I didn’t realise it until a few days in, but this year marked my ten year anniversary of being a Fringer. Winnipeg Fringe is always the highlight of my year—I write about it every year probably with more passion than anything else because it invariably excites my soul to the point of bursting. Diving into ten days of such an explosion of creativity (seriously, this year we had over 175 different shows of every genre you could dream of), where the Exchange District ignites with passion and people pour torrentially to fill the streets, all sharing a common passion for art and theatre and these brilliant creations of the human mind… it’s like throwing yourself to the bottom of a lake and instead of drowning, thriving; soaking in every ounce of imagination as it fuels a burning excitement that lasts the entire festival.
I love the Fringe. I haven’t found another city that does it as perfectly as this one. It becomes a community, and for ten glorious sun-filled days, you live it. You feel a connection to everyone you see sharing it, enjoying it as much as you do. People come from everywhere on the planet to see or share amazing stories and performances, and the excitement and adrenaline and sheer connectedness that fills you as you take part in something amazing spills into the time between, which of course, turns into adventures. I don’t know what it was about this year (although I suspect being temporarily unemployed, as well as living without roommates for the first time had something to do with it), but Fringe 2014 was filled with a magic I’ll never forget.
Let’s start with the fact that one of my dearest friends in the world spent the festival with me. One of the great things about the festival is that it gives you the chance to billet performers—have someone who’s in town to do a show live with you for their tie in the city. Shelby comes up from LA every year and has been staying with me for a decade, now, and it’s always brilliant. Some years we don’t get to see each other as often as I’d like because I’m working, or he’s doing multiple shows, but this year, I had all the time in the world and he had a good number of days off, and we celebrated by throwing ourselves into all sorts of adventures with the most wonderful people I know.
In ten years, I’d never shown him anywhere outside the city, so we jumped in the car and headed south, accompanied by the best of soundtracks, and shot down the highway framed in endless fields of yellow. We found my favourite old barn and we waded through wild gold and we climbed to the rafters. We took pictures as the sun sank over the prairie horizon and left us with soaring trails of pink to light our way to an abandoned ghost town. We explored houses that looked as though they were straight out of a horror movie, scared ourselves with imaginings of what may lay in the basements, and ventured into a deserted church with only an oil lamp and a handful of stories. We sat on the balcony (or whatever that upper level of churches is called), lit candles, and marvelled at a silence thicker and heavier than the blackness surrounding. We read, we found creepy poems posted on the walls, and we left the memory written in a strange guestbook.
We did a spontaneous open mic—I’d never been on stage alone in my life, and though I’m finally becoming more comfortable singing with my new band (because they are incredible), I still make most people turn the other way if I’m to sing them a song. And there we were, my veins filled with the magical spirit of the festival, printing out lyrics to an eighties hit, never having practiced it, and within twenty minutes finding ourselves in front of an audience. We played and people applauded, and then I had another song to do, solo. For the first time ever. I sang something I’d written, and felt the battle raging inside me; on one side, the desire to show what I could do, what I’d created, that I could sing… the other, so afraid, all the nerves and anxiety I thought were a thing of the past wrapping around my vocal chords and strangling the life out of my voice. I made it through the song, but I knew I could’ve done so much better. I knew I had done so much better. I was thwarted, and I went back into the audience and cried. My friends told me I’d done great, but my emotions told me otherwise. I sobbed as my friend held my hands, reassuring me. She told me something I’ll never forget: “I strive to be like you.” This wonderful woman, saying these words to me. It made me cry harder, and I left with a fierce determination to prove myself better. Sometimes I wish I could just feel good about having tried. But to this day, I’m still unable to unless it’s brilliant. Experiences and endeavours should be epic. I don’t want to fall short. I don’t do mediocrity, and I know learning curves in anything are inevitable, but I don’t like being in them.
We always try to watch one wonderful film together (one of my favourite years was the one we chose Russell T. Davies’s Casanova with David Tennant), and this year, it was The Perks of Being a Wallflower. So wonderful. We watched it in pieces, because we both have the complete inability to focus on sitting still and not doing for extended periods of time. But it was lovely. We shared music, and each night before bed I’d read or write or watch EastEnders, and he’d write a handwritten note to his best friend back home and mail it to her the next morning. Such a wonderful soul. I’d never had breakfast in bed, so one morning we had blueberry pancakes. Blueberry pancakes and great music. “You deserve to have breakfast in bed.”
