Day 22: Edmonton Witty, spontaneous Fringe Festival keeps American culture at bay
Wednesday, August 30, 2000
Long protected as Canada's northernmost provincial capital, Edmonton may be the city least affected by American culture, at least from Ontario west.
Sure, there is the mall. The West Edmonton Mall, a giant blot of American consumerism, is very much part of the city, which is growing around it and keeping its 800-odd stores, wave pool and indoor amusement park humming.
But the mall is just that: an expansive estate of enterprise that, fortunately for many in the city, can be ignored, like a shag-carpeted rec room that one can shut the door on.
The rest of Edmonton is thriving in a different way, its economy buoyed by high oil and gas prices and local success stories like the new cellphone giant Telus. The city invests heavily in the arts and its parks network. And it enjoys a diversity of immigrants (Punjabi kids ice-skating at West Edmonton Mall in August) that makes it feel like the most multicultural centre between Vancouver and Toronto.
None of the city's creations, however, not even the mall, may compare with its annual Fringe, the wildly popular performance festival that ended last Sunday. This year, more than 400,000 people came to the festival, many from the U.S. and overseas.
Set in Old Strathcona, south of the North Saskatchewan River that divides the city, the Fringe is a cross between theatre and carnival, revealing nothing of the bureaucratic capital around it or the Klondike mentality that still drives much of Alberta.
The festival is also the most accessible of its kind, perhaps because so much of it takes place on the street. Down one road devoted to buskers, one could find a schoolboy playing a violin, an older boy juggling while on a skateboard and Doug Pruden, the Push-Up Man, chasing the world record of 85 one-arm push-ups in a minute, which he beat by two. (He also broke the one-day record of 10,000.)
Around the corner, at an outdoor theatre where the audience was as diverse as theatre should be -- a boy eating a hot dog, a woman bottle-feeding a baby -- there was music and comedy. And then the main course, the plays that run day and night (till 3 a.m.) and are more polished every year.
But not too polished, which is what makes the Fringe, and Edmonton, somewhat secure from the American invasion.
At this year's festival, one of the biggest disappointments was a Seattle pyrotechnics routine, Cirque de Flambe. The show was full of glitz and flash, as if it were an advertisement for Las Vegas's newest theme motel.
Trouble was, it lacked the spontaneity and wit that help define the Fringe. The set lines, the forced crowd interaction and glittering costumes seemed, well, American, which is perhaps why the number looked so out of place in Edmonton, a safe 550 kilometres from the border.
John Stackhouse's Notes from the Road will appear daily in The Globe and Mail, and on globeandmail.com, until the Labour Day weekend. His conclusions will be published in September.