If anyone knows their way around the Edmonton Fringe, it’s Murray Utas. He started out as an audience member back in the late 1980s, jumped onstage as a performer a few years later, and, since 2013, has served as the artistic director for the entire festival. A lot has changed at the Fringe over that time, but year over year, there’s one thing he knows he can depend on: a whole pile of shows put on or facilitated by Rapid Fire Theatre.
“They could have their own venue,” Utas says. “That’s how many shows Rapid Fire brings to this party. It’s massive, the way that they support their company and our community.”
To this day, Rapid Fire remains one of the biggest producers at the second-largest Fringe festival in the world. Some of their shows appear under the official RFT aegis, while others are written and produced by combinations of the company’s many performers, past and present—some of whom fly across the continent just to be part of it.
“The Fringe gives you an opportunity to create your own opportunity,” says Kevin Gillese, a former artistic director of Rapid Fire, and who recently finished up a decade-long stint as artistic director of Dad’s Garage Theatre Company in Atlanta, Georgia. Gillese still comes back to Edmonton every August to reprise his much-beloved Scratch, the long-form improv show he created with fellow RFT alum Arlen Konopaki in 2005.
Gillese says the Fringe is the perfect training ground for Rapid Fire performers to develop their voices, and also discover what it takes to make a show successful. “When you’re starting out, you think you know what that means,” he says. “But after you’ve done the Fringe, you get more tuned into what the actual quality levels need to be to be competitive.”
Rapid Fire doesn’t just put up recycled versions of its in-house shows, either. On the contrary, they understand the Fringe represents an opportunity to try out new genres, formats, and subject matter, and see what audiences respond to. “We have a diverse group of shows that speak to different themes and topics around Edmonton and abroad,” says CK Dhaliwal, Rapid Fire’s past general manager. “Everybody wants to be part of the Fringe because it’s an optimal environment for the exact audience we want to showcase our work to.”
Over the years, the working relationship between Rapid Fire and the Fringe has grown even closer. They’ve collaborated on annual festival events like the Late Night Cabaret, a fan-favourite show put on jointly by the Fringe, Rapid Fire, and Catch the Keys Productions. Then, in 2020, when the entire Fringe had to be cancelled due to COVID-19, Rapid Fire pivoted along with the festival to co-produce the Fringe Revue, a lively digital variety show that combined music, theatre, comedy, and spoken word.
The Fringe is rightly celebrated as one of the jewels of Edmonton’s theatre scene. And from the start, Rapid Fire has been there right alongside them.
“They don’t just care about themselves,” says Utas. “They look at the community they live in, and they think, ‘How can we support it?’ That’s great for our community, and for Treaty 6 territory, period.”
Written by Michael Hingston, an Edmonton-based writer and book publisher
October 20, 2020