The Vancouver Fringe Festival goes virtual and more equitable

Rohit Chokhani, executive director of the Vancouver Fringe Festival, led the shift to all-virtual organizing while he was quarantined in India.

He talks about the unexpected benefits of planning the theatre festival remotely, ongoing changes in response to the pandemic and how the festival is supporting its Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) artists and audiences.

The perks of going digital

Though moving to an all-digital approach had its technical challenges, Chokhani and his team found unexpected moments of joy and bonding while planning this year’s festival.

“When you’re in the office, you have friendly chats by the water cooler or during lunch breaks, and we wanted to make sure that we were still able to maintain that. As part of our team bonding sessions, we got to see each other’s homes and family gardens and so we got to know each other more intimately in a different way,” he says.

In addition to staggering the dates, the festival is also introducing new digital components in order to make the event as safe for its artists and audiences as possible.

“The jury’s still out in terms of what the turnout will be this year, and whether we’re ready to engage with each other as humans, with social distancing and wearing masks, is a big question. But I do think that by staggering the festival, we might be able to attract certain other people who are usually unable to attend in September,” hopes Chokhani.

Working towards ‘theatre for everyone’

Rohit Chokhani believes that the Fringe’s vision of inclusion for all is still a work in the making. | Photo courtesy of Rohit Chokhani

Since 1983, the Vancouver Fringe Festival has aimed to produce ‘theatre for everyone’ as an incubator for independent artists to develop and share their work. After completing an online application and paying the participation fee (based on the length of the show), the lottery system randomly draws applicants to share their work on the main stage. Other options include ‘Bring Your Own Venue’ artists which are approved on a first-come, first-served basis and must also pay a participation fee to the Fringe.

Chokhani believes that while the Fringe’s vision of inclusion for all is still in sight, it is important to stay vigilant in updating the ways through which this vision can be achieved.

“Back in 2017, Vancouver Fringe acknowledged that although we tried to be anti-establishment and create an environment of ‘theatre for everyone,’ the systemic challenges of the industry, including how the lottery system works, do create some systemic barriers,” he says.

Currently, the festival offers discounted participation fees for those who choose them, as well as an option for artists to participate exclusively through digital live-streamed performances.

Though Vancouver Fringe has committed to some internal changes, including recently hiring an equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) consultant, Chokhani is still looking forward to the forthcoming changes within the theatre community at large.

“As a person of colour myself, being appointed as executive director does mean that some change is happening,” he says. “When I came to Vancouver a decade ago and was doing my first show at the Fringe, I don’t know whether I could’ve seen myself getting a position like this, although I believe that I did have the skills and the talent.”

Chokahani explains that hiring BIPOC artists cannot be enough if there aren’t systems in place to support them.

“As a leader, I don’t believe in a check-box approach. Oftentimes, white institutions hire BIPOC and other equity-seeking artists expect them to continue to create the same kind of Eurocentric theatre that is in the mainstream,” he adds.

For instance, Chokhani explains that the current understanding and methods of mainstream theatre, including sheet music and long-form musical monologues, are not universal to all cultures, and he hopes to bring more diversity to the festival in the future.

On bringing the Fringe Festival one step closer to this goal, Chokhani believes that the challenge will be ensuring that artists can create the shows they want to create while feeling empowered and supported to do so, both financially and artistically. One of his long-term goals is to bring non-English shows to the Fringe or shows that use English in tandem with the artists’ mother tongues.

This year, the Vancouver Fringe Festival is taking place from Sept. 10–20, Oct. 1–10, Oct. 29–Nov. 8 and Nov. 26–Dec. 6 in the hopes that staggered dates will ensure the artists’ and festival goers’ safety and increase the festival’s accessibility to audiences.

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