until I’ve given it a chance. Is it a musical rendition of 2001: A Space Odyssey starring a watermelon puppet? Great! Will someone throw me a toilet-paper bouquet? Awesome! Is the action dictated by the contents of fortune cookies brought in by the audience members? Sweet! This is Fringe. It’s not like you’re paying fifty bucks to see a guy sit on a stool and talk to a teaspoon for an hour—you’re only paying ten.
Alright, so here are (some of) the ten shows (and one not-show) I must see:
Peter ‘n Chris Save the World (Peter ‘n Chris)
I wish I’d known about these guys when I was talking to that lady outside the Bridgehead. Not that Jonno Katz didn’t knock everyone dead (he did) but these guys cracked me up and captured my heart with The Peter ‘n Chris Show. They’re physical, they’re choreographed, and they’re funny. If that wasn’t enough, I’ve become friends with their superfriend and sometime collaborator Melanie Moore so I have another reason to see them, and see them early.
LIVE from the Belly of a Whale (Mi Casa Theatre)
We don’t want another Countries Shaped Like Stars situation, where I miss the boat and have to wait two years because I miss all the other boats too. Okay, a lot of people are going to expect Nick and Emily to turn out something of the calibre of Countries and… they don’t have to, eh? They made Countries, now they’re making something else, why compare them? I find Nick and Emily entertaining in the course of casual conversation. John Doucet’s doing the design, superhero stage manager Anna Chambers runs a tight ship, and if I say Pat’s a great director one more time even he’s going to throw up. I’m looking forward to this, and you won’t catch me saying “Well, that was no Countries Shaped Like Stars.”
Playtime with HM
Okay, so this isn’t really a show per se, but a series, and it’s the Artist Series, and I’m part of the first panel on Monday, Reviewing the Reviewer, so I kind of have to be there for that one at least. You know Heather Marie Connors, right? One of the co-hosts of the ever-more-popular Ottawa Theatre Confidential podcast? Gave me the nickname “Softie McLovesTheatre”? She runs really interesting and fun panels, and debates, and whatnot, and has a good sense of humour. She asks the hardest (i.e. the most important) questions, and she really cares about the peripheral issues of theatre and its part in the greater scheme of things.
Roller Derby Saved My Soul (Broken Turtle Productions)
Speaking of Ottawa Theatre Confidential co-hosts, Tania Levy is directing Nancy Kenny‘s roller-derby vampire-slaying solo play and I’ve had snippets of the development process from both of them… I’m really curious to see how this will turn out. Nancy’s a funny actor with natural comic timing, and Tania has the courage to do bold, wacky things (with a lot of thought, consideration, and hard art back of them). Some really good shows have come out of a bumpy, compressed development process (Ditto Productions’ This Is A Recording is a prime example) and I hope this follows that path.
Complex Numbers (Silent QUEMB Productions)
Playwright, performer, poet, and a lot of other things Nadine Thornhill‘s Oreo was a hit of the 2009 Ottawa Fringe Festival, one of the few things that I got to see (I took an awful lot of volunteer shifts) that year. I’m looking forward to this, not least because as I understand it Ken Godmere is directing. Sweet.
Einstein’s Bicycle (Fractual Theatre Company)
Jodi Sprung-Boyd (whose for-school production of The Open Couple (hey, Ken Godmere was in that too!) I raved about on the Ottawa Theatre Confidential podcast and elsewhere) invited me to a workshop preview of this. I’m not going to say too much about what I saw (obviously!) because I don’t want to give anything away about what I think will be a fun show. It has good performers, a good director, good writing, and is undeniably 100% a Fringe show, in the best way possible.
glitch… (Ottawa Theatre School)
David Hersh (I) wrote this. My favourite class ensemble of the OTS including Jodi Morden, Kaitlin Miller, Kyla Gray, Diego Arvelo, and Greg Shand (2010’s Impassioned Embraces, Hamlet 2011, and some other good things I didn’t see) is putting it on. I’m going.
Old Legends (Bio-Punk Productions)
In the continuing effort to get my Godmere badge*, I’ve got to see the unpigeonholeable Emma Godmere in this. Dark comedy, guitar, dance, storytelling… sign me up. You had me at “Old”.
Dying Hard (A Vagrant Theatre)
I follow Mikaela Dyke on Twitter and I’m curious to see this; from the description I gather it’s a verbatim/documentary theatre piece about Newfoundland miners. That happens to interest and fascinate me. I grew up hearing mining stories from the east coast and elsewhere, and some may laugh (or worse, be unaware), but mining is one of the few things that we actually can point to as Canadians and say is a part of our shared cultural identity.
Pick Your Path (Garkin Productions)
I’m pretty sure Ray Besharah and Laura Hall approached me at the Mi Casa party to talk about this show, and I hear (from someone whose real name I don’t know) that the technical cues are very complex—from what I understand, the action is audience-influenced, and that’s the kind of audience participation I can get behind. I do not promise to not wear my “No Commies” pin to this show.
The Interview (Ottawa Little Theatre)
I saw The Interview as part of the Eastern Ontario Drama League One-Act Play Festival last year, and I really want to see it again particularly with Ken Godmere taking on one of the roles, for purposes of comparison. I’m curious about the effect that’s going to have on the dynamic of the piece.
If you didn’t make this list, it doesn’t mean I’m not going to see your show. I do have another list forthcoming of shows I think will be of general interest, and I needed to keep the list reasonably short. Heck, I may burn out early and not see everything I intend to see, or change my mind, or decide Alumni is too far to walk (it isn’t). Also: it’s Fringe. Pretty much anything can happen, from mystery bees to finding true love. So don’t hold me to anything.
* There are four members of the Godmere family performing in and/or directing Fringe productions this year. The family that does plays together stays together, kids.