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Sexism on the Fringe: gathering some thoughts

A female Fringer who does everything to advance in her career...

A female Fringer who does everything to advance in her career is probably fucked any way you slice it.

I’m working on a survey. Well, it’s more like puttering. I'm puttering on a survey. I snagged some interview questions from a survey of college students, about their experiences of sexism and racism on campus, and I’m just going to swap in “at Fringe” for “on campus”. That’s a start, anyway, to putting some numbers and markers on these vague feelings of unease or disappointment that have been simmering in my belly for some time.

Honestly, I probably could let them simmer longer. I’ve worked through or around them for over five years now. And anyway, I’ve got shit to do, a new play, keeping the old ones fresh, the normal sprawling North American tour this year, a trans-Atlantic move in 2017. I’m getting older and more ambitious; I’ve got my own Shit to DO, and for now, Fringe is still the place where I’m doing it.

This is the seductive part of Fringing for me: the idea that we can Do Our Shit there. For some of us, it feels like the only place, or certainly the best place, for Our Shit. On top of that, the Canadian Fringe feels like the frontier of theatre; it’s got that bootstrapping, indie-artist vibe, where our presence at the party, and our success in it, depends entirely and only on us. Fringe is a level playing field, so goes the myth, and we can all get around just fine, if we bring good work and pound the pavement and have the right attitude. Even if there aren’t many women (cis- or trans-) or queers or people of color out there, that doesn’t mean anything. We’re special. We’ll be the ones to make it, to break through the barriers. Which there aren’t any, because it’s Fringe, but if there were barriers, we’d be breaking through!

I had my big moment of disillusionment three years ago, when I realized that all of the deities in the Fringe pantheon that I aspired to, they were all men. But mostly, you know, I managed to set that aside. But awareness can’t really be set aside, and you can’t unlearn what you already know, and last week I got a chance to talk with a friend, about my plans for the 2016 tour, what cities, what shows. She said, “I thought of you all the time when I was touring this past year.” Why, I said. “It was tough,” she said. “For the women.”

I asked her for details, but I didn’t really have to. After touring not just around North America but also the UK, and talking with other female fringers, I have heard plenty about stalkers and harassment and assault. Fuck, I don’t even need those second- and third-person accounts, I’ve got my own experiences. Of being clung to by a couple of volunteers, and everyone knew who they were, even the Fringe staff knew, but there was nothing to be done. Of having my slut (r)evolution posters slashed in Winnipeg, while other show posters nearby were untouched. I remember that time when a drunk patron leaned over on a bar patio and untied my dress—also in Winnipeg, damn, that is not an entirely awesome Fringe town after all, is it? These are the OBVIOUS things. These are the INCIDENTS.

I’m not even talking about the “soft” stuff, but that's there, too: the miasma of sexism, the pervasive reviewer bias, the sense among female solo artists that our work is sometimes considered the fringe equivalent of "chick lit," dismissed or not taken seriously, while work by our male counterparts sells out. I’m not talking about that one sketch at a late-night cabaret, with the premise about tall, skinny men taking over the fringe, and everyone laughed, and I sat there staring up at the stage and trying to figure out what was funny.

I’m not talking about that. I can’t talk about it. In six months I’m going to be in the middle of it again, and no one likes a crybaby. Suck it up. Just make good art (the implication being that the art we are making is not good enough). I am going back to work in that environment this spring, and I have to get along.

But I’m still going to put this survey out. Please drop me a line if you'd like to get involved, and I'll keep you posted. I don’t know what I’m going to do with the results, although I think—I hope!—that Fringes will be interested. Mostly, I want to get these experiences out of my head, let other people do the same, and get some perspective. Because I don’t know about you, but I have been soaking in Fringe for so long that I don’t know what’s just part of the rough-and-tumble, and what is utter bullshit.

*****

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