Every August, the capital city of Alberta hosts the Edmonton International Fringe Festival - a twelve day exploding circus of independent theatre, deep fried dough, beer, twisty balloons, acrobats, volunteers, escape artists, improv, drag queens, donation boxes and rampant pedestrianism. In a city of 800 000, it boasts an estimated overall attendance of 500 000.
The Fringe has pulled me into Edmonton a dozen times since 1994 (an accumulated six months of my life)(so far). This most recent fringe I found myself noticing social patterns in the city around me. I couldn't escape them. They bopped me over the head.
In Edmonton there's an ever-present dance between modernity (tradition! conformity! power! money! family values! old time religion!) and postmodernity (gender equality! racial justice! multiple points of view! micro-culture! environmentalism! organic food!). These currents do-see-do, tango, tug of war, dip and twist, call each other names, drink too much and fall into bed, waking up the next day, scrambling to put their clothes back on and pretend nothing happened.
Sort of like the world at large. Or at least North America. Or the Western World.
So the impressions I collected during the festival turned into this - a prose poem, a series of brain-cell paint splats, a fugue, a travelogue, a conglomeration of completely subjective observations hurled at a digital dart board with the aim of showing these cultural factions acting, reacting and interacting, being exactly what they are, and simultaneously being a microcosm for us all.
Here we go.
The fringe festival is a block from one of the city's main drags: 82nd/Whyte Ave. Walk along the sidewalks and you'll find bookstores, rotating slabs of shawarma meat, clothes, bars where eye contact with the wrong person will earn you a fight, coffee, knick-knacks, pizza, guitars, donuts, new cars, Subway smell, beggars, bikes, Vietnamese subs, movies, fresh bread, street art, a store full of soap scented so strongly it can burn a hole through solid chrome, buskers, smoothies, graphic novels, Ethiopian food, gas, liquor and a cheap all purpose department store - Army and Navy - whose inventory has nothing to do with the military.
Army and Navy had a sheet of plywood covering a window. The footprint of late night Whyte Avenue revelry.
Next door to one of the bars where those window smashers probably emerged, we have Greenwood Books. New books. Great selection. Across the street - used books at the Wee Book Inn, a store with a resident cat, reproduced on their bookmarks.
They actually have a tab on their website menu devoted to past and present Wee Book Inn cats. Turns out they're all named after hockey players.
Next door, the Strathcona Hotel. Pick up and leave your key at the front desk. A few blocks down, the Varscona Hotel, with nice decor and conference rooms you can rent - one of them called The Rutherford Room.
The 7-11 has a security guard standing right inside the front door, nights.
The only threat to the provincial Conservative government is from the right. That threat came a-swinging in April, as the far-right Wild Rose Party looked like they'd take the prize. The Edmonton Sun, abandoning any pretence of journalistic balance, endorsed them on its front page: "Our Choice" Subtitle: "To lead Alberta, and why."
Edmonton has Alberta's only elected NDP provincial reps - four of them, at that. And the province's only NDP MP. Earning the city derisive sneers from some across the province who refer to it as "Redmonton."
(Quick primer on the Canadian political system for readers from other countries. The conservative party is the Conservative Party. The liberal party is the Liberal Party. The New Democratic Party (NDP) lies somewhat to the left of the Liberals. Political districts are "ridings." The highest elected official in a province is the Premier. A provincial presentative is an MLA (Members of Legislative Assembly). A national political representative is an MP (Member of Parliament).)
The Wild Roses lost by a hair. But they'll be back.
Incidentally, the Wild Rose leader is a woman. The banner image on their website prominently features a Sikh man.
The Edmonton Bicycle Commuters Society's shop can be found off a back alley. Their gate opens on a yard full of bikes in various states of usability. You can buy stuff from them. Pay them to repair your bike or pay to use their tools. Sell em your old bike. Take a bike maintenance workshop. Put in volunteer hours.
