Brownstein: Fringe fest facing financial shortfall, but show will go on for 34th edition

Executive and artistic director Amy Blackmore filed the festival’s annual charity return late and, as such, it has temporarily lost charitable status for the year, resulting in the loss of $50,000.

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Few directors would kick off their festivals by announcing that this year’s event would be experiencing a financial shortfall.

And fewer still would take ownership of the gaffe leading up to said shortfall.

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But Montreal Fringe Festival executive and artistic director Amy Blackmore has done so in launching the event’s 34th edition.

Blackmore filed the Fringe’s annual charity return late and, as such, it has temporarily lost charitable status for the year, resulting in the loss of $50,000.

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So Blackmore, in her 10th year managing the fest, has offered a mea culpa to Fringe patrons and is making a plea to them to help fill this financial void.

But the much better news is that the Fringe is at least back when others with money woes — like Juste pour rire/Just for Laughs and Toronto’s Hot Docs — won’t be.

Monetary constraints notwithstanding, the Fringe still has most of its $800,000 annual budget in place — from government subsidies, commercial sponsorships, donations et al — and this year’s fest, running until June 16, will feature 91 acts performing in 18 venues around mid-town.

“It’s been a really hard few years for all festivals and cultural events coming out of the pandemic,” says Blackmore, a former dancer who has been associated with the Fringe for nearly 25 years — going back to her high school days working as a volunteer. “Like everyone else, we’ve been hurting and we’ve been struggling with cost increases, deficits and finding people to work.”

So Blackmore concedes she took her eyes off the ball.

“Fringe is a not-for-profit group and is a charity, and having this status allows us to give tax receipts for donations. Because of how the situation has been over the last few years, there was an oversight on my part. I made a mistake, and we missed the deadline, so we currently don’t have the charity status. I’ve been working to get it back since November to bring us back to where we were. So we’re now out fundraising.”

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Blackmore’s candour is already paying off. Fringe fans have already stepped forward with donations, she acknowledges.

“Before I even announced it, I already had a donor offering us the first $1,000,” Blackmore says. “Also, we’ve already hit $25,000 in ticket sales in just a few days, which is ahead of last year’s sales for the same period. And last year was a record year. So that’s all been very uplifting.”

Although officially underway, the Fringe doesn’t really get going until June 6, when the bulk of its shows begin.

“The Fringe is nothing if not resilient, not just as a festival but for the artists themselves. A lot of artists have really been struggling as well.”

And as is not the case for most festivals, 100 per cent of box-office revenues go back to the artists, which certainly helps ease some of their financial struggles. Also unlike most other fests, artists are selected by lottery or on a first-applied basis. Plus, they have the freedom to perform what they want without much fear of censorship.

Audiences benefit as well with admission prices as accessible and low as any in the festival biz. Last year, the Fringe drew 60,000 visitors, but Blackmore expects to outdraw that figure this summer with an even more diverse lineup.

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Madeline Savoie, left, from Fringe show Personal Best is seen on stage with Kai Corrigan and Emily Bartlett, right, from the show Scraps, on Monday, May 27, 2024.
Madeline Savoie, left, from Fringe show Personal Best is seen on stage with Kai Corrigan and Emily Bartlett, right, from the show Scraps, on Monday, May 27, 2024. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

This year’s shows, in both English and French, will cover the gamut from comedy hijinks to high drama to high-kicking and even to some high sticking — the latter a reference to playwright Oren Safdie’s Being Ken Dryden.

“The Fringe is back to its pre-pandemic level and will be as explosive as ever,” Blackmore pledges. “I think this idea about anything goes still exists. It feels like it’s going to be one of the wildest years ever with outrageous puppetry and cabaret and even an environmental burlesque show.

“Younger participants will have the opportunity to address topics of the now — dealing with identity and politics and, of course, environmental issues.”

The Fringe may also be one of the few places to catch some giggles en anglais this summer.

Quebec City’s ComediHa! will be filling the hole previously occupied by Juste pour rire/Just for Laughs the last two weeks of July, and quite conceivably in the years to come. According to several sources, an announcement is expected within the week that ComediHa! has outbid Cirque du Soleil and others to procure the financially embattled Groupe Juste pour rire, which has been seeking protection from its creditors. But while there has been little news about contents of the July ComediHa! shows, it’s probably a good bet it will largely focus on franco humour.

“I’m realizing that we may be about the only game in town with regard to English comedy this summer,” says Blackmore, noting that Fringe has showcased and will again showcase its share of fine franco laughs. “Over the years, we’ve had some of the best comedy around with shows by Ali Hassan, DeAnne Smith and James Mullinger.”

And there will be no dearth of anglo chuckles again with shows by, among others, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Hacks actor Iris Bahr and Fringe favourite Jeff Gandell.

Says Blackmore: “It’s safe to say we can really use the laughs now.”

Yup.

AT A GLANCE

The 34th edition of the Montreal Fringe Festival runs until June 16.  For information and tickets, go to montrealfringe.ca.

[email protected]

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