Americans often make the assumption that Canadians are not much different, or possibly the same, as us. However, they couldn’t be more wrong. While the two countries share many similarities, they have radically different cultures and traditions (Although there is something to be said about the seemingly endless “minor differences” between the US & Canada, and if you are curious, I highly recommend Kevin Bracken’s hilarious but incredibly interesting Tumblr What’s Different in Canada).
Besides healthcare, education, and snack foods, the theatre scene in Canada differs heavily from its counterpart in the States, and I think there’s a case to be made that they do it better.
First off, Canada has more fringe festivals than anywhere else in the world. During the summers, they spring up across the country, allowing for local playwrights and companies to get their work produced on small budgets and provide cheap, accessible theatre to their local populations. The Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals acts as their national governing body. They organize and promote each member festival, and pledge to never attempt to control the work of the participating theatre artists (in their words, the “artistic work of the participants is unrestrained.”). In fact, anyone wishing to produce their own fringe festival in Canada is by law required to obtain membership in the association. The “Canadian Fringe Model,” started by CAFF and currently being adopted around the world, guarantees participants a venue, technician, publicity, and 100% of the ticketed admission price.
For up-and-coming theatre artists, Fringe Festivals are an essential. Not only do they provide cheap access for audiences, they supply local artists with a sacred venue to have their work produced. According to Bryan Colley in his post on 2AMt, Fringe Festivals are especially beneficial for playwrights, where they are provided with a “low barrier for entry, an atmosphere of risk taking, and an audience eager to try something new.” Fringe Festivals are not uncommon in the United States, and in fact are gaining popularity, but the fact that Canada is full of them conveys a theatrical zeitgeist that we don’t get much south of the border. If smaller Canadian cities like Halifax, Winnipeg (the largest fringe festival in North America), and Saskatoon can host successful, annual festivals, who’s to say smaller American cities couldn’t do the same?
Canada is also home to a great number of major summer festivals, each with their own unique twist.
The Shaw Festival, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, fully commits each year to producing plays and musicals that were written during the lifetime of George Bernard Shaw. The Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, is one of the largest Shakespeare festivals in North America and is internationally recognized for their Shakespearean productions, as well their contemporary plays. Out west in Vancouver, British Columbia, the Bard on the Beach festival solely produces Shakespearean plays in open tents on the waterfront. These are just a few, but they all exist to foster a supportive environment for Canadian theatre artists.
Canadian Theatre is so interesting because it takes advantage of the size and diversity of its country. While many Canadians will complain that their society is still very Toronto-centric, there is still something to be said about the sheer amount of theatre happening the smaller-market communities. How is it they can sustain all these festivals, yet have barely 1/6 of our population?