How a little lightning, perogies, and an old bus barn kickstarted a career
A long-time local actor, director, dramaturg, and theatre enthusiast, Michelle Todd’s Edmonton Fringe story weaves in and out of the very rehearsal studios, stages, and back hallways of Fringe’s bricks–and–mortar home, a building that serves as a community hub of creative activity.
But for Michelle, Fringe is so much more than an event, so much more than a physical space.
“Fringe is more than a building,” says Michelle. “Not only did I cut my teeth prior to the renovations in the rehearsal and performance spaces here, but after the renovations, my father-in-law also worked here; my kid’s first birthday party was here; many friends have been married here; my mother-in-law performed here; my partner performed here. This is a hub for me. So very many wonderful things have happened here for me.”
Right now, Edmonton artists can’t rehearse or perform in the same capacity. Fringe can’t welcome droves of audience back into the building. Essential costs to produce art (including rehearsal space, lighting, set and sound equipment, wages for cast and crew) haven’t changed, but ability to earn revenue has dropped considerably, if not fully vanished for some. It’s a trying time for just about every industry, but the arts was the first to be shut down and will be the last to recover.
As a longtime fringer and touring artist, Michelle’s love affair with Fringe began when she was in her teens.
“Oh heavens, my first Fringe would have been in the early 90s. I was probably 15 or 16. A good buddy of mine was doing a Fringe show at King Edward School, and I did not know about the latecomer policy. That was my first encounter with the Edmonton Fringe,” she laughs. “I was late. I got the head tilt from the volunteers. I tried to tell them it was my friend’s show. I tried, but I didn’t end up seeing my friend’s show. And she was so miffed with me! She said: ‘don’t you know you can’t be late?!’ And I was like: ‘well, I know now!’”
A graduate of the MacEwan University Theatre Program, Michelle recalls wanting nothing more than to be in a Fringe show.
“I wanted to be in the Fringe so much, but I didn’t land a show. And someone asked me if I wanted to be the Lunch Cart for the amazing musical Lunch. I wasn’t even seen on stage,” she giggles. “I was literally stuck in this box just so I could be a part of Fringe! I so badly wanted to be in the Fringe, but them’s the breaks! Best lunch cart ever. Nobody was a lunch cart like I was!”
“My next experience would have been doing a Rosemary Rose show,” she continues. “We were at the Varscona. It was great. We had just such an awesome run. And then we closed…and then our 5-star review came out,” Michelle chuckles. “It was just the luck of the draw! But, you know, the community is not just our actors and musicians and directors and dancers and technicians and audiences, it’s also our reporters who help us out by giving us a beautiful write-up. It’s all connected.”
“That was back in the day when you still did the hustle,” she recalls lovingly. “You’d do little skits for the lineups. We would do our crazy thing – it was just so much fun!”
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Michelle’s connection to Fringe is firmly rooted inside the walls of the ATB Financial Arts Barns, a building she has close, loving ties to.
“My first experience with the delightful greenroom back in the day that used to be at the back of the Arts Barns…everybody would be: ‘Shh! There’s a show in! Shh, be quiet! Shh, there’s a show in. SHUT UP THERE’S A SHOW IN!’”
But the greenroom was so much more than just a common space for performers.
“The greenroom was a meeting ground,” she says. “There was such a community. I met not just other theatre artists but also artists of all kinds. That’s when I first really started meeting musicians, dancers, visual artists. It was a great hangout.”
“I’m all for Fringe,” Michelle shares passionately. “Fringe is for everyone, and Fringe lets emerging artists know: yup, you can put on a show. The range of expertise is from 0 to 100, but everyone has the same shot in terms of gathering an audience.”
For Michelle, Fringe is as much about honing your craft as an emerging artist as it is about building community.
“You never know who you’re going to meet at Fringe. And you meet everybody at Fringe. Your teachers, mentors, collaborators, technicians, musicians, audience. Everyone is here. And that’s the beauty of it,” she says. “Because nobody has any ego. At Fringe, everybody is equalized by the hunt for tickets.”
Michelle credits the Fringe to much of her early exploration and success as a young artist, and in that success, finds connection and community, especially when sharing the thrill of live theatre with new audiences.
“I have to say how critical Fringe was. Fringe made it affordable for us as a young company. In that time, we did several shows predominately at the Arts Barns, even outside of the Festival. It allowed us to bring in school tours. That’s what sustained us, the ability to bring in crowds of kids,” she says.
“We were a diverse, young cast. That was critical for young people to see. We were all shapes, sizes, colours, and ages. We don’t realize the struggle people have trying to fit in regardless of what they look like, and it is a struggle for people. It’s so critical for people to see themselves represented on stage.”
Edmonton Fringe is critical to the lives of so many artists like Michelle. For many, Edmonton Fringe is often a first: a first job, a first production, a first foray into theatre arts. We honour our role in supporting so many creators’ firsts. We exist because theatre exists; we believe in mentoring artists and fostering their careers at all stages.
While Michelle got her start at the Edmonton Fringe, she also hit the road touring the Fringe circuit with her solo show, Deep Fried Curried Perogies.
“I applied for the Fringe. I did my solo show at the Edmonton Fringe. My first show of the Festival was at noon on Thursday. Killer. I did my Pump up the Volume. I managed to scrape together an audience. Lovingly, after the show, a group of women came up to me and gave me money and said: that was well worth the price of a ticket. So that was that,” she laughs.
“I applied for the Saskatoon Fringe after that, which is where I met a few of the heavies who tour the circuit. And they said to me: ‘Michelle, you should tour.’ I didn’t know if I could do that because I had a young kid. And it is doable. It’s totally doable,” says Michelle.
“In Saskatoon, my first show was brutal. My venue got hit by lightning. It fried all of the electronics. So I did my show with tea lights on the stage and the audience held flashlights and my partner ran sound of a laptop. And I got 3 out of 5 stars,” she laughs heartily. “And an honourable mention for the Show Must Go On. But word of mouth got out and I built a solid following after that.”
“Words cannot even say the joys and tears you will have on a Fringe tour,” Michelle reminisces.
“The importance of Fringe is the whole cycle of performing arts. From training to performing to mentoring. Fringe has a variety of shows for every level. From little kids to high schoolers to amateurs to professionals. A broad spectrum of everything. There’s a variety of things you’ll see at Fringe. And it’s so critical to have these opportunities and these spaces. So you can see what’s going on at every level. As an artist, you take steps. And as an audience, you connect. Seeing people connect with live theatre? That’s critical.”
By making a gift today, you will ensure artists like Michelle continue to thrive. The livelihood of artists and the vibrancy of venues like the Arts Barns continue to be put in jeopardy because of the pandemic, but you can help.
When you support Fringe Theatre, you help us provide for artists so they can continue doing what they do best: create, perform, share the power of story, and wow you.
Connecting artists and audiences is at the core of what we do. We need your help to continue providing that vital service to our community. With your help, we can:
- modify our spaces and invest in new technology to give artists the opportunity to innovate, create, and thrive; Provide our staff with the tools and knowledge to support artists as they learn to create and connect with audiences in new ways;
- Subsidize rental costs at the ATB Financial Arts Barns to ensure our space remains affordable for independent artists;
- Ensure the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival returns in some capacity in 2021;
- Bolster health and safety measures as we continue to respond to changing health restrictions so that we may welcome safely welcome audiences and Fringe artists from here at home and around world back to our building and Festival
Our 40th anniversary is just around the corner, but we’re already daydreaming about the next 40. We’ve built something amazing and with your help, we’ll build something even better.