How the Atlantic Fringe Festival made it to 25 years

City funding issues or not, the show must go on. And on.

How the Atlantic Fringe Festival made it to 25 years
Delusions of Grandeur.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Atlantic Fringe Festival, Halifax's alternative and accessible community-based small-theatre spectacular. And this week, there's even more than the festival's longevity to celebrate. 

Days before the Fringe's Thursday, September 3 opening, Halifax city council approved only $8,750 of the festival's $14,500 usual allocation for a special events grant. Immediately, festival director Thom Fitzgerald launched an IndieGoGo campaign to fund the remaining $6,000, which was necessary for AFF to run as planned.

Then on Tuesday, September 8—six days into the festival—after council realized that Fringe typically applies for funds greater than $14,500, council voted to increase Fringe's 2015 funding to $20,000. The motion passed by a vote of nine to six.

During council discussion, the funding snafu was regarded as an oversight. Denise Scofield, city manager of recreation and culture, said "council has, in the past, recognized significant anniversaries" when determining grants. Councillor Jennifer Watts added, "Fringe has a large impact as a culture incubator in our community, but it also brings in new folks." She happened to pinpoint two of the reasons why Fringe has lasted 25 years. "It's the nature of Fringe that artists do a lot with a little," says Fitzgerald, who staged his first Fringe show in 1992. "Fringe has always been so egalitarian. There's always new energy, there's hustle and bustle, and because it's not a curated festival, anybody—and I do mean anybody—can put on a show." 

The concept of the Fringe Festival originated in Scotland, Fitzgerald explains, as a group of theatre performers began their own festival in the 1940s and '50s to compete with the stuffy Edinburgh International Festival. Over the years, the Edinburgh Fringe grew into its own entity, eclipsing the original in popularity.

"Here, that's obviously not the same case," says Fitzgerald. In 1990, Ken Pinto began organizing the Atlantic Fringe Festival, "in the spirit of the Edinburgh Fringe," Fitzgerald says. He's indebted to Pinto's long-term commitment. "He did it as a one-man endeavour for 20 years," and his vision guided Fringe's growth. 

"While it wasn't resisting anything, it had the same tenets of the Fringe movement," says Fitzgerald. "One hundred percent of box office sales goes to the artist. It's not curated, there's nobody guarding the gate. It's first-come, first-served, or pulled out of a hat, like a lottery. It's cheap—the average ticket price is $8.15. It's that 'anything goes' uncensored attitude that makes Fringe fringe." 

In 2011, Pinto decided to cancel Fringe because there was little government support and, naturally enough, he needed a break. At that point, Fitzgerald and about a dozen community members took it on. Since then, the festival's audience has grown from 2,000 to over 10,000 per year. It's now a relatively stable entity, and it's larger than ever before. As of Monday, 2015 ticket sales were up by 16 per cent. Fringe's popularity is why this is Fitzgerald's last year as director. 

"That was my goal and it's the reason I feel I can pass the torch, the stability," he says. "I think that enough people are fringing that the whole community feels ownership of it now."

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