This month, our little house has been lousy with guests. They come for the festivals. In some ways it’s a perfect time to have guests: they’re out of the house and in the city so much they remain attractive. They don’t have time to become a nuisance.
In the research and in the work we’ve been doing on Make Something Edmonton — phase two will launch soon — we’ve learned that our first job is to fix one specific problem: that tension we all feel when someone asks, “Why Edmonton?”
I have friends from Calgary here this weekend, and they don’t suffer from this sickness. They live in a growing, world-class city with big energy head offices and an enormous, silly, glamourous party that says everything they need to say about themselves, literally and metaphorically: The Stampede. The Heart of the New West, with a hat to match. Any further questions?
It stings that Edmontonians, historically, don’t have their own answer, their own Stampede. If only. If only! For years they expected Capital EX and, now, K-Days, to burst from Northlands and into the city somehow. Only it never will. It can’t.
Edmontonians do have an intense, glowing pride in their city. They adore businesses, events, and institutions that grew from the ground up, from nothing into something, which is the original meaning of the word creative. They appreciate the underdog, Cinderella-story of local entrepreneurialism much more than winning the battle to attract huge businesses and events to the city from elsewhere. But who wouldn’t say these things?
Apart from a unique economy, the aspects that make Edmonton truly different are:
- the urban barn-raising quality, the strange cooperative spirit that links our geographical isolation, rural roots, immigration stories, and 8,000 years of First Nations history with those institutions we love.
- the flat culture, lack of hierarchy and aristocracy. Anyone with an idea can ask anyone else for help, whether they’re a CEO or a political leader or a neighbour or the head of major institution.
We do have a festival that was launched from the ground-up, in 1982, an Edmonton invention that has spread across the continent. It is rooted in the entrepreneurial spirit of hundreds of artists, amateur and professional. There are now 40 BYOVs: churches and bookstores and bars operating as independent theatrical producers. It was built by volunteers and near-volunteers: artists spending thousands of hours on work that will only rarely bring great monetary rewards. And, in over 50 venues, it doesn’t matter who you are, what your last name is, where you came from: we’re all the same at the Fringe, audience and artist. We’re wearing shorts and T-shirts, not tuxedos and cocktail dresses. And the leaders of grand organizations, like the Citadel and the University of Alberta and ATB Financial, are pitching in to help. Retailers in Old Strathcona see the Fringe as a second Christmas.
It is effortlessly, spectacularly fun. It’s unpretentious. It’s the biggest on the continent, where it all started, yet it fits our spirit of comic self-deprecation. Last year, it had a population of 680,000. People come from around the world to be a part of it. It’s one of the best places on the planet to launch a new theatrical experiment.
Literally and metaphorically, the Fringe is Edmonton. Our businesses and our social ventures are versions of the same story, without the beer tents, the leather, and the fire breathers.
The Fringe Festival is Edmonton’s Stampede. So: what do we do about it?