Dec. 2010

Vancouver's Fringe Festival:
Why Sometimes Love Is Not Enough, And You Have
To Run To Canada To Bond With Your Kids
By Kathy Chin Leong

"Want to go to Vancouver?"

"What's in Vancouver?" Lying prostrate on the floor of her bedroom, my 20-year-old daughter was under the spell of a Korean soap opera on her laptop. Looking up to meet my gaze probably would have been unfair to the actors.

This was the summer before Gwen’s junior year. I was in full planning mode for our annual mother-daughter retreat from real life. While we are close, I perpetually seek ways to refresh our relationship with travel memories to add our treasure box of exploits. From weaving through the tropical fish markets of Hong Kong to indoor skydiving in Hollywood (where she sprained her neck), we have reveled in those “wow” and “ow” moments.

This year, her less-than-enthusiastic response was sending signals. (Okay, that response was hurling daggers between my eyes). I wasn’t asking her if she wanted to get a root canal, nor was I demanding that she clean the roof gutters. Was I not cool enough, anymore? She was bonding with old high school friends, and she locked in as many activities as she could to be with them before returning to college. Indeed, hanging out with her 50-something mother was as thrilling was watching me touch up my roots.

"Vancouver has a fringe festival."

"A whaa?"  Breaking away from the screen, she stared at me, completely baffled. Now I had to give this answer my best shot, or I would lose her once again to the soap opera.

“I’ve never been to one before, but I heard fringe festivals are like independent movie festivals that last several days and instead of seeing movies, you get to see one-act plays,” I said in one breath.

Now I had won her attention. In high school, Gwen was infected with the drama bug, and she performed in as many school plays as possible. She never landed a lead role, only obtaining bit parts, but my girl loved the thrill of singing on stage and the comraderie of being in a cast.  Yep, I remember sewing a putrid fushia-colored dinner gown for Hello Dolly and dyeing one of my former bridesmaid dresses from Pepto-Bismol pink to midnight blue for her dancing scene in Music Man.

In a flash, I was looking at a smile as wide as Canada. “Cool!  Really?  Where? What kind of plays? When can we go?”

“Here’s the program. If you want to, take a look at it.”


As my kids get older, the reality is this: if I want them to come with me, I need to entice them with trips that zero in on their interests. And, oh yes, I have to offer to pay for them, too.

Turns out that Canada is famous for these uncensored plays that occur in cities such as  Montreal, Edmonton, and Winnipeg. The Vancouver International Fringe Festival is the largest of its kind in the nation.  A full-time committee vets out scripts submitted from around the world.  Throngs of volunteers sweat out almost 1,000 hours collectively dropping off programs, advertising shows, manning ticket booths, and more.

At this twenty-sixth annual event, held September  9-19, over 600 performances took place in 11 days. Like other fringe festivals, some plays were making their debut; others were making the rounds from fringe to fringe. Props were sparse, and one or two people usually performed.

This year, over 31,000 attendees converged on this city for their festival fix. Every Fringer (a.k.a attendee) paid a $5 membership which offset costs.  Individual performances ran between $5-$12. A Frequent Fringer pass cost $90 for ten shows. Ticket proceeds went directly to performers.

Locations were spread throughout the touristy Granville Public Market on Granville Island and extended to nearby neighborhoods. Like kittens discovering a ball of yarn, we were giddy to find out that Vancouver’s fringe plays can take place anywhere on anything. Performances were held in spots such as the Vancouver Police Museum, a space museum, a fire escape, a pedicab, and someone’s backyard.

During our “fringe-a-thon” we gorged ourselves on ten plays in four days. It is no wonder that the tagline for the festival is “All-you-can-eat theater.” Gwen even had energy to watch one that started at 11 p.m., but I was quite exhausted by then and headed for the hotel.  As a little girl, she had a hard time keeping up with me when we were traveling. Now the switcharoo was here, and I could not deny it. 

My daughter came alive during those festival days. She struck up conversations with other college students in line, joked with absolute strangers two, three times her age while I stayed mum, deciphering the tiny type on the program with my progressive lenses and circling the map, figuring how to get to the next show. She knew of the hip trends, that Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog was a hit on YouTube before it became a play and asked other patrons whether it was worth seeing that night. 

Part of the week’s entertainment for me was observing this young woman, not as my daughter, but as an independent, intelligent adult with her own thoughts and tastes that did not have to mimic mine.  Had she always been this way, or was I only seeing this for the first time? 


The plays were capitivating, some higher quality than others in acting and writing. But it was refreshing to see so many themes tackled and addressed from domestic and international performers.

While I had circled the shows that were more family-friendly in description, Gwen had no problem putting checkmarks by those I felt were darker or even bizarre in nature.  This difference in our tastes caught me off guard. Perhaps my favorites made her flinch too.  

I couldn’t stop laughing in A Day in the Life of Miss Hiccup! where Japanese performer Hiromi Yano appeared on stage in a wild wig and costume so colorful it looked as if a rainbow had exploded all over her dress. Amid upbeat instrumental music, the kooky girl mimed, showing us how hilarious brushing teeth and answering the phone can be when you are a clown. Yano's lighthearted take on life’s little duties won her the Talk of the Fringe and also The Spirit of the Fringe awards. I adored her goofball antics, while Gwen thought she was too silly.

Another one-act was the monologue of a jilted lover, who told us of her despair while peddling a pedicab. Gwen and I were two of four audience members in little rickshaw towed by this young actress on a giant tricycle.  Gwen appreciated her dramatic flair, while I felt her monologue was hard to follow.

However, we found common ground on Miracle in Rwanda, the true story about a Rwandan woman, Immaculee Ilibagiza,  who lived in a bathroom for three months to save her life from the Hutus on a murderous rampage in 1994 where almost a million Tutsi people were killed in 100 days.  With masking tape on the floor to outline the 3-foot-by-3-foot bathroom thrshe and several other women hid, actor Leslie Lewis Sword never stumbled on a line or fell out of character the entire time she played to a packed, riveted house. 

It didn’t take us long to get hooked on The Fringe. We felt as though we now belonged to a privileged, secret society, for few Americans know what a fringe festival is.

With so much to see, we were sad we could not have stayed all 11 days. Not only did the festival offer plays, but The Fringe hosted workshops, actor discussions, and coffee shop gatherings so people could discuss shows afterwards.

Gwen and I agreed we cannot wait to attend another fringe festival. Perhaps this will be our annual outing, and I won’t have to feel squeezed out by Korean soap operas or faintly jealous when she heads out with friends. We will always have each other, and now I’m confident we will always have The Fringe.

Vancouver Fringe Festival
2011 Dates: Sept. 8-18 

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