Arts and Music

International Shows at Hamilton Fringe Festival

Several shows playing at this year's Hamilton Fringe Festival are international in origin.

By Brian Morton
Published July 19, 2019

Way back in 2006, for the third edition of the Hamilton Fringe Festival, there was a production that was accepted into the festival, that was thought to be coming from Ancaster. In fact, that show, called "Creena DeFoouie", by playwright Charlotte Barton-Hoare, was flying into Hamilton direct from the Edinburgh Fringe, where it had played, the two weeks before, to packed houses.

The Hamilton connection was actor Lisa Marie DiLiberto, who is currently the Artistic Producer of Theatre Direct in Toronto, and has toured across Canada, with her series of "Talk of the Town" plays. She was one of the three performers in the play.

This was the first international production I recall seeing at the Hamilton Fringe, and it did very well indeed, becoming one of the highest grossing productions in the festival that year.

The play was a Gothic horror romp through an insane asylum, and featured a memorable scene with duelling dildos that, once seen, would never be forgotten.

Gary Smith in the Hamilton Spectator raved about the play, saying, "if crazy were crack, Creena would be the best buzz available" and that "this was the world-class theatre that the Fringe promised". Two of my favourite Fringe-related quotes of all time.

Why bring this up, thirteen years later? Well, it's because, in the 2019 Hamilton Fringe, there are now four plays being presented by international artists. And who knows if one of them may be the cool, hit "must-see" play of the fifty-six productions in the festival?

I had the chance to speak to a few of the artists coming "from away" to be part of the sixteenth edition of the Hamilton Fringe. A few of them, have been part of the much larger Toronto Fringe, which wrapped up this past weekend.

Both "Fuckboys The Musical", presented by Generation Productions of Orlando, Florida, and "Squeeze My Cans" by actor and playwright Cathy Schenkelberg, who is driving to Hamilton in a camper van, got rave reviews in the Toronto press, including mentions on several "top ten" lists of shows to see, and are coming into town with some "buzz" attached already.

Schenkelberg is a relative newbie to the Fringe touring circuit, having performed in her first Fringe festival in Hollywood, California in 2016.

Her play is a personal account of having survived Scientology, which she describes as "a true journey through the rabbit hole of this infamous cult, representing an everyday woman's story of a young adult, searching for her place and purpose in life, which is moving, hilarious, heart-breaking and redemptive."

I myself adore theatre that has a specific point of view, and Cathy's production certainly fits into that.

"My show offers an insight from the experience of a single mom from Nebraska, whose only mistake was thinking Scientology was the answer to helping mankind. I love when parents bring their teens to the show, because Scientology is getting more sneaky with their 'front groups' to lure these young adults on college campuses, malls and even farmers markets!"

Many patrons think that perhaps the production is some kind of Burlesque show, given the focus on "cans" - i.e. boobs - in the graphics. But there is clearly a deeper meaning in that, and a great deal of humour too, as the play features a talking Alien puppet named "Xenu".

It was the Adelaide Fringe's 2019 Pick of the Fringe in Australia last March. Schenkelberg has also played the Fringe festivals in Edinburgh, Sydney, Chicago, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver, an impressive journey indeed!

"I lost so much of my life to a cult. As a singer and actress, Scientology took the prime years of my life and my money. The creation of "Squeeze My Cans", came from spoken word, storytelling and podcasts. Creating this true story in a theatrical manner was therapy for my soul. I am truly living a life I had only dreamed of, Writing and exploring the world on a credit card!"

A more veteran Fringe circuit performer is Jimmy Hogg from Plymouth, England, who is appearing at the Staircase Theatre in his show, "Like a Virgin", a comedy about the trials of youth, love, and loss - of virginity. It features physical, fast-paced, hilarious storytelling.

Hogg, who has been compared to Rik Mayall, Eric Idle, and Eddie Izzard, tells me, "the first Fringe I did was way back in 2005, going to the Abbotsford Fringe in B.C. - which no longer exists - where I was performing in this massive, 750 seat auditorium. My opening show, there were five people there, spread out in this huge huge space - but in the front row there were two little kids around seven or eight years old, and about five minutes into the show one of them turns around and yells to his mother who is about ten rows back, 'I thought this was meant to be funny!' Still the best heckle I've ever had."

Having a good sense of humour and a positive attitude is essential to making it on the Fringe circuit.

"It can be difficult sometimes, especially if you're new to a city - I just try and represent myself as being a solid professional (who's funny), and hopefully people decide, that it's worth spending twelve bucks. I mean, obviously I flyer a lot. Getting a chance to speak to your potential audience is really what sets Fringe aside from other modes of performance."

One of the joys of the Fringe is having a conversation with an artist before and after having seen their work. It is rare for audience members to have that connection to theatre creators anywhere else.

"I don't think of myself as being in competition with the other acts in the festival. I've done the Edinburgh Fringe the last couple of years, and there's something incredibly humbling about being in such a large pool of two thousand shows. Don't get me wrong: it's tough, it's exhausting - but if you can stay afloat there, you can stay afloat anywhere. Also, the thing about Fringe is there is a community of performers who look out for each other, who will help you get people to your show, who will discuss your work with you, who will talk you down after you've had a bad review or played to a small audience. We take care of each other."

The person who has made the farthest journey to be in the Hamilton Fringe this year is certainly Penny Ashton, who arrived at Pearson airport early this past Sunday evening from her home in Auckland, New Zealand. Her production in the festival is called "Promise and Promiscuity: A New Musical". It is a comic take on the life and work of literary giant and perennial favourite of the English-lit crowd, Jane Austen.

