Lee-Anne Poole has been involved with the Halifax Fringe Festival since her teens, but now she finds herself in a more hands-on role.
The executive director has moved from putting plays on to facilitating the festival, and she's excited for this year, even if it'll look a little different.
“I feel great that we are able to hold something. That's so great in comparison to the last year-and-a-half,” said Poole. “Normally we'd have a much larger festival, but we are just happy to be getting out there.”
In a non-COVID year, there would be more than 60 plays from artists around the world. As it stands, with Public Health restrictions in place, there will be around 25 shows with limited capacities.
“It's focused local this year, and with phase 4 gathering limits, venues will be tight," she said. "For instance, in The Bus Stop Theatre, we can usually seat 70, but right now a sell-out is about 20.
“People will be sitting in little groups. It'll be smaller in a lot of ways, but given the context, it feels as big as it could be while still keeping people safe.”
The festival is — at its heart — an unpredictable time, and that's part of its true charm.
“There are so many reasons this is important," she said. "It's an opportunity to have so much going on at one time. People can take risks and do what they want.
“Artists who might not be programmed in the mainstream normally or those trying a new development can come. Those who've done nothing before can come.”
In fact, it's what first attracted Poole to the festival. She was a newcomer when she was 16, struggling with her sexuality and put her first play, And I Would Dance, in the festival.
“I put in an application, and there are no barriers or gatekeepers," she said. "As an audience member it can be so exciting.
“Mine was a one-person show, way back when I thought I wanted to perform. There were three characters: a young, closeted girl, her girlfriend and her mother. I was an idiot, closeted and not admitting it. I was pretending to be a very cool ally. But Fringe gave me somewhere to perform.”
Poole notes she has a huge appreciation for the artists involved, especially this year. The unjuried, uncensored festival works because of them.
“They do it, and it's picked at random and by lottery," she said. "Artists set their ticket prices and sell for the box-office. It's an affordable way to put on shows, and artists can make money right from their sales.
“However, this year, everyone is doing these shows with much of the seats cut off due to restrictions. They're doing this because they want to. If you look at the math, even a sell-out this year won't make a lot of money. But these plays will be there for audiences, and make people laugh.”
Among the shows playing is Mr. Wonderful and I, which follows a man and his dog who move into a new apartment. But the man keeps looking at his past, and begins writing letters to those who have impacted his life.
The play is directed by Wayne Burns and stars Allister MacDonald, who was lauded for his role in Thom Fitzgerald's film Stage Mother last summer. Burns and MacDonald also previously worked together on short film Liar, which found a home on CBC Gem.
Isaac Mulè, writer of the play, is happy to see the work come to fruition. There will be four shows.
From Kitchener, Ont., he moved to Halifax in February.
“I moved during the only snowstorm in Ontario," he joked. "Everyone kept saying there'd be more snow here, but we brought all the snow in a giant U-Haul.
“Two years ago, I started writing this. I worked as a child youth worker. As I got to know myself and my own mental health, I thought I needed to write. I started writing this show, and it's been really incredible. I earned some grants in Ontario for a workshop, and Allister came on-board in the summer. We did a 40-minute digital version for Hamilton Fringe.”
When Halifax Fringe announced its festival, Mulè applied. Now he, MacDonald and Burns are rehearsing away.
“It's the three of us working in the space," he said. "We have no stage manager or complex lighting. We're a tight little team.
“I've developed a lot of queer work, and the sense of community and not feeling alone and feeling seen is important. I've spoken with artists, and every time we've done something with this, people reach out and say they see friends and siblings in the show. That's so validating for me.”
Having something in-person is indescribable Mulè said.
“It's not the same on Zoom," he said. "Being able to share and explore is amazing. Allister is highly trained and professional, and to watch him do what he does, there are things you can't get out of Zoom."
People seem to be excited for the festival, and executive director Poole's gamble with advance ticketing this year seems to have paid off.
“I was initially nervous, and made tickets advance sales only," she said. "Sales shut down at midnight the night prior to the show. It was due to capacity and COVD. Venues are small and this helped with contact tracing and pre-screening.
“Often with the theatre, things are a bit more spontaneous. I didn't want to hinder people coming. But it's been 18 months and there was an appetite. Our first-day box-office was our highest advance sales ever. People are planning and they're excited.”
Poole urged people to make decisions on content they want to see fast, so they have a chance.
“With sales how they are, people need to pre-plan this year. See what you want and don't miss out,” she said.
Fringe runs from Sept. 2 to 12, and more information can be found at https://halifaxfringe.ca.