The Toronto Fringe is back in person.
After two years online, Toronto’s biggest theater festival is back in 11 venues across the city, with 88 productions ranging from comedy and drama to musical theatre, storytelling, dance and programming for children.
In many ways, it will be a Fringe filled with reassuringly familiar elements: productions from seasoned artists and newbies; audience members passionately debate shows in queues and lobbies; between-show and late-night entertainment on two outdoor terraces.
But behind the scenes, the festival is changing.
As with many arts organizations around the world, the combination of the pandemic and the global racial reckoning has sparked reflection and a commitment to change among Fringe’s management, staff and board members. A three-year review and action plan around accessibility was already underway when the pandemic hit and the Fringe launched an equity, diversity and inclusion audit in the summer of 2020.
The result is a commitment to “build accessibility from the ground up, not having access to it after the fact,” said Fringe outreach coordinator Andi Canales. “Whenever there are big decisions, we look at ‘OK. Are BIPOCs (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) included? Is it inaccessible? Where’s ASL (American Sign Language)? »
“There are so many individual hurdles that each different attendee and each different patron of the festival can face,” said emerging Fringe producer Kevin Yue. The goal is to be proactive, so attendees and customers “know they’re coming to a place where we think about their needs before they walk in the door,” Yue said.
Fringe shows are chosen by lottery rather than a jury system, which aims to create a level playing field but has led to relatively few shows from BIPOC artists. “Fringe has always been a place where we say, ‘Anyone can come,'” said general manager Lucy Eveleigh. “But if they don’t come, then you have to do something about it.”
This year, the Fringe implemented a two-step lottery process: the first half of the shows were chosen from a BIPOC pool and all remaining contestants were grouped together for a second draw.
This is the first step in a longer process to break down the barriers that have kept BIPOC and other minority artists from participating in the Fringe.
“There are people who are more willing to invest a thousand dollars in a show that will generate no revenue or at least just break even, whereas disproportionately many people in BIPOC are unable to take those same commitments due to systemic issues,” said Isabela Solis-Lozano, Executive Management Intern at Fringe and the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts.
Another piece of the access puzzle is raising awareness of opportunities to engage with the Fringe. This involves “reaching out to community groups and showing them that we want their candidates and we want them to spread the word…it’s about building relationships with Indigenous communities, Black communities and organizations artistic,” Canales said.
Also new this year is a subsidized community ticket program that offers free tickets to spectators otherwise unable to attend while returning all ticket proceeds to the producing companies (those wishing to use the program can email [email protected]). The Fringe is also partnering with Canoo, an app that gives newcomers to Canada free access to arts and cultural events.
Once a show is accepted into the Fringe, performers are offered the services of the Disability Collective, a three-person team that consults on providing measures such as ASL translation, audio-described performances, and relaxed, pre-show audio notes and assistive listening devices. .
The fringe companies also agree to provide a script or detailed description of the performance to audience members who want to know if there are loud noises, flashing lights or a difficult subject. Knowing what to expect in advance “makes customers feel good about the shows they choose to attend,” Yue said.
And for those who like not knowing what they’re going to see, there’s a “surprise me” option on the Fringe site that chooses the show for them.
All Fringe 2022 venues are physically accessible.
These and other features are described in an Accessibility Supplement to the Fringe Program Guide, and customers are encouraged to identify their needs at the point of payment on the website or by calling the box office.
The core values of access, inclusivity and accountability are built from the ground up at Fringe and it starts with its work culture. “There’s so much care and empathy in space,” Solis-Lozano said.
Eveleigh gave birth to her son Lennox nine months ago and frequently brings him to the office, and sometimes her seven-year-old daughter Sloane too. It helps her manage her commitments and sends a message “to young people who might one day want families to say to themselves, ‘You can. It’s possible,” Eveleigh said.
Yue feared the Fringe might be clicky when he started working there in April, but he’s now been part of the inclusion of everyone who works for the festival, from reception and service staff to production teams.
“Everyone gets a t-shirt and lanyard with their pronouns, the languages they speak, if they’re trained in first aid, if they’re fluent in ASL,” he said. “Every step is about making sure each person has everything they need to be successful at the festival.”
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