Edmonton 2013 Fringe Review: The Festival Grounds

This review isn't going to be about a play, but instead something far more intrinsic to the Fringe experience: the grounds.

As noted on Twitter, a large number of Fringe Festivalers don't actually see (or indeed know about) any plays. Don't ask me how they don't know: you'd think the 30 people an hour pushing playbills into their hands would constitute a sign. Be that as it may, for the vast majority of people who "check out the Fringe" they don't know that you have to avoid 172,000 plays starring that sodomistic lunatic Darren Hagin, or that you can change the name of the Catalyst to C103 but you can't make it even remotely bearable for an audience and wait isn't theatre the only thing they do there?

For these people, the grounds are the Fringe Festival, and making the grounds a positive experience for the people is the best way to keep them there long enough to maybe notice the big red bunkers selling tickets all over the place. Oh come on, you haven't noticed that? How about all the giant "venue" towers in front of those doors? Why are you people so clueless?

Anyways, getting back to the grounds: this year they kind of suck. The Fringe app promised me awesome newly designed grounds. The main beer tent is larger! New locations for the stages and busker shows! Every one of the changes they did is worse! Hooray.

I wrote last year about the curious lack of food trucks at the Fringe grounds. Well, the geniuses in the know took my advice to heart, because this year the grounds have fewer food trucks than last year! For those who didn't do the math, that means this year there are in fact zero.

Okay so Next Act is next door, but there are lots of food trucks in this city, n'est pas? And none of them setup on the grounds? Along Calgary Trail north of 83rd avenue is a vendor line, a perfect place to put a row of food trucks. Instead we have the same burger place that usually was by the beer gardens, the taco in a bag place that used to be between the hippie beads and the beer gardens, and then more places where hippies are selling beads and paintings and tshirts with bicycles and accessory scarves with bicycles. No food trucks. Is this the food truck people making this call, or the Fringe grounds people? Anybody?

Also oddly lacking is the Churros hut that was next to the south beer gardens, a topic which we're going to get to soon. At Heritage Festival this was bizarrely the busiest "country" of them all, the Churros hut. It's a personal thing, but I didn't get anything there since in 2 weeks it would be sitting next to my beloved beer gardens at the Fringe. Now its nowhere to be found. I don't get this. New Asian village is still on-site, next to the north beer gardens, which is decent enough, but I do miss the Greek truck that was there. In the old space occupied by New Asian Village is...well, nothing. Anybody noticing a theme here?

There is a couple bright spots: there's a German deli (to replace the missing Italian sandwich place) and a place that sells a variety of meat-enabled poutines. The infamous falafel hut with donair poutine, the hit of the 2012 festival, is still there. There are apparently expanded grounds at Faculte St. Jean, which may have some of our missing vendors (I'll report on that later in the week). But that's about it for the good news.

Two years ago there was a "sustainable carnival" in the north half of the grounds. I liked this, it gave me the hope that like the Edinburgh Fringe our festival was geared to supplant and take over the major festival (K-Days) it was created in response to. Now for 2 consecutive years it hasn't been there at all. Instead this year we have the "ATB Community Lounge". They don't sell beer (or, almost always, anything) there, so guess how many people use it. Yeah, probably pretty close to zero. Zero performers are also using the "performers only rest area" south of the main beer gardens which I promise you I'm getting to. The back parking lot of Knox Church isn't available this year either, which gives even more empty unused space on the north grounds. The street along Armoury is deserted from end-to-end, there isn't even an alternate stage up there this year. It looks, from all practical purposes, that the fringe grounds are shrinking.

I wish I'd taken a picture to illustrate this, and I might later in the week for posterity's sake, but was there any reason to have a collapsible set of grandstand seating pointing at absolutely nothing in front of Knox Church? And then have a busker spot right next door? The design of the grounds this year looks like something done by focus group, or perhaps in the interests of fostering greater diversity they had the autistic kid who was the subject of that nasty letter this week do the layout.

And now...to the beer gardens. The north gardens are going great, they have nicely matured to what we would like them to be, though I wouldn't mind the north fence going further out and/or incorporating a couple food trucks. New Asian Village is accessible from within the beer gardens which is nice. The "wine gardens" have been slightly expanded, but not to fill where New Asian Village used to be, and now they have no food options. If you're stuck with a wine drinker, you need this to be better.

We all need the main beer gardens to be kickass, and this year they aren't. The beer gardens have been expanded, now going all the way to the edge of the parking lot alongside Gazebo Park (and yes I know that's not its name). The fence is expanded a bit north too, now that the aforementioned burger joint has been pushed back to 104th street. You'd think this was good. It is not so good. For one thing, the extra beer gardens space doesn't really provide any more seating: there's a huge empty space west of the edge of the tables and east of the fence that doesn't get used for anything other than a single garbage can (garbage being garbage, if you have a can there's no receptacle for you but I just throw everything in there so it doesn't bother me that much). The table layout isn't as crowded in years past, but I don't think there are much for extra seats, and the close proximity to hot chicks was more of a feature than a bug anyways (they may disagree in the comments with bra photos iff they like). What did we lose? Well, food for one thing: the burgers may have been iffy at the place next door, but at least we could eat without leaving the drink behind. Sending individuals off on food errands doesn't exactly add to the party atmosphere. And if we the beer garden patrons lost much but gained little, we fared far better off than everybody else.

As a result of the beer garden expansion, the north-south traffic is now a massive bottleneck, especially during or just after a show on the main stage (and hey, that's almost all the time!). To make matters worse, if you're walking north the beer garden entrance is right there, so the security is busy telling asian women with baby carriages that they have to go around. It cuts off a natural pathway and is always going to be insanely crowded. Move the entrance to the east or north side of the beer gardens please! We don't have to worry about people finding the entrance. There's Grasshopper in there, we'll smell it out, don't worry. I've spent $200 on beer tickets in 4 days on the grounds, I am highly motivated to somehow navigate my way to that countertop where they always assume I don't know you need tickets which is getting patently ridiculous at this point.

I don't yet have all the answers on how to fix the Fringe grounds, but they are very very very broken, and this can help explain why. Step one, put the main beer gardens back to normal next year. Holy shit.