"My first international Fringe was Edinburgh in 2004. I thought I'd start small. I met some of the best friends I've made in my life there, but I also sobbed up against a door and slid into a soggy puddle on the floor because six seemingly clinically dead people weren't laughing. The next day I got a five star review!"

I myself performed at the Edinburgh Fringe back in 1990. What they don't tell you before you get there is that the average audience at the festival, which has more than two thousand plays in four hundred venues, is only six people. Succeeding in Edinburgh is about getting good reviews and being the right venue. But many who perform there don't figure that out the first time round.

"Finding an audience - well, word of mouth - is a huge tool there. You of course, initially need a show concept that piques people's interest, and happily Jane Austen's fan-base is rabid and everywhere; I think there are Martians in love with Mr Darcy. Facebook advertising is a useful tool and flyering my ass off when I hit the Fringe grounds. As to an emotional connection, people all over the world recognize the main thrusts of any Austen novel; the search for love AND security. It's not just about romance, it's also about paying for the bonnets. I also have a strong feminist message running through and a metric shit tonne of Balls jokes; 'Oh Mr Wrexham, you do hold balls extremely well sir!'."

The tagline for Penny's play is, "I am all astonishment; it is as if I am alive again. - Jane Austen." Expect Ashton to tackle all of Austen's characters with song, dance, ukulele playing and "appalling cross-stitching". It sounds like quite a lark! "How will Miss Elspeth battle literary snobbery, cousin Horatio's digestions and her mother's nerves, armed only with a blushing countenance, excellent ukulele skills and being quite bright, you know... for a girl?" - she asks.

Dundurn Street seems to be the port of call for many of these international artists.

"Collette Kendall, the powerhouse amongst women who runs the Staircase Theatre, is someone I met back in 2007 with her Tippi Seagram character. We shared a very shitty venue in Edmonton, and have been buddies ever since, and I thought I should come and see this massive spiral staircase for myself. Also this is my year of Hamilton. I just did this show in Hamilton NZ, saw the play "Hamilton" in San Francisco, and now, here I am in Hamilton, Ontario! My next stop is Scotland, in August."

There is also a Fringe festival in Hamilton, New Zealand that happens in December, which in the Southern Hemisphere, is the middle of their summer. It is rare, though, for a Fringe artist to be able to say that they have played both of the Hamilton Fringe Festivals! Only "Laser Kiwi", which played at Theatre Aquarius two years ago, can also claim this distinction.

Sadly, I was not able to successfully contact anyone from "Fuckboys" which is playing the newly renovated 350 seat Westdale Theatre, so I will need to relate the info from their press material in order to describe their production.

The play is touted as "sharp and exacting songs that will get stuck in your head, with a biting yet heartfelt story. Great for a girl's night, a date night, or a solo treat-yourself night". From the sounds of that blurb, and its subtitle. "A Haphazard Guide to Navigating the Modern Dating Scene", it is likely a female-centric show that mixes up the idea of a traditional "Rom-Com" with an exploration of toxic masculinity.

"Fuckboys the Musical" is on the tail end of a five stop Ontario Fringe circuit tour over the past few months that has taken them through Windsor-Walkerville, London, Ottawa, Toronto, and now Hamilton.

Their production debuted at the Orlando Florida Fringe, which is one of the thirty-three members of the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals - which follow the "Edmonton model", where the venue is provided by the festival itself, and there is no artistic direction of any of the plays programmed. No censorship is allowed of any productions, so artists are free to stage or say anything they like. Finally, 100 percent of all box office revenues go directly to the artists involved in the festival.

So there you go, Hamilton! The annual "all you can eat" buffet of theatrical performance is now upon us, opening at twelve venues around Hamilton and running for the next two weekends. There is certainly something for everyone, including a brand new family friendly "Kids Fringe" at Theatre Aquarius that runs every morning.

You will certainly spot me standing in line at many of these productions. Tell me what you saw and enjoyed. Who knows what we might discover together? Why not check it out and see!

Raise the Hammer is publishing community reviews of Fringe performances, which can be viewed here.

Brian Morton is a director and playwright, and was the recipient of the 2013 Hamilton Arts Award for Theatre. In 1988, after two years training in Montreal at the National Theatre School of Canada, Morton was the founder and first artistic director of Theatre Terra Nova, which operated out of a 100 seat theatre on Dundurn Street. Three years after that, he was a partner with Guy Sprung in the Evelyn Group, which reopened the historic 750 seat Tivoli Theatre, as a venue for live performance with a production of Douglas Rodger’s play “How Could You, Mrs Dick?”, which dramatized the story of Hamilton’s notorious Evelyn Dick. With Theatre Erebus, he produced the UK premieres of four Canadian plays for the 1990 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. His stage adaptation of Sylvia Fraser’s “My Father’s House”, has had five productions, since it debuted in in 1992, at the Dundas Centre for the Arts. Morton’s “New Talent” was the highest grossing show in the 2008 Hamilton Fringe Festival, and in 2010, it toured to the London and Toronto Fringe Festivals. Brian’s original musical, “Under the Apple Tree”, about a shooting that happened backstage, at the Lyric theatre on Mary street in November 1921, debuted in the 2018 Hamilton Fringe Festival, and was presented at the 300-seat Zoetic Theatre; it got a second run at the Pearl Company, this past November. Brian was also the producer of the 2012 Hamilton Fringe Festival. He is currently a drama critic, and arts journalist for "VIEW Magazine", and has also published articles in the “Hamilton Spectator” and the “McMaster Silhouette”.

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