EDMONTON, ALBERTA--(Marketwire - July 19, 2012) - Every city has festivals. Here in Canada's Festival City, new ones seem to arrive every week based on every imaginable human endeavor. What makes Edmonton different is the foundation of our festivals. There was a bit of luck in their growth, and great timing, but our two iconic August festivals give nearly everyone else a blueprint to follow.
It isn't a prescription so much as a philosophy. Start small, experiment whenever possible, and let the people who love it build it.
The birth of the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival hints at what works in Edmonton, better than anywhere else on the continent. In 1982, a theatre producer named Brian Paisley had a bit of money and a simple idea. The neighbourhood of Strathcona, on the south side of the North Saskatchewan River, was uncommonly rich with theatre artists.
Some were professionals and others were amateurs. Some were terrific. Others not so terrific. Paisley decided it wasn't his job to pick winners and losers. All he wanted to do was provide places for courageous artists and equally courageous audiences to spend an hour in the dark together: all in ten days.
There was a sense of occasion about it, and Fringers often dressed up, but not in tuxedos and ball gowns. No one went to the festival to be seen.
By 1990, it was a North American phenomenon. There are lots of theories why it works so well here but one thing is certain: it fits elegantly and enduringly with the culture of the city. Edmonton is a place to try new things: new ideas, new businesses, new art.
This year's theme is The Village of the Fringed. At the village, you'll line up at a venue - a library, a church basement, a bar or maybe even an actual theatre - with eighty or ninety other people and a woman from New York, dressed up as a Victorian huntress, will come by to advertise her show with olde tyme handbills.
Why is she in Edmonton in August instead of Edinburgh? Ask her and she'll tell you. This is the best place on the planet to test a crazy new idea on curious audiences. If she succeeds, she'll make a lot of money. If she fails, her fellow artists will encourage her to come back and try again.
The Edmonton Folk Music Festival carries a different but equally powerful sort of magic about it. It's a few blocks north and east of the Fringe Festival grounds in Old Strathcona, on the slopes of the North Saskatchewan River Valley. In the winter this is a ski hill. For four days every August, it's a natural amphitheatre with a mainstage for evening concerts and a series of smaller venues for daytime sessions with artists from Edmonton and around the world - stretching the definition of "folk music," but not too far.
Folk music festivals aren't any rarer than theatre festivals. But, like the Edmonton Fringe, the Edmonton Folk Music Festival has a culture and an atmosphere all its own. Rolling Stone magazine said it might just be "the hippest" in the world, but that's an imprecise word. The view of downtown Edmonton, as the sun sets behind the towers and Elvis Costello or Joni Mitchell or Van Morrison or David Byrne plays, is unforgettable.
The reason it sells out every year, though, is not because someone famous and fabulous is playing the mainstage on Saturday night. The Edmonton Folk Music Festival is a strange volunteer-run city of 10,000, powered by clean energy and marvelous food and the jolliest beer tent on the planet.
People from all over the world book their holidays in August every year to be here. Some come from as far away as Scotland every year just to volunteer. People of all faiths are welcome at the festival, but for a lot of people it's an annual pilgrimage to a church of secular humanism.
At least once every year an artist on stage will stop between songs and look out at the hill in the darkness, lit by a thousand candles, and proclaim it the most beautiful scene in the world. Edmontonians are travellers and natural skeptics, but these artists - who always come back - are on to something.