In early 2020, just before the pandemic hit, friends and family of Gerald Osborn gathered to celebrate his unparalleled history with Edmonton Fringe. We laughed, we cried, we reminisced, and we embraced. Together, we celebrated Gerald…and trust us, there was a LOT to celebrate.
Through a special fundraising campaign, Gerald’s nearest and dearest honoured Gerald by making charitable donations to establish the Gerald Osborn Playwriting Award endowment fund. This award provides an annual cash prize to a Fringe Playwright who is creating a play that will be produced at an upcoming Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival. Gerald has devoted an extraordinary 30+ years to Edmonton Fringe! On top of his incredible dedication as a staff member, Gerald has written 19 plays for the Edmonton Fringe that have been produced 27 times.
We could go on and on about Gerald’s impact on the Edmonton Fringe but since Gerald is the playwright, we think his words should take centre stage. Here is an excerpt from Gerald’s speech the night we gathered to celebrate him:
“Wanna go to the Fringe?” That’s the question someone asked me late one August evening in the early 80s. “Sure,” I said, “But what the hell’s a Fringe?” An hour later I found out as I took my seat in this hot, sweaty, make-shift venue with a pillar blocking my view of the stage. But none of that mattered because two minutes in I was hooked. And I kept coming back for more. There were tons of classics written by all sorts of famous dead guys OR off-Broadway plays by David Mamet, Sam Sheppard, or whoever. But tucked in amidst those shows was something else. New work. Fresh material written by my contemporaries. With fascinating characters. Captivating dialogue. And this stuff was home grown. Thought up by living breathing Edmontonians. I just had to be a part of it. It took a few years to get up the gumption to actually write and produce a Fringe show. But eventually I did. A piece called Slide Show. People came. And laughed and I got my first review from the Edmonton Journal: “For sheer boredom, don’t miss Slide Show.” But I persevered, and I think I learned my craft and I made a bunch of lifelong friends in the process.
This is a quote from Mr. Jim DeFelice: “Edmonton Fringe Festival has had a profound effect on playwriting…Fringe has provided a space and an opportunity for emerging and experienced playwrights to shape their craft and to find their voices.”
So, there I was doing Fringe shows and working for various arts organizations. Theatre Network, Alberta Playwrights’ Network, Nexus Theatre, Celebration of Women in the Arts, Alberta Dance Alliance…and then I got the call that would alter the trajectory of my life. I was offered a job with the Fringe. The Fringe! Disney is wrong. The Fringe is the happiest place on earth.
I settled in as Administrative Assistant, then Office Manager. Over the years, in the Arts Community, people tend to move from organization to organization. I just stayed put cuz I already knew the bus routes and every coupla years the turnover was so huge it was like having a brand-new job anyway. I like to imagine myself as Radar on MASH if the Korean War had lasted 30 years.
Thirty years! How can I possibly do justice to such a big chunk of time?
If I were writing a play, I’d probably give the main character some kind of “stream of consciousness” monologue to cover those years. So here goes.
Lights up on an unassuming bespectacled individual of a certain vintage. He stands centre-stage, takes a deep breath, then addresses the audience with random Fringe memories.
- November 12, 1989. Chinook Theatre. A woman all dressed in black, cat purring in her lap. Total James Bond villain time. She turns to me and says: “Welcome to the Fringe, Mr. Osborn.”
- Traditionally, the night before the Fringe we have a Street Dance with stars like k.d. lang and Sara McLachlan. One year, it is announced that Crash Test Dummies will be there. Mistaking the early 90s rock band for the full-scale anthropomorphic test devices used in traffic collisions, panic-stricken Fringe Producer Judy Lawrence responds “Crash Test Dummies? Where are we going to put them?”
- It’s 1991 and the AIDS Network (eventually HIV Edmonton) sponsors an outdoor stage show called Condomania. It’s all about practicing safer sex and it’s presented in the farcical style of Moliere. Sure, there are some slightly raunchy moments but these have all been purloined from the Master Playwright himself, so the shtick is 400 years old. A call comes in. The woman on the other end has a complaint. Apparently not too concerned with the ever-rising cases of AIDS in the world, she says that Condomania is wildly inappropriate and that we need to start censoring our Fringe plays. Hmmm. Censorship at an un-juried, uncensored festival. Interesting concept. She is adamant. I have to make a choice. Do I remain calm? Do I get angry? Or do I act on impulse? That’s the one! I burst into tears. And through my sobs, I croak out “But people are dying!” Confronted with an office manager weeping over the loss of an entire generation, the aggravated (and aggravating) woman beats a hasty retreat. Click.
- Hanging out with Elliott Gould in the admin office. He’s in town appearing at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre and catching Fringe shows during the day. Maybe this really is MASH.
