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Toronto Summer: 2014 Fringe festival is 'Russian roulette of theatre'

Every summer, the Toronto Fringe Theatre Festival takes over the Annex for two weeks in July.

Now in its 26th season, the festival runs from July 2-13 and features 150 non-juried theatrical productions, each with an average run of eight shows. And for the price of a movie, audiences can choose their own adventure, executive director Kelly Straughan says.

“You’re looking at 1,000 shows at a number of venues. So that’s the core of what we do — this wonderful festival that has theatre, dance and sketch [comedy],” she says.

Some things are new and some things are the same at the festival, which returns 100 per cent of the ticket prices to the artists, Straughan says. Last year artists received $415,000.

There are free events at the festival’s main hub — the Fringe Club located behind Honest Ed’s — where organizers offer a bar and food service until 2 a.m. There is also a pop-up art market featuring visual artists and free events, such as artist talks and the themed underground dance parties on the final Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

The Fringe also has a site-specific component to the festival, bringing 14 productions into cafes, churches and parks, such as the Epicure Café and Trinity St. Paul’s Chapel.

One new feature is the Fringe Kids Club, a playground for little Fringers where parents can take their children to see outdoor concerts and storytellers as well as play in bouncy castles.

This year the festival has gone mobile and will have a smartphone app that includes venue maps, real-time schedule updates and performer information and more. Festivalgoers can also buy their tickets online at fringetoronto.com, over the phone at (416) 966-1062 or at the festival box office at 581 Bloor St. W. up to three hours before show time.

To theatre lovers, like Megan Mooney, the Fringe is the ultimate thing. Her mother introduced her to theatre on her 15th birthday by taking her to see a play and she can remember putting on plays for her parents when she was eight years old. Those experiences “instilled a love of theatre,” so much so she majored in theatre at the University of Guelph and later launched her own online publication, Mooney on Theatre, which has become the Toronto industry’s go-to site.

“Theatre can be incredibly intimidating, and people who are in the theatre forget that or outright refuse to believe that’s the case,” Mooney says. “I started Mooney on Theatre so I could have a vehicle to talk about theatre in a way that’s accessible and not for theatre geeks.”

For the past few years, Mooney on Theatre has reviewed all the Fringe shows. There are usually 24 contributors but the website uses an additional eight to 10 writers during Fringe, which has become a huge part of its business.

“The reason we do such a push is because it falls so directly into all the things I want to happen with theatre,” she says.

Her advice for newbies is to just get out and go see the shows. The other thing to remember about the Fringe festival is that it’s not curated so the shows are selected by a lottery system. That means, “it’s kind of the Russian roulette of theatre,” she says.

“You can walk in and see the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen or you could walk in and see the worst thing in your life,” Mooney says.

But it only means you’re out $12 and have lost an hour or so of your time, she says.

While there are 150 productions here are some of Mooney’s picks.

1. Seasoned Fringers will go prepared, having studied the festival program for specific production companies. One show that they will likely try to catch is by the poet Jem Rolls, who is considered Fringe royalty, Mooney says.

“You know his shows are going to be packed,” she says.

Click here for more information on Jem Rolls’ One Man Traffic Jam.

2. Fringe veteran TJ Dawe’s 52 Pick-up improv show will be playing at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace. No show is the same since the actors play scenes as they’re randomly selected from 52 cards. It’s the winner of the Boulder Fringe’s Best of Fest and the Montreal Fringe festival’s best text prize.

Click here for more info on 52 Pick-up.

3. The Shakespeare Bashd production company is putting on William Shakespeare’s zany masterpiece, Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Victory Café.

Mooney says it’s the company’s third time tackling Shakespeare plays and it has done “lots of physical versions of Shakespeare in the upstairs level of a bar.”

“It’s how Shakespeare was meant to be enjoyed,” she says. “It’s fun, playful not reverent.”

Click here for dates.

Click here for the full Fringe festival program and here for the venue map. Follow the hashtag, #FringeTO and @Toronto_Fringe.

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