Edmonton Economic Development Corporation: How an Exploding Theatre Festival Helped to Build a Neighbourhood
Edmonton, Alberta – March 6, 2012 – In 1982, the historic Old Strathcona neighbourhood in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada was walloped by the recession. The frontier storefronts of Whyte Avenue, the main street of Old Strathcona, only remained in place because no one had the money to knock them down and build something else.
A theatre producer in Old Strathcona named Brian Paisley received a $50,000 arts grant to do… something. It was money left over from a dying program, and there were only two options: spend it fast or lose it. There were hundreds of options. Arts administrators have a particular talent for spending money. But Paisley wanted to do something special.He tested some ideas on fellow-schemers in the neighbourhood. He wondered if there might be an entirely new way to bring artists and audiences together. Edmonton already had the largest theatre complex in Canada, west of Stratford. Playwrights and directors and actors were everywhere, waiting for some time on the boards. For a medium-sized city, theatre audiences in Edmonton were brave and sophisticated. Per-capita, Edmonton has the most live theatres in Canada.
Everyone had heard of the Edinburgh Fringe. No one could replicate that model overnight, and independent producers in Edmonton didn’t have that kind of money. But Paisley liked the word. He was happy to steal “Fringe” and affix it to a system of his own invention that seemed to fit the culture of Edmonton. This wouldn’t be a downtown, dress-up theatre event with stars imported from New York and Toronto. This would be Edmontonians entertaining – and occasionally horrifying – other Edmontonians.
It exploded. Ten years later, the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival had helped rebuild and reinvigorate Old Strathcona. It started making top-five and top-ten lists for the best, the funkiest, the coolest, and the best shopping neighbourhoods in Canada.
Theatre artists from all over the world had heard about it and were showing up in Edmonton in August: the spirit of risk and experimentation, the wildly curious audience members, the ten-day street party that had grown around it. The festival had infected the rest of the theatre season, and had determined a good portion of Edmonton’s soul.
Soon, every large city in North America was borrowing the model of the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival. Thirty years later, it remains the biggest and best on the continent, with a temporary population of over 500,000, and continues to be a global innovator.
Why Edmonton? Call it Fringe-ness, but what makes this city unique is its bottom-up culture. When a festival works in Edmonton, it really works. There is a spirit of oddness and invention about it. Edmonton is a city of entrepreneurs, and art entrepreneurs. If you have an idea, for a medical technology company or a surprisingly moving play about naked puppets who speak Ndebele, there probably isn’t a better city in North America to incubate and test it on an audience.
There is nothing else in the world like the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, built into a natural amphitheatre in the river valley, as the sun sets behind the city skyline. Edmonton is the most northerly major city on the continent. Our summer festivals are bright until eleven at night.
From June to September, we host the largest arts and design festival of its kind downtown. We celebrate First Nations heritage, Caribbean arts, food and folk traditions from around the world, sword-swallowing and contorting, jazz, blues, and some of the most bizarre and experimental performance art in the world.
And in the mysterious depths of winter it’s dark like nowhere else. The Winter Light festival, in January, is a magical night of theatre, light art, igloo-building and tobogganing in the middle of the largest stretch of urban parkland in North America – bringing Edmontonians out of their home theatres and into the drama of the city. We host ice sculptors and skaters from around the world, and throw fire and ice together. Every February, for the Canadian Birkebeiner cross-country ski festival, 1,500 of us schlep a 12-pound pack and ski 55 kilometres to honour an 800-year-old Nordic tradition.
We invite you to explore our city and our festivals this month, next month, all year long. Our goal is to make home theatres in Edmonton obsolete by 2020.
Edmonton Economic Development Corporation
Communications Manager External Relations