"1st, 3rd and 5th Sundays are reserved for women & transgendered people only; no exceptions will be made!"
There's an after-hours repair station outside the gate. Pump up your tires. Use the wrench dangling from a wire.
A block from the A & W on Whyte - a big health food store. A few blocks from another big health food store. Both busy. Neither one squished by the giant Save-On-Foods a block further.
Anyone can put on anything at the Fringe. Festival spots are selected by lottery. Most shows are new. Unpublished. Unconventional. Most will never been produced again. Most are local, though touring companies come from Toronto, Winnipeg, High River, Grande Prairie, New York, Seattle, Albuquerque, Orlando, Cape Town, Auckland, Melbourne, Manchester and Moscow.
Monologues. Dance. Clown. Sketch. Drama. Masks. Comedy. Mock talk shows and improvised soap operas. Popular shows pack people in by the hundreds. Fourteen bucks a ticket.
It's the highlight of the summer.
Edmonton has changed the theatrical culture of North America. Thanks to Edmonton there are fringes across Canada, and in the States. Thousands of plays are written and produced every year that wouldn't be otherwise. Year after year, going back decades. Some of which go on to have a life beyond the fringe. The various festivals providing a circuit for hundreds of theatre artists to set up their own on-their-feet apprenticeship, an always available workshop, an unofficial grad school where you can make money, or at least pay your way, as you accumulate your ten thousand hours.
Riding my used bike along 109th (bought for a hundred bucks from Edmonton Bicycle Commuters)(cash only). A guy yells out his car window: "Get a horse, faggot!" Directly to my right: Noorish - Conscious Eatery and Superfood Elixir Bar, a vegan raw food restaurant, as well as supplement store, meditation centre and yoga studio. To my left: McDonald's.
Opening weekend of the fringe, Metallica filled the Rexall Centre twice. My venue technician, working the sound and lights for my show and six others, also worked crew for these shows.
AC/DC's live album, recorded in multiple cities, ends with the salutation: "Thank you Edmonton!"
Bike racks have been installed on streets. Taking up valuable parking spots and meter revenue.
The Edmonton Public School Board passed an initiative to include same sex parents and LGBT youth in the curriculum when kids learn about families. Alberta was the first province in Canada to do this.
The mayor comes to small, independent theatre events, and attends the gay pride parade every year, as did the new Conservative Premier.
Near where I stay for the fringe: the Tree Stone Bakery/Boulangerie Artisanale (aka Bonjour Bakery), a small family run business (the new owners moved to Edmonton from Montreal). Their organic whole grain sourdough loaf is made from grains grown within 100 km of them. Signed photo on the wall from a satisfied customer: Ozzy Osbourne.
Smashed window at a coffee and European dessert place on Whyte, a block down from Army & Navy. Plywood up. Older clientele eating at a table outside it, like everything is completely normal.
Sign at Edmonton Bicycle Commuter's League:
Want to do something about climate change?
Join the ReSkilling Edmonton Network!
All of the little paper tear-away slips gone.
Dewey Chaffee, a New York based improvisor and drag queen promoted his show The Screw You Revue around the Fringe in costume and in character. He vlogged about encountering a homophobe.
Homophobe: "If you hang yourself, I'll buy the rope."
Teenage girls, swarming Dewey, telling him no! - they love him!
Alberta held out on legalizing same-sex marriage until 2005, when it was mandated nationally. Ralph Klein - Alberta's Premier at the time - said that legislation would be put in place to protect Albertan ministers who refused to marry same-sex partners from dismissal on those grounds. In the rest of Canada, that'd get you fired immediately.
The Expendables 2 opened while I was in town. Stallone leading the old guard of action stars. Cracking wise as they kill people. (Stallone holds up the severed head of a bad guy to his team: "Heads up") Cracking wise with each other. ("I now pronounce you man and knife") And talking tough and obvious. (Villain: "You must want to hurt me bad." Stallone: "I'm not gonna hurt you. I'm gonna take your life.")(the villain's name is Vilain, by the way) Saturday night, the theatre wasn't even a quarter full. No whoops or roars for any of these lines or kills. No yell of awesomeness when the Expendables logo went up, guns and knives extending out of a bad-ass skull.
