A bearded man in a beret stands on stage, arms outstretched and legs spread wide. Dramatic music plays. For five minutes, the audience has been throwing chunks of rotten banana at him, trying to land one in his open mouth. Most fly past him; some fall short. A woman launches one from the third row. It hits his forehead, slides down his face, and comes to rest under his glasses. The audience roars, jumping to their feet in a fit of Dionysian ecstasy.
This impassioned scene took place on the second to last day of the annual Toronto Fringe Festival, at the closing performance of Isaac Kessler’s 1-MAN NO-SHOW, which was one of 88 shows at this year’s festival.
Fringe, which ran from July 6 to 17, is the largest annual theatre festival in Ontario. It selects shows through random lottery and gives them the chance to perform at established theatres around Toronto like Tarragon Theatre, Factory Theatre, and Native Earth’s Aki Studio. Pre-pandemic, shows also occurred at “site-specific” venues like burlesque bars, bathrooms, and sidewalks. The 2022 Fringe was the first in three years, and most of the artists had been waiting to do their shows since the festival was cancelled in 2020.
Growing up, I was in awe of Fringe. Hundreds of artists would appear seemingly out of nowhere and put on shows that seemed incredibly niche. This year, for instance, there was a Korean drumming ensemble, The Occasion; a solo show called 10,000 Digits of Pi where the audience punishes the performer every time they forget a digit of Pi; an experimental retelling of Genesis performed nude called ADAM&EVE; and an audience-participatory meatball cooking séance, Meatball Séance.
Except this year, I wasn’t just in the audience; I also performed in The Boy Who Cried, a show created by over 20 U of T students and alumni.
A U of T Drama Festival export
The Boy Who Cried, an absurdist tragicomedy by Brad Gira about a camp for troubled children, premiered in 2020 at the U of T Drama Festival, Hart House Theatre’s annual showcase of student-written plays. There, adjudicator Aaron Jan awarded it top honours for direction, playwriting, stage management, and overall production.
For the Fringe production, most of the team returned: Gira joined original director William Dao as co-director; Abby Este returned as set, props, and costume designer; Matt Lalonde returned as sound designer; Jacob Kay joined producer Sabrina Weinstein as co-producer; and nine out of 17 actors returned, me included.
Yes, you read that right: 17 actors. Though Fringe shows generally favour small casts, The Boy Who Cried breaks that rule with force. The play’s primary theatrical trick is that all of the camp’s children are invisible, and the audience only sees the counsellors. Therefore, most of the cast play counsellors. As we flood the stage, we build up the world of the camp through body language and sheer numbers; in the end, there is so much to look at that no one minds the absence of physical children.
But coordinating a 17-person cast is logistically challenging. In fact, our schedules were so incompatible that our first full-cast run of the play was opening night.
Plus, our venue, the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, is hardly built for such a large group. While Hart House Theatre’s cavernous backstage wings allowed the whole cast to enter at once, Tarragon’s wings are much narrower, so we had to enter scenes in single-file lines.
Then there’s the issue of tech. During the year, most plays rehearse in the theatre for at least a week before performances begin. This period of time, lovingly dubbed “tech week,” is when the crew adds all the technical elements — lights, sets, projections — to the production.
A week never feels like enough, but at the Fringe, you don’t even get a week. You don’t even get a day. You get three hours. So most Fringe shows, us included, don’t have time for a dress rehearsal. The first time we ran the show on the stage, it was in front of an audience.
Somehow, though, opening night worked out. And good thing, too: Toronto Star reporter — and former Varsity Assistant Features Editor — Joshua Chong was in the audience. This year, the Star reviewed the “best productions” of the Fringe, and The Boy Who Cried was the first show the Star covered; Chong gave it three out of four stars. This review, along with good word-of-mouth — again propelled by Aaron Jan, who called it “one of my favourite new Canadian plays in recent memory” on Twitter — set us up for a successful, well-selling run.
And once we got past the jitters of opening night, it was a blessing we had such a huge team, because it meant The Boy Who Cried was able to become its own mini community. Sorry, but a solo show just sounds lonely — friends we made along the way, and all that.
The Nam Nguyen theatrical universe
Between the mini-community of The Boy Who Cried and the mega-community of the Fringe, there was another, medium-sized community: a community of young U of T Fringe artists, spread across three shows.
Because this year, there were two other Fringe shows that also originated at the U of T Drama Festival: Nam Nguyen’s metatheatrical food musical A Perfect Bowl of Pho, and Shreya Jha’s musical Statistics, about women in STEM.
Pho, which explores the Vietnamese diaspora through the titular dish, had enormous buzz from day one of the festival. Since winning Best Production at the 2017 U of T Drama Festival, it has been produced several times, most prominently at Fu-GEN Theatre in 2019, where it received critical acclaim. And the script has been published. So it’s no surprise Nguyen managed to grab some coveted prefestival coverage, appearing on NOW Toronto’s “10 artists to watch at the 2022 Toronto Fringe” list.
The buzz allowed the show to sell very well: it received the Fringe “Patrons’ Pick” award, which means it was the highest-selling show at its venue, the cavernous Ada Slaight Hall. It also received four stars from the Star’s Aisling Murphy and four out of five Ns from NOW’s Glenn Sumi. Pho’s success was great news for the Fringe, too: the show was one of the festival’s “fundraiser” shows, so a portion of the ticket sales went back to them.
But still, Pho’s success was anything but guaranteed. In an interview with The Varsity, Nguyen, who is a U of T alum, explained that, like The Boy Who Cried, the Pho team initially had trouble adapting to their venue: “High-key, it’s awful,” Nguyen said. “It’s nice to have been entrusted with a large venue, and that’s a nice vote of confidence from the Fringe. But… it’s not a dedicated theatre space, for sure. The technician they gave us was mildly bigoted. And it’s out in the middle of fucking nowhere!”
Statistics, which Nguyen was also in, was also at Ada Slaight Hall. The musical premiered at the 2019 U of T Drama Festival, where writer Shreya Jha won an Award of Merit for Composition. Since then, it has won another award: the Fringe’s own Adams Prize for Musical Theatre.
While having his two shows play the same venue should have been fun, because of the ongoing pandemic, Nguyen wasn’t really allowed to enjoy it: “I was expressly forbidden from interacting with a lot of the Pho team a lot of the time,” said Nguyen. “We were really worried about [COVID-19 cross-contamination]… if anyone [was] gonna infect the entire Stats cast, it’d be me.”
In the end, though, both Pho and Statistics successfully completed their runs, and it’s full circle for Nguyen: “Definitely a whirlwind week and a half for sure. I remember volunteering for the Fringe back when I was 16 for the first time, being a very small fish in that pond, getting to know the ins and outs of the system.” And now he’s Patrons’ Pick.
Both Pho and Statistics were at the 2020 Digital Fringe too. Did doing their shows on Zoom help them succeed when it came time to do them in-person? Nguyen doesn’t seem to think so: “Digital theatre is bad. And you know what? We don’t need to elaborate.”
I don’t mean to paint an unnecessarily utopian picture of this particular U of T sub-community. It is, after all, a kind of privilege bubble.
But for young artists whose opportunities were decimated by COVID-19, this Fringe was a long time coming. For two years, theatre was frozen, but now it’s beginning to thaw. And we’re here to see it happen.
Plus, in the case of Pho, I have hope that its commercial and critical success will encourage more racialized artists, university-educated or not, to enter the Fringe Lottery, which organizers have newly modified to better include them.
For fans of theatre, though, one thing is clear: if you want to see the next hot show, the U of T Drama Festival is not to be missed.