Posted by: nancykenny | July 21, 2009

It’s Because I’m From Ottawa, Isn’t It?

Well, the first weekend of the Winnipeg Fringe Festival has come and gone and I must say I have mixed feelings about the darn thing.  There seems to be a bit of a media bias towards some of the Ottawa folks as Amy Lester seems to be in the same boat.  You know, they won the Canal Feud, so why are they still picking on us?

As a whole, the festival is wonderful.  Tons of productions (146 to be precise), lots of interesting people to talk to, plenty of socializing… in fact the touring groups have been absolutely wonderful in making me feel welcome.  I feel like the kid sister with her very protective family around her.  Yesterday, someone said the nicest thing to me: “You can’t end your tour here.  We want the two of you to carry on the rest of the run with us.”  Man, is that ever tempting.  I almost wish I could.

Almost.

You see, all the Winnipeg reviews for the show are now out and they are just terrible.  The Winnipeg Free Press was actually kinder than the others, but she totally spoils the ending.  If you haven’t seen the show yet and were planning on it, don’t read the review if you don’t want to know what happens.  The WFP reviewer also totally got the existential nature of the piece – something the CBC and Sun did not – but I now realize it’s because they saw the show on opening night.

(I’m kind of sick of seeing these reviews, so I won’t be linking them.  That said, you can easily look them up yourself through CBC Manitoba, the Winnipeg Sun and the Winnipeg Free Press.)

Opening night was quite the gong show of technical glitches.  In fact, I wouldn’t call them glitches, they were outright problems.  The entire beginning of the piece had to be reworked on the spot and some key elements were cut out.  Of course, there were two reviewers sitting in the audience when this happened.

The reviewers also all seem to have a problem with the show being 30 minutes (or shorter depending on which reviewer you ask).  This puzzles me like you would not believe.  In Ottawa, as I was marathon fringing I was always thrilled for a 30-45 minute piece.  It gave me more of a break in between shows and I had time to digest what I saw.  Besides, wouldn’t you rather see a quality 30 minute piece instead of a bloated 90 minute one?  Apparently not.  It seems time equals value for money here.  Natasha, while flyering, had this conversation:

“I don’t go to Ragpickers (our venue) because it’s too hot.”

“Oh well, we have air conditioning now.  Besides, the show is only 30 minutes…”

“30 minutes! No, I don’t think I’m going to go to that.”

Uh, ok.

As of Friday, we had definitely found our groove with the show.  Our performances are better than they have ever been and I’m quite pleased with the rapport we’ve established on stage.  Unfortunately, our first review also came out this past weekend which coincided with a 60% drop in our audience.  Saturday, only 3 people had paid to see the show; the other 9 were performers and volunteers.  Sunday’s audience was similar in size, though half of them stuck around after to talk to us.  They loved the show.  I was also thrilled to notice how young they were and they still understood it.

I guess this is the kind of show you either get or you don’t.  I thought Winnipeg was a more understanding theatre town, but I guess I was wrong.  So far, only two people seem to know who Judith Thompson is.  An American woman from Portland and a sweet teenager in a Zombie Prom T-Shirt.  Weird.

Next step: more flyers!


Responses

  1. I understand reviewers have a lot of shows to cover, but I wish they wouldn’t come to opening performances. The odds of technical glitches/problems are so much higher. It’s not fair to judge a show when it’s still finding it’s feet.

    • I’ve heard this from a lot of Fringe performers about reviewers:

      “I wish they wouldn’t come to opening performances.”

      I have a lot of respect for performers.

      But I have no respect for that statement.

      As a singer and chorister I get ONE chance to perform. Opening night is the only night. I (or the choir i’m in) have to get it right or go home. When I solo I have one chance to fill Christchurch Cathedral or Saint Giles Church or the Ottawa City Council Chamber with my voice. I get no second chance.

      Musicians often get only one chance to perform in a given city. The National Arts Centre Orchestra performs their main series’ reportoire only twice. Do they ask for reviewers not to come to the first of two performances?

      As a frequent Fringer, I often attend opening nights. There’s a reason Fringe festivals offer incentives (multi-show passes, 2-for-1 nights) for the audience to attend opening night: this is a chance to build word of mouth for a show early. If the reviews go south, only word of mouth can save the show’s ticket sales. These are dedicated theatre goers who have lots of friends. If Rob Schuppel (who sees about 90 shows a year and has seen over 1000 Fringe shows) decides to come to opening night, why give him a poorly prepared show? Why would performers risk bad word of mouth by not being prepared for opening night?

      And word of mouth is powerful. By the final Friday of the 2009 Winnipeg Fringe Festival there were shows with 5 star reviews getting half full houses, while some shows with 4 star reviews were selling out. I’ve seen shows sell out after the first night and every night starting with word of mouth, even before the reviews have come out.

      As a former reviewer, I have written 17 reviews in 5 days to meet deadlines. Was I supposed to see and review 17 shows in 3 days? Every hour counts at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival. I have submitted a review at 8:30AM and found it on a sandwich board by 5PM the same day.

      The Winnipeg Fringe Festival is highly competitive. 146 companies are vying for bums in seats. Reviewers from the Winnipeg Free Press and CBC Manitoba go to see shows in Montreal and Toronto respectively to have reviews available for the second day of the Winnipeg Fringe. Each show gets at least 3 or 4 reviews. The audience there is that demanding. Gone are the days when a top-class show might have to wait over a week for a review.

