by Patrick Gauthier
June 27, 2009
Strong performances contribute to another attendance record
That guy who just flashed by like Superman exiting a phone booth? He’s not on his way to intercept an earthbound asteroid — he just heard there was a ticket left for Countries Shaped Like Stars.
The delightfully quirky love story by Ottawa’s Â¡Mi Casa! has proven to be one of the runaway successes at this year’s 13th annual Ottawa Fringe Festival, which ends Sunday and is on track to set an attendance record. Other big draws contributing to that impending record have included the clown show Inclement Weather, another Â¡Mi Casa!offering; Catgut Strung Violin, a brilliantly funny war tale by Albuquerque, New Mexico’s Tricklock Company; and the X-rated … Comes Around from Gatineau’s The Absinthe Collective and mutatis mutandis.
Organizers predict a total attendance of 13,000 for this year’s 11-day festival of short theatre pieces. That’s up from last year’s 12,000, itself a record. As of Thursday, attendance had hit 7,000, compared to just under 6,000 at the same point last year.
Traditionally, attendance spikes on weekends when shows run in the afternoons as well as the evenings, and this year shows no sign of bucking the trend.
Especially noteworthy is the jump in the sale of passes, says outgoing executive producer Kevin Waghorn. Last year, he did a second printing of passes on day seven; this year, it was on day three. “People are committing to seeing more shows. They’re getting into the fringing experience instead of just seeing a show here and there.”
That fringing experience has fans hurriedly comparing notes on what they’ve seen as they hustle between the festival’s 57 shows in a dozen-odd venues around Ottawa Arts Court or grab a beer in the adjacent Fringe Courtyard.
It’s also fired up competitive instincts: “I’ve seen 27 so far. I think that’s more than anyone,” enthused one fringe-lover waiting at a crosswalk Thursday evening.
Brian M. Carroll has been an Ottawa Fringe Festival-goer since its inception, his wife Barbara Popel almost as long. Carroll says he’s seen a notable jump in both the quantity and quality of local performers.
“That’s made for a much richer fringe over the past two years.”
Popel adds that organizers’ push to attract more national and international performers (for example, Australia’s rubber-limbed Jonno Katz, whose The Accident is a must-see) also heightens the overall quality of shows because “only the really good ones can actually make money or hope to make money (touring).”
Asked what they would do to improve the fringe’s success, Popel says she’d keep the website (www.ottawafringe.com) up-to-the-minute. Carroll suggests extending the fringe’s reach by getting programs into suburban convenience, grocery and liquor stores, as the Winnipeg Fringe Festival does.
The couple agree that Beverley Wolfe’s Jump, a dark comedy about youth, age and loneliness, and THEATrePUBLIC’s wartime epic Spiral Dive: Episode One are among this year’s top shows.
Popel adds the spirited Catgut Strung Violin, calling it “the quintessential fringe piece,” while her
husband nominates Leastest Flops by Jem Rolls, in which the Edinburgh artist reworks highlights from his last six performance poetry shows.
Some other patrons have been less than enthusiastic about shows like Chaotica and The Secret Love Life of Ophelia, saying they lacked focus or simply made no sense. Food prices (up to $9 for a wrap, albeit a good one) in the Fringe Courtyard have reportedly sparked some grumbling and, as usual, Arts Court Library has proven to be a hopeless venue with bad sightlines.
None of which has dampened Waghorn’s enthusiasm as he completes his fourth and final year as executive producer (he’s being succeeded by current general manager Natalie Joy Quesnel).
Under Waghorn, attendance has climbed from 9,000 to this year’s projected 13,000, and the overall quality of shows strengthened dramatically.
“There’s a lot of momentum going forward,” he says. “It will be tough to walk away.”