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Toronto Fringe takes steps towards economic recovery, renewed audiences amid funding uncertainties

Like almost every cultural and artistic hub in the city, it’s been a tough year for the Toronto Fringe.

The beloved theatre festival has been a launch pad for theatre artists since 1989. Taking place every July, the annual celebration of live performance platforms dozens of artists across disciplines. The Fringe boasts a consistently strong two weeks of presentations and ancillary programming every summer, and over the years, it’s solidified itself as a staple of the Toronto theatre calendar.

But this year’s been a difficult one for the festival. Funding opportunities afforded by the pandemic have disappeared, and attendance numbers last year weren’t high enough to support the festival through a year marked by an affordability crisis. In a candid interview with the Toronto Star, followed by a fundraising email campaign, Toronto Fringe executive director Lucy Eveleigh put it bluntly: “we are hurting.”

According to Eveleigh, Toronto Fringe is facing an operating deficit, which could lead to cuts in the festival for years to come. Eveleigh says those cuts would be catastrophic to both the festival itself and the Toronto theatre community due to the number of resources the Fringe has time and again provided to artists building their careers.

“We’ve had to pay our venue partners more, and increase wages to pay people what they deserve – and that’s still not enough,” Eveleigh told CP24. “It’s been a mixture of increased expenses and less revenues from our funders. Last year’s Fringe was great, you know, but it was definitely less attendance than we’re used to. We thought we’d see as many people come out as they did before the pandemic, and that wasn’t the case, and the bar was maybe half the revenue we normally make.

“It’s been a real roller coaster,” she continued. “And as we look to this year, it’s the same thing. There’s no relief funding, and no extra funding. I’m still waiting to hear back about [a provincial grant]. Our expenses have gone up. And I just don’t know how to predict what the audience is going to be. I feel like people are back out, and ready for it, and like people are ready to Fringe. But it’s hard to know.”

Prior to the pandemic, the Toronto Fringe operated on a $2 million budget -- $1.5 million if you account for the ticket sales which went directly to artists – but the funding landscape hasn’t yet reflected a widespread return to “normal,” says Eveleigh, which has resulted in the festival needing to make tough decisions.

“We don’t get enough operating funding,” she said. “I’m grateful for what we do get, but it’s not enough. It’s a predicament.”

Eveleigh and her team are working hard to coax audiences back out to the theatre, as well as the iconic Fringe Patio. Eveleigh hopes a launch party -- as well as a surprising level of transparency about the dire state of the festival’s finances -- will remind Fringers of the festival’s importance as a community hub, as well as a space for artistic experimentation.

“I’d been fundraising so much after the last month,” she said. “There’s so much going on in this city all the time. You have to cut through the noise with marketing your festival, marketing your fundraising material.”

Eveleigh’s gamble with transparency – including heartfelt emails and candid interviews about the festival’s finances with the media – have started to pay off, she says.

“We’re just being honest,” she said. “We’re trying to tell people, ‘if you don’t show up for the Fringe, it goes away.’ It’s like when people talk about their favourite local stores in their neighbourhoods – if you never actually shop there, it’ll close. You have to show up for the things you love. And it’s been amazing to see the community show up these past few weeks.”

Eveleigh says the festival has already made over 50 per cent of its fundraising goal thanks to the positive response from Toronto Fringe stakeholders.

“We’re so hand-to-mouth, and that takes a toll on me and my team,” she said. “You can’t plan long-term, because you don’t know how much money you’ll have in the bank. So to see this sort of response, I feel very grateful. I’m grateful for people showing up.” Top Stories

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