      In such a competitive environment, why not be prepared? It’s called rehearsal. Jem Rolls starts rehearsing for the Fringe circuit in FEBRUARY! No wonder that he can deliver his poetry with machine-gun speed.

      Opening night reviewers and frequent fringers are facts of life.

      As the boy scouts say: Be Prepared!

      • Brian,

        You’ve made some good points. I wasn’t thinking of the sheer volume of shows a reviewer generally sees over the course of a festival. You’re right that skipping opening performances isn’t feasible for critics (or Frequent Fringers). And I absolutely agree that being as prepared as possible will stand you and your show in good stead.

        You get one shot when you sing (I would love to hear you, btw). One shot to make it good. But – please correct me if I’m wrong – I’m assuming you have several rehearsals leading up to that one performance.

        Fringers get one rehearsal with their tech person. So while the performers can and should prepare well in advance, the person in the booth doesn’t get that chance. Hence glitches and outright screw ups, especially during opening shows.

        Had I been more thoughtful in my initial response, I might have said this: I think a reviewer (particularly someone who’s seen over 1000 shows) can be a little more forgiving of technical errors in a Fringe opening. Those types of mistakes aren’t necessarily indicative of a weak production or an unprepared cast.

  2. Wow a heated discussion on my blog! I love it!

    Brian, while I completely agree with you about being prepared, there were a few things beyond my control, which I will not discuss here. I can however talk to you about them the next time I see you.

  3. Nadine,

    For singers and choirs, the equivalent of a tech rehearsal is the “dress” rehearsal. We get only one, same as Fringe performers.

    Yes, as a singer or chorister we rehearse for months.

    Our choir rehearses three months for Christmas and four months for Spring. This is in Jem Rolls territory. Rehearsals are once a week, and include an accompanist on piano. We also hold 1-2 sectionals a season, which includes one with our choir director.

    My voice coach holds two recitals a year, Christmas and June. I rehearse three months for Christmas and five months for June. Some really difficult songs have taken me two terms. Tchaikovsky’s O Maria, Maria has a high A flat, which is very high for a baritone. I spent a year and a half working on that one. I see my coach once a week (she plays piano).

    I also typically practice on my own 2-4 times a week.

    The equivalent of tech rehearsal for us is “dress” rehearsal. There is only one dress rehearsal. Two would blow the budget. We never dress up for “dress”.

    For choir, this is the only time that we rehearse with our orchestra (paid), with the organ (church), and/or with hired soloists. Yes they’ve practiced individually, but not as a group. Nor have they rehearsed with a conductor. The only musician we’ve rehearsed with is our accompanist, who often plays less than half the concert. This means there are more cats for the conductor to herd through one dress and one concert.

    It’s also the only time we rehearse in the venue. We’re our own stage hands. We reconfigure the church to accommodate the risers and the orchestra. We usually have to do setup and tear down twice: dress and performance. There’s always something new. (I’ve been concert coordinator for a year, and part of stage crew for six years.)

    For solo recitals, I get one dress with the paid accompanist for half an hour. He comes in from Montreal. Most of my voice coach’s students perform at the recital. Our accompanist had to perform 41 songs. Three were mine. Not all the repertoire is new to him, but he practices for only a week. He’s a magician, but even he found the Tchaikovsky tough.

    On the Fringe circuit, some performers travel with their own stage manager, who supplements the tech. Or performers stage manage each others shows. (Eg. I often see Jonny P as SM for other people’s shows.) This provides some continuity from city to city, making opening night less risky.

    Winnipeg is the fifth city on the circuit (after Orlando, Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto). Audiences and reviewers there have high expectations. Competition is stiff: 146 companies. With a paid attendance of over 81,000, this is (for now) the biggest Fringe on the Canadian (CAFF) circuit. And the competition gets better every year.

    Ottawa is more forgiving. Too forgiving. Every year I see performers who do well in Ottawa, only to get eaten up in Winnipeg. Keir Cutler sees the same thing in Montreal. It kills us. That’s why we try to advise performers how to improve their odds on the Fringe circuit.

    That’s why we advised Nancy to get her feet wet first, in only one city outside Ottawa.

    Nancy, if this is your idea of heated discussion, you need to get out more.

    Nancy, I know this is your blog, but my rant wasn’t about you. (I know, I know. You’re shocked and appalled.)

    It’s about an attitude among a minority of Fringe performers that “we’ll fix it up after opening night”. Or worse, we’ll fix it up in Montreal, or Ottawa or Toronto.

    Now some folks use the Fringe circuit for development. Deliberately. I have no problem with that. Fringe is unjuried and uncensored. They can put whatever they want on stage. But they shouldn’t expect big houses, or even medium houses. Or great reviews. As TJ Dawe would say to them: “Suck it up”.

    Nadine, my choir, Musica Viva Singers, next performs on Monday, December 7th, 7:30PM at St. Matthews Church in a joint concert with Harmonia Choir. Tickets are $15. We’re putting around 90 people on stage, so we’ll probably have only organ and piano. But we’ll have two choir conductors. And I don’t know whether we’ll hire soloists or take them from the choirs. I’m “looking forward” to the challenge.

    Nancy, I always enjoy chatting with you. I’d be delighted to do hot chocolate or lunch so you can bend my ear. You have my cell number.

    End of “rant”.

    Brian

  4. I hope to do some Fringe touring in a couple of years with my son in tow. I’ll keep this advice in mind.


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