Fringe for all? Winnipeg theatre festival strives to be more accessible

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Fringe for all? Winnipeg theatre festival strives to be more accessible

The Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival is making efforts to be more accessible this year . 

A spokesperson for the annual festival says organizers and staff want performers and audience members alike to be able to access as much of the content as possible.

Fringe Festival producer Chuck McEwan says he plans to work to continue to "enhance access and opportunities for all Manitobans and visitors who come out to enjoy the Fringe."

Part of that enhancement is making sure that different content is made available to patrons across a variety of needs.

Of the 180 performances offered this year, 38 are billed as accessible to low-vision and blind patrons — those shows have more audio and less visual content.

Another 23 shows are billed as more visually stimulating, aimed at patrons that are hard of hearing, deaf or new to the English language.

As well, a shortlist of four shows has been selected to be interpreted in American Sign Language for select performances.

McEwan says this is the second year the festival has offered these designations in its program.

"Many of the productions in the festival are more physically-based or text-based and may better suit the needs of these festival-goers," says McEwan. "We ask the performing companies to let us know if their show would be applicable to these needs."

As for the venues themselves, attendees of the festival will find that 24 out of 30 venues are marked with an accessibility sign on their programs.

Accessibility better for performer over audience, actor says

But one performer says that the festival might be stretching the definition of "physically accessible" venues.

Mitch Krohn is an actor and the artistic director for Crosswalk Productions and uses a wheelchair. 

He says he's far more nervous about being an audience member in some venues than he is about being on stage in them. 

He's noticed that while many Fringe venues are technically able to accommodate wheelchairs, not all of them are by any means convenient.

"In our venue specifically, if someone in a wheelchair were to come and see the show, they would have to enter the audience by coming in right across the stage," says Krohn. "If they have to exit in the middle of the performance, well, hey, I guess that's what they have to do. We'll just have to add them into the show!"

At that same venue, the closest accessible bathroom is technically in another building. In order to get there, a person would have to leave the venue and go down a long hallway to the adjoining building.

As an actor, however, Krohn says this is a very accessible festival for him.

"There are quite a few stages that are accessible for the performer to get on," says Krohn.

This is his first time back on stage since a 2016 stroke that left him unable to walk or use his left hand.

As someone who has seen the festival from the perspectives of an able-bodied person and one with mobility challenges, he says there's a lot that's been done to make shows and venues accessible — but there's always room to do better.

"Accessibility in Winnipeg and its events is still in the works," he says. 

McEwan says the festival is hoping to have additional money for more accessible programing over the next few years.

This year Fringe presenter Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre had some additional funds left over from its current season.

Those funds were allocated to hire the ASL interpreters. 

Cory Thibert, another performer, says Winnipeg is the only Fringe he's attended that offered to pay for an interpreter.

"I hire someone to interpret my show in each city we bring it to," says Thibert. "Winnipeg let me know that they had some available funding and in the end they covered the entire cost for me."

Thibert's show, Awkward Hug, deals with his experience of his parent's disabilities. He says he works to make his show as accessible as he can. It's one of the shows billed as accessible to low-vision and blind patrons too.

In his experience, Winnipeg really helped to achieve that higher level of accessibility, he said.