Financing the fringe habit

by Ottawa Fringe

June 15, 2009

Performers raid their piggy banks to pay festival registrations, but reap artistic rewards

When Amy Salloway hits the fringe theatre circuit each summer, it’s not for the culinary experience. “I just assume I’m going to be eating crap,” says the ebullient Minneapolis, Minnesota-based playwright/actor/storyteller. Salloway’s one-woman comedy Heebs and Dweebs is on the Ottawa Fringe Festival’s opening night lineup Thursday at Studio Leonard Beaulne. “You do things to make things last. You go to any free event where there’s food.”

Actors Emily Pearlman and Nicolas Di Gaetano appear in Mi Casa! Theatre’s production of Countries Shaped Like Stars, part of the 2009 Ottawa Fringe Festival.

Salloway’s involuntary diet, like that of many fringe performers, is a matter of money. Playing a festival gets pricey, and the income wouldn’t exactly tempt an eHealth Ontario contractor into a career change.

Stacked against the belt-tightening financial realities is an actor’s insatiable hunger for the stage. “Not performing makes me feel like a kid who loves summer camp and didn’t get to go,” says Salloway.

Naturally creative, actors find countless ways to finance their fringe habit.

Salloway’s appearance at the Ottawa Fringe, which runs until June 28 at a dozen downtown venues, is her fourth consecutive. Like all fringe performers, she pays an average of $650 to register for each festival as well as shelling out for venue rental. Since her only revenue is box office sales, which can fluctuate dramatically, Salloway lines up nearby gigs that guarantee a cheque — in this case, a June 16 performance at Ottawa’s Soloway Jewish Community Centre.

She’s also gotten sponsorship from friends and relatives with her rallying cry, “For just the price of a cup of coffee a day, you can help send me to the fringe!”

Salloway still blesses the 2006 Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival. Her profit, which she wouldn’t disclose, bought her a shiny new computer and met living expenses for three months. “Then I’ve had a couple where I said, ‘Oh, I made a nickel.’ ”

Ottawa’s Emily Pearlman, a fouryear fringe veteran, has been known to take desperate measures at festival time.

One year, the writer/performer/director and her partner emptied their apartment with a garage sale, in large part to help finance a six-city festival tour. When they added up the tour revenue, they’d broken even.

“You don’t do it to make money,” she says. “You do it to get your work in front of an audience and develop it and to see work from other cities.”

This year, Pearlman appears at the Ottawa Fringe with Nicolas Di Gaetano in the cabaret/circus-influenced Countries Shaped Like Stars: A Parlour Symphony. The two also co-wrote the one-man show Inclement Weather, another 2009 Ottawa Fringe production; that show received some funding for development, but not touring, from Ottawa’s Odyssey Theatre. Both plays are at the University of Ottawa’s Café Alternatif.

Another Ottawa artist, Nancy Kenny, had grand plans for a multicity tour of a new show, Roller Derby Saved My Soul. She even forked out $500 in airfare to attend a roller derby boot camp in Red Deer, Alta. But when she realized she’d have to pony up over $4,500 in festival registration fees, the writer/actor devised a more modest strategy: No Exit Upstage, a two-person production about the vagaries of the acting life that opens Thursday in Studio Leonard Beaulne before moving on to the Winnipeg festival.

It’s worth the stress that even the two-city production has put on her credit card, she says. “There’s something kind of thrilling about producing your own work from the ground up. A fringe show forces you to strip away and just present a story. My set? I have to make sure it can fit into a suitcase.”

Public and corporate funding for fringe festival touring is almost nonexistent, at least in Ontario. Fringe artists do not generally fit into the narrower funding guidelines of organizations like The Canada Council for the Arts which do help finance tours where the presenter is paying a set fee to the artist.

However, the Ontario Arts Council has funding programs to assist provincial, national and international tours, and fringe performers are “absolutely not ineligible for funding,” says the OAC’s Theatre Officer Pat Bradley. Whether they’d be approved is another matter.

Almost no fringe performers report approaching corporations for funding. If they did, they’d have to be convincing: many fringe companies are startups, and corporate sponsors like to align themselves with proven entities that ensure a big publicity bang for the buck. Besides, can you imagine an industry executive writing a cheque for Hooray for Speech Therapy, Kurt Fitzpatrick’s comedy about stuttering at Studio Leonard Beaulne?

Jonno Katz, performing his “dancomedy” The Accident in Arts Court Theatre, says that government funding for touring fringe performers is available in his native Australia. “But you have to fit into categories, and it’s a helluva lot of work. I’d rather just do it myself.”

He figures his 2009 cross-Canada fringe tour is costing him $10,000. Despite such outlays, the inveterate fringer says “I can make pretty good money … I scrape by and do a bit of teaching and the odd commercial.”

Edinburgh’s performance poetry guy Jem Rolls is usually acknowledged as the guru of fringe festival income-maxing. A relentless selfpromoter, he’s back in Ottawa for the seventh consecutive year, this time with Leastest Flops, a compilation of his greatest hits, at Studio Leonard Beaulne.

Rolls says he makes his living exclusively from fringe festivals. “I keep the pedal to the metal all the time.” On the other hand, “I haven’t had a home since 2006. I’ve got a girlfriend, and she may want one.”