When Nakai Theatre’s artistic director David Skelton cancelled the Comedy Arts Festival in favour of the Pivot Festival, he wanted to “shake things up.”
Amid swaths of empty theatre seats and a barrage of disdainful critiques, things were indeed shaken up.
“Some of the people who went last year didn’t feel that it was theatre, or that it was performance—and they told us as much,” said Skelton.
“What it was, was a low-rent fringe (festival),” said former Guild Hall president Anthony Trombetta, who performed in the final year of the Comedy Arts Festival.
“A lot of the shows that were there, they didn’t really seem to have a lot of polish, and I wondered why you would spend so much money to bring people up that obviously need work on their shows,” he said.
Venues packed during the Comedy Arts Festival were not even half-full for Pivot, said Trombetta.
In all, 170 people showed up for the festival’s 10 shows.
“(Attendance) wasn’t what I wanted, but when you’re doing these kind of things you have to understand that it takes at least three years for a festival to find its feet,” said Skelton.
Pivot was conceived as a festival that would need some getting used to.
“The basic thing was to present a kind of performance, or theatre, that was rare in the Yukon,” said Skelton.
“(Pivot artists) are trying something that is stylistically pushing some bounds,” he said.
The 2008 lineup included a jazz singer with cerebral palsy, an aging drag-queen poet and Toronto performer Bruce Horak as the personification of cancer in his one-man show This is Cancer?.
Ulysses Castellanos brought his show Free Boot Licking.
Spectators would put their boots into a small box and Castellanos would then lick the boot clean. A strobe-lit viewing window on the top of the box would periodically reveal the artist’s g-stringed form.
Later, Castellanos hoisted himself to the ceiling as a “human pinata.” Audience members were encouraged to hit him with bats as he threw out candy.
“People were saying, ‘Should this happen?’‘Should I pay good money to see someone hit by a stick?’” said Skelton.
“It was, in some senses, a dare to the audience to come up and hit him with a stick, and there was also the natural drama of someone being observed being hit by a stick,” he said.
“Whitehorse is a small population, so sometimes things that are cutting edge, they just don’t have enough of an audience base to draw upon,” said Patrick Singh, general manager of the Frostbite Music Festival.
Frostbite’s programming has a base of sure-fire acts such as Quebec blues guitarist Roxanne Potvin and American blues singer Amos Garrett. From there, the festival also branches into more-risque realms, with “dangerous solo performer” Wax Mannequin.
“You’ve got to start from what you know people are going to like, and then get a little more edgy off that,” said Singh.
“You can’t just start out saying, ‘We’re going to start a freaking edgy festival and everybody’s going to love it and everybody’s going to come to it,” he said.
This year’s Pivot, by bringing in well-known acts like comedian Don Burnstick and New York-based cross-dressing pastiche artist Taylor Mac, has indeed tried to draw audiences by adopting a more “populist” edge, said Skelton.
“It will take some time for people to accept and get an appetite for this type of festival, but in the meantime we need people to come,” he said.
“This year, I don’t think that attendance will be the same issue, because I think they’ve got stuff that’s going to draw,” said Eric Epstein, artistic director of the Guild Hall, Yukon Arts Centre and the Frostbite Music Festival.
“I think they started off probably a bit too esoteric, and they needed someone like Taylor Mac who has a more popular edge,” he said.
“So I would say that they’re learning from what they’ve done in the past.”
The Pivot festival costs Nakai $41,000, most of which is supplied through grants.
If attendance matches last year, the festival will cost Nakai $241 a head.
“We’re being funded to do this, so we’re not making money, but we’re not losing money,” said Skelton.
Canadian Heritage has put forward $18,000, the Yukon Arts Funding program has put forward $9,000, corporate donors have supplied $6,000 and ticket revenues are expected to pull in $10,000.
Fringe theatre is typically lower-priced. At Pivot, no performance is less that .
In 2008, the high prices were a huge block to attracting spectators, said Trombetta.
“The ticket price (for fringe theatre) is usually low, which means it’s not a huge financial risk, like big city theatre is,” said Robert Wyma, executive director of Saskatoon’s 25th St. Theatre, which organizes the Saskatoon Fringe Festival.
Local content is the key to developing a steady fringe festival and making sure the community feels “hooked into something new,” said Janet Munsil, artistic director of the Victoria Fringe Festival.
“We worked really hard to build up the number of local artists in Victoria because they bring out local audiences,” said Munsil.
“The audience, the artists, the ecology of the theatre scene in your city—you need to develop all of those things together, and it takes a long time,” she said.
The 2009 Pivot Festival puts more focus on local content by including performances of Late Night with Grey Owl, an original piece written and performed by local artist Joseph Tisiga.
“There are fringes in small communities that are successful, but they really rely on community involvement in the process of putting together the festival,” said Gideon Arthurs, executive director of the Toronto Fringe Festival.
“The word festival is often neglected, you’ve got to remember that it’s not just putting on 10 plays, you have to surround it with an energy and a spirit of celebration that includes the people around it,” he said.
“A festival needs to keep an eye on who it wants to bring in the door,” said Epstein.
“I can’t say that (Skelton) is doing this, or has done this, but a danger is curating for yourself rather than curating for your audience,” he said.
Wintertime can be a risky time to hold a fringe festival, said Skelton.
“It was freaking cold, like minus 30, minus 40, during the time of Pivot,” he said.
“I’m sure that affected some people and they said, ‘Too cold out, I’m not going out,’” he said.
The Next Stage festival is the wintertime counterpart to Toronto’s Fringe Festival. In its first year, despite being held in the coldest two weeks of Toronto’s history, the festival saw 4,500 spectators.
“Winter and theatre are weirdly good partners, because you get to go inside and be part of a group of people who have braved the elements, and there’s a community that’s built as a result of doing that,” said Arthurs.
The festival openly flaunted its unorthodox season with the byline, “January is the new July.”
“For me, the jury’s out, and it will probably take a couple more years to see where it goes; we might be very surprised at how it develops,” said Epstein.
Contact Tristin Hopper at