Interactive: Lottery can disappoint but Toronto Fringe Festival charms


By Jacob Horowitz
Ryersonian Staff

It’s been said that winning isn’t everything, but at the Toronto Fringe Festival lottery on Monday night, it sure seemed like it would have been a lot of fun.

For the unaware, the Fringe Festival is an annual Toronto event that gives anyone with a story to be told a chance to tell it. Now in its 26th year, each November Fringe choses a selection of playwrights, gives them a free venue, free advertising, and 100 per cent of ticket sales for them to put on a play; regardless of content or quality.

What makes the Fringe Festival different from most opportunities available to emerging playwrights is that winning depends entirely on chance.

If your name is pulled out of the recycling bin that is used as a receptacle for the hundreds of names that have been entered, you are immediately whisked away to have your photo taken, talk to the press, and promote the play that mere seconds ago might not have ever been made.

It’s an experience that can be life-changing, or in my case and the case of the many other losers at the lottery on Monday, it’s an experience that can change nothing at all.

As a writer – or at least someone who hopes to one day be called a writer – I had never written a play before this year. To me, theatre was a dying art kept alive by those who don’t own a television and refuse to admit that movies are here to stay. But seeing as how television is near-impossible to break into unless you know someone in the industry, and the market for selling original film scripts dried up with the economy back in 2008, theatre looked like a pretty good choice to me.

The plan was to write a play, cast it, polish it, and produce it. I would enter the play in the Fringe Festival and if it didn’t win I would produce it myself. I knew the odds for Fringe weren’t in my favour, they were 15 to 1 to be exact, but still, it was worth a shot. So I began my journey back in June and wrote a play called Conjuring Houdini. It was an original idea based on a historical figure that everyone knows, Harry Houdini.

In the play, a modern day spiritualist holds a séance for Harry Houdini, only to find him standing at her door mere minutes later. As the play progresses the mystery of who this man really is keeps audiences wondering right up until the very end. The play, a mix of magic show with original illusions and a comedy-drama thriller, attracted a large number of industry players to it who eventually loved it enough to attach themselves to it.

It’s an experience that can be life-changing, or in my case and the case of the many other losers at the lottery on Monday, it’s an experience that can change nothing at all.

The cast was filled out by David Merry, one of Canada’s top magicians, Mag Ruffman, a Canadian television legend from shows such as Road to Avonlea, and Julia Gartha, a finalist on last year’s CBC competition show, Over the Rainbow. Everything was looking great, that is, until word got out that we might produce the play ourselves.

Apparently my original thoughts about the theatre industry were largely correct, and the people keeping theatre alive don’t care too much for the untraditional. As I was eventually told, producing a play yourself isn’t exactly done, especially when you’re a theatre outsider as all of us involved with Conjuring Houdini were.

According to those that I spoke with, the people in the theatre industry take care of their own first, and no one else second. In their eyes, if you haven’t been toiling away in theatre for a few decades, you’re an outsider.

We were told in no uncertain terms that a self-produced play would be boycotted by all involved in the Toronto theatre scene and it would go nowhere past its original run. So that was a bust, and all that was left was Fringe. But as the rest of the story goes, last night I watched as 12 names out of more than a hundred were called, and none of them were mine.

Then the waitlist names were called, and again, none of them were mine. I watched as those around me celebrated and others cried. Dreams were made and hopes were shattered. And I was left sitting in the back with a few friends and a polished script; a script that, thanks to the luck of the draw, is going to spend the foreseeable future tucked away in a drawer.

So to those looking for the lesson in all of this, there really isn’t one. There’s no silver lining or beacon of hope. But there’s also no black hole of sadness or message to never try for anything because you’ll always fail.

With the Fringe Festival, all there is are the odds. And though the odds didn’t work out this year, there’s always next year. And possibly, after ten or fifteen more years like this; I could finally be considered a theatre veteran.

Maybe by then Conjuring Houdini will see the light of day.

Click on the images below to hear festival insights.

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