The night before, I saw Beasts of the Southern Wild (as pure and uncommercial an indie movie as has ever made the rounds) at the Princess Theatre on Whyte - a two screen art house, an Edmonton institution.
The motorcycle riders on Whyte hang out by the Tim Horton's, sipping coffee.
Someone stole the EBC after hours repair station's wrench.
Greenwood Books closed down. The Wee Book Inn put up a Help Wanted sign.
Dewey's homophobe must have somehow missed the long-standing stardom of Edmonton drag queen Darrin Hagen, whose memoir The Edmonton Queen has gone into its third printing. His audience: housewives. Darling of the media. Been putting on hit shows since the 80s.
Edmonton's got a big population of guys in their early twenties, a local friend told me. They get paid to apprentice a trade in Fort McMurray. Settle in Edmonton, work as dry-wallers, pipe-fitters, plumbers, glaziers. Earning six figures a year before they're twenty-five.
Billboard for a strip club on the highway in from the airport: "We love oil and gas!"
There are more than thirty community garden clubs working sixty-some sites in Edmonton, resident Jennifer Cockrall-King told me (author of the brilliant overview of urban agriculture in North America and Europe Food and the City). The Edmonton Horticultural Society celebrated its centennial a few years ago. Urban farming went out of fashion a few decades ago, seen as an immigrant activity, the past-time of Polish, Ukrainian and Italian grandparents who spoke little English and didn't fit in. "Now it's a hipster DIY activity." said Cockrall-King. "Now we take tours through Polish neighbourhoods and ooh and ahh that they manage to grow plums and pears in the city."
A view in a back alley: on one side, an auto body shop. On the other, a yoga studio.
The Alberta provincial government sits in Edmonton. The fate of the tar sands are decided there. This, according to NASA's chief scientist James Hansen, is of world significance.
If there's a running theme through the articles, essays and blog posts I've written for this site, it's this exact dance between modern and postmodern currents. They aren't distinct and separate streams. The lines between them are blurry. Postmodernity springs from Modernity. The issues at play in Edmonton - gender politics - food - culture - our relationship with the environment - are issues being grappled with all over the Western world.
The tar sands provide a perfectly crystallized example. Every Albertan has a say in how the tar sands are managed. James Hansen said if they continue to be worked at the rate they are, in the way they are, it's game over for all of us. (He really did use the phrase "game over") There are safer and more environmentally responsible ways of working them, but that'd mean a bit less profit. And oil money's been saturating the province for years. Those twenty-something trades-guys are making their six figures building expensive houses and condos. Business is booming for everyone. How willing are Albertans to stem the flow even a little bit? How willing would any of us be?
So what'll happen?
Will we manage our resources in a way that brings short term prosperity to a few at the expense of everyone else?
Will Ozzy Osbourne keep buying bread made from locally grown organic grains? Will his fans?
Will drag queens be loved and hugged, taught about in schools and allowed to marry, or provided with rope?
My last night in Edmonton, the European dessert place was repairing their window. Army and Navy's wood had turned to glass. A three piece band (the Great North Blues Band) set up in their doorway - bass, drums and sax. Passers-by passed them by. I stopped and checked them out. They were pretty damn good. Unconventional. Jazzy blues. Unexpected in that time and place. They played originals. A few people stopped and listened. Before long, they danced. Bopped and twisted and wiggled and jived and shook their booty to the beat.
People passed. Cars drove by. Motorcycles roared. Drunks stumbled. The music continued. The dance went on. Two women danced together, even.
Army & Navy's windows behind the band remained unsmashed.
Editor: Chris Dierkes