We loved our midnight adventure so much we rallied a group together later in the week, and six of us headed out in a van armed with candles, scary stories, ukuleles, and a thirst for adventure. We drove through the starlight to the same scary houses, the same abandoned church, climbing through the thickets and weeds and cradling our candlelight from the wind, ventured up into the church bell tower. We told tales of frights and unfortunate children and made our way to the altar in the dead of night. Our friend Walter, an incredible musician, brought out his guitar, and performed a series of what we dubbed “murder ballads” as we huddled together in the darkness. The echoes of these fantastically morbid, brilliant folk tales rang throughout the church and our hearts were alight with an eager excitement.
We went glow bowling, we pressed flowers, we ventured into a forest where I was eaten alive, I met a Transformer, learned how to swing dance… and of course, we saw more shows than I can count. From the wit and hilarity of shows like Fruitcake, Like Father, Like Son (Sorry), and God is a Scottish Drag Queen (“Hallowed” is a shitty name!) to the rocking good time of Die Roten Punkte’s EuroSmash (where I got to dance in the aisles, rock out and laugh so hard), see the return of the banananhaus and take home one of the enormous balloons that fell from the ceiling), to the sheer uniqueness of the Wonderheads… from shows like This is Cancer, which sold out every show and was quite possibly the strangest and most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen (a real-life cancer survivor, who’s lost 90% of his vision, dressed in a gold lamé suit filled with lumps and bumps personifying the disease in a one-man comedy that left the audience laughing and sobbing, and me calling somebody afterward to tell them how thankful I am they’re alive…) to seeing phenomenal performers like Martin Dockery, who’s given me my some of my favourite theatrical experiences of all time return with new shows and true stories that only he can tell in his brilliant way, to seeing audiences flock to Shelby‘s One Man Back to the Future, where he condensed the entire movie down to an hour, played all the characters brilliantly, and had the audience participate in hilarious moments that had the entire house on their feet in standing ovations… just made me so infinitely proud.
The night after it was all over was the night after my first day at my new job. To say it was emotional would be a bit of an understatement… I’d spent two weeks in art, culture, and friendship heaven, and not only was I going into the unknown (although I knew it was going to be amazing; I’d received two job offers and this was the one I wanted more than anything I’d interviewed for… initially I thought I was going to have to turn it down, as it paid quite a bit less than the other and the world isn’t set up for a single person to be able to survive easily… but they called me the next day, upping their offer by an entire third of what they were originally offering… which made me feel really good!), but I arrived home to a newly empty apartment. No suitcases, no cowboy hats, no enthusiastic friend or a night ahead of adventures. It had all evaporated for another year, and I found myself overwhelmed by the infinite sadness of it all being over. The Fringe takes over your whole heart in a way I can’t describe. It fills your soul with an energy that’s too much for one person to contain, and everyone is experiencing the same thing… the air is just filled with the overflow, and we drink it in with every breath. And then it’s gone for another year, and we must return to reality. But the memories, oh, the memories, they last a lifetime. I came home that night to a note that of course made me sob, telling me it was the Best. Year. Ever., and that my friend felt “lucky to be in this time with me.” Not to have shared this time, but to be in this time. A subtle difference that meant the absolute world. That this time had been ours.
Today is National Friendship Day, and I’m spending it with the most wonderful woman I’ve ever met. She called me that night, the very first night of my return to the real world, knowing full well I’d be terribly sad, and though I was exhausted and a bit of an emotional mess, she welcomed me over with open arms, hearing the heaviness of my heart and there to hold it up. Since then, we’ve had adventures of our own, in addition to the countless ones of the festival, and we still have at least a month of this glorious summer left. Fringe brought so many of us together, and it has a way of letting you in, sharing something incredible, and releasing you on the other side with bonds deepened, memories shared, and a connection that’s stronger for having experienced it. Ten years… and this was, most definitely, the best year ever.