- More Censorship Controversy: A play about to tour Fringes across Canada suddenly changes its title. The play, about female empowerment, contains no nudity, no sex, no violence but the new title contains an Anglo-Saxon word that still has the power to cause people’s heads to explode. “They’ve changed the name of their show to The Happy WHAT?!” (If you don’t know what the WHAT is, ask around.) Judy Lawrence (yes, her again) declares that the Fringe “doesn’t jury and doesn’t censor its productions. It’s a forum for artists to produce their own work independently and test their ideas. That’s what we’re there for.”
- 1991 – When conservative forces stage a coup in the Soviet Union, twenty-two Soviet actors appearing in a Fringe production of Animal Farm, are suddenly stranded in Canada. Most nights they can be heard singing mournful Russian Folk Songs in the beer tent.
- The birth of Bring Your Own Venues – Site Specific productions such as Confessions of a Nude Model in the Sunflower Gallery where the audience is handed sketch pads and the actor poses nude while he does a monologue. OR Dead Slow in the Renford Inn Parking Garage. Actors drive in, do their scenes, then drive out again. One of the actors has to learn to drive a standard. Not sure Stanislavski ever covered that in An Actor Prepares.
- One year there is a jarful of smarties to represent how many volunteers we have. A hungry volunteer doing clerical work in the office opens the jar and eats all our volunteers!
- The Fringe Latecomer Policy – A well-to-do couple is refused admittance to a Fringe venue for arriving late. There is much protestation. Fringe stalwart Betty Grudnizki happens by and patiently explains our strict but necessary latecomer policy. Undeterred, the couple demand to speak to someone in charge. “Betty is the Board President,” a harried volunteer pipes up. “This barracuda is the President?!” In a huff, the couple storms off into the night. The very next day, Betty gets a personalized license plate with the word Barracuda printed on it in big bold letters.
- Everybody knows about the annual Fringe Lottery. It’s a tradition. But that wasn’t always the case. In the early years, all Fringe applications were on a First-come First-served basis. Then, not wishing to give local artists an unfair advantage, Judy Lawrence (yes, yet again!) puts a quota system in place: 20 overseas, 30 Canada/US and 50 slots reserved for Edmonton-based performers. Since slots are now limited, local artists start lining up to make certain their applications are in the first 50. Year One, it’s an overnight lineup, Year Two, it’s a two-night lineup. When it reaches a four-night lineup and artists are pitching tents outside the Arts Barns in sub-zero temperatures, the Fringe Lottery is born!
- Arts Barns Renovations. Relocating to Queen Mary Park School for nine months as the old ETS Bus Barns undergoes extensive renovations.
- Checking out our new digs in the refurbished Arts Barns. Fancy shmancy. The glass on the doors is so pristine that a reviewer from Global TV walks right into it. There is a Shroud of Turin-like faceprint on the glass for several hours until maintenance shows up with a bottle of Windex.
- Seeing Brendan Fraser’s autobiographical Fringe show, The Decline and Fall of Me. There’s a guy named Herald in it with round glasses, a plaid shirt and a trusty backpack who seems vaguely familiar.
I’m sure there are eight million stories I could tell. Maybe I should sit down and write that book I’ve been threatening to write: Fringe Babylon OR Full Frontal Fringe OR It’s All Gravy? Inside joke.
So, before I shuffle off, I’m gonna bring it down a couple of notches. Right now if this were the Oscars, they would’ve just presented the Best Animated Short Award. And then the lights would dim and Jennifer Hudson would walk out onstage and sing a heart-rending ballad while images of the people who’d passed away that year appeared on the screen. Well, we don’t have Jennifer Hudson but I would like to pay tribute to a number of folks who have passed through my Fringe life over the past thirty plus years. Some of them are Fringe people, some are what I would call Fringe adjacent. But they were all amazing. I’m just gonna say their names in no particular order and then we can do one big toast to their memories. In theory this is a great idea. Let’s see if I can actually get through it.
Shirley “My Jesus!” Gillis
Frank and Mary Glenfield
And Board Members
And Hugh Wyatt
A toast to them all.
We will award the inaugural Gerald Osborn Playwriting Award to a Fringe Playwright participating in the 41st Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival this summer! If you’d like to help support the Gerald Osborn Playwriting Award, please consider making a gift. When you complete your donation form, please mention that you would like your gift to support the Gerald Osborn Playwriting Award.
The creation of the Gerald Osborn Playwriting endowment fund was generously supported by these donors:
In memory of Doreen Barabas
Lori Biamonte Mohacsy & Bruce Mohacsy
Judith Bowden & Jeff Cummings
Lorne & Lori Burke
Tracy Carroll & Gordon Sheppard
Bruce Wm Folliott
Keri & Adam Mitchell
Krista Nelson-Marciano & Vitor Marciano
Mary Anne Trann
Don’t see your name on this list? Let us know: email@example.com
PS: Check out this hysterically exaggerated, but mostly true, audio walking tour of Fringe’s past written by our beloved Gerald in celebration of Edmonton Fringe’s 40th Anniversary.