Stop 2: Varscona Theatre
VOICE: And it came to pass that Father Fringe delivered his staff across Whyte Avenue to their new home at 10329 – 83 Avenue and it was good. The building’s original purpose: Firehall #6 built in 1956 not to be confused with the other Fire Hall #6 built in 1909 right across the street which eventually became Walterdale Theatre. I know. That’s a lot of former firehalls to keep track of but stay with me.
This space becomes the makeshift headquarters for Return of the Fringe. More shows – more audience – more venues. Another rip-roaring success for Father Fringe and the gang.
In December of 1983, after $200,000 worth of renovations, Chinook Theatre officially opens its doors.
FATHER FRINGE: Bro, I’m aiming for an intimate space that literally embraces the stage so actors and audience can feel as close as possible and are always aware of each other’s presence. It’s like we’re co-conspirators in the theatrical experience you dig?
VOICE: Fringe Artists are not just local anymore. As word spreads participants start arriving from all over North America and places as far away as England, Northern Ireland, Uganda, South Africa, New Zealand.
And Fringe Venues are being fruitful and multiplying. From 1982 to 1985 venues jump from 5 to 13 all within walking distance of the main Fringe site.
It’s 1988. Winds of change are blowing. For one thing we’re ditching this whole biblical metaphor in favour of something a little less pretentious. I’m thinking sitcom?
SOUND: PERKY SITCOM THEME MUSIC A LA MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW
Judy Lawrence arrives in Edmonton to become Assistant to Father Fringe. Co-workers affectionately refer to her as Judy “Tyler Moore” because she’s a perky optimistic career woman trying to make it on her own.
JUDY TM: Give it a rest, pal!
VOICE: In two years Judy “Tyler Moore” is running the whole operation.
VOICE: After creating the largest alternative theatre festival this side of the Atlantic and inspiring numerous Fringes across North America, Father Fringe departs in search of brand new challenges.
FATHER FRINGE: Catch you on the flipside, bro!
SOUND: FARM ANIMAL SOUNDS
VOICE: (CRYING OUT) Ферма животное! Ferma zhivotnoye! In 1991, during X Marks the Fringe, conservative forces in the Soviet Union stage a bloodless coup to depose president Mikhail Gorbachev. Twenty-two young soviet actors, in Edmonton to perform a Russian adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, are stranded, unsure if they will be allowed back into their country.
SOUND: SAD BALALAIKA MUSIC
Many nights you can hear them gathered in the Beer Tent singing mournful Russian folk songs. Members of the Edmonton theatre community open their homes to them cuz that’s what we do.
BEER TENT ASIDE: The first Fringe Beer Tent is in the Walterdale Theatre Parking Lot but at the time the Alberta Liquor Control Board’s rules are such that it cannot be referred to as a Beer Tent. It is an Extended Lobby (“extended” from an existing Fringe venue) and to partake of an alcoholic beverage a patron must show proof that they have or will be attending a Fringe show. Flashing your ticket stubs or your Fringe programme will get you into that extended lobby.
At The Fringe Also Rises, a number of artists decide to do site-specific performances using spaces other than official Fringe venues.
A Midsummer Night’s Ice Dream is performed by the National Ice Theatre of Canada at the Granite Curling Club. And then there’s Ron Jenkins’ Eureka! performed in the used car show room of Hugh McColl’s on Whyte. The audience sits on cardboard as a car comes speeding into the space and a hostage is pulled from the trunk. Riveting stuff. So riveting that during rehearsal the SWAT team is called by some conscientious citizen who glimpses a “crime in progress” and does his civic duty.
As Father Fringe once said:
FATHER FRINGE: Given enough resources and enough talent and imagination any space can be turned into a place of performance.
VOICE: During a particularly raucous happy hour one Friday afternoon Judy “Tyler Moore” and staff coin a new term:
JUDY T L: (A LITTLE DRUNK) Why don’t we call ‘em B.Y.O.V.s for Bring Your Own Venue?! Huh? Huh?
SOUND: MUCH HOOTING OF APPROVAL
JUDY T L: Can someone pass the Scotch?
VOICE: And a whole new way of fringing is born. The term B.Y.O.V. catches on around the country and is used at a number of other Fringes to this day.
SCANDALOUS ASIDE: It’s 1994. There’s a production touring Fringes across Canada. It is called Good Girl, Bad Girl. The play, about female empowerment contains no nudity, no sex, no violence. But just as the tour begins, there is a slight title change. The title now contains a coarse anglo saxon word for female private parts.
SOUND: TELEPHONE RINGING
JUDY T M: Judy here. Oh hey. Great to hear from you. We’re really looking forward to your show this summer. Good Girl, Bad Girl. Heard great things. I— hmm? You’re changing the name of your show? Shouldn’t be a problem. Happens all the time. What’s the new name? The Happy— what? (PAUSE) Oh. And how do you spell that? (PAUSE) That’s what I thought. Well, there you go. See you in August.
VOICE: This title change causes a wave of protest at Fringes across Canada. Some festivals cave to public pressure and ask that the group stick to the original title. In Edmonton there are police warnings regarding postering and concerns from various sources. But Judy “Tyler Moore” will have none of it!
JUDY T M: C’mon people! This is the Fringe. We don’t jury or censor here!
VOICE: Risking possible legal blowback, Judy “Tyler Moore” hangs the poster at the opening reception for everyone to see.
JUDY T M: We must never forget that we are a forum for artists to produce their own work independently and test their ideas. That’s what we’re here for.
VOICE: From this point on, the cover of the Fringe program always contains a warning like—
JUDY T M: “Beware: may (probably does) contain language and/or ideas construed as thoughtful, radical, controversial, provocative, offensive, child like, half-baked, ill-conceived — the list of possibilities is endless.”
VOICE: It’s 1994 and there are radical changes in the offing.
JUDY T M: Hey Firehall 6, got some news and it’s not gonna be easy to hear. We’re leaving. Please understand. It’s not you. It’s us. Over the years we’ve grown. You must’ve noticed that. And the Bus Barns can offer so much more space: for Fringe theatres, for administration offices, for production shops. We’re gonna miss you something awful. But we’ll always have the memories. Well, there you go.
VOICE: The Varscona Theatre Alliance, a group of Edmonton theatre artists, takes over the building and renames it the New Varscona Theatre. Initially, there is some concern that, once Chinook signs the lease for the Bus Barns, that the City will evict the Varscona Theatre Alliance to make way for a restaurant or retail space. City Councilor Michael Phair and various members of the media go to bat for the group and they are allowed to take over the lease on the city-owned building.
VOICE: Okay Fringer – let’s keep on keeping on. We’re going to wander over to our friends and neighbours, The Old Strathcona Farmers Market. To get there, head east on 83 Avenue and hang a left to the Farmers Market on Gateway Blvd (also known as 103 Street). Pause here to take in the Farmers Market art. Now, press play on Part 3.