A day in the life of a Fringe reviewer

Ten years ago I had a one word speaking role in “Our Town” at MTC. That was enough drama for me.

I have a deep appreciation for actors, directors, playwrights and the techies who craft shows for our benefit. This is my second year as a Theatre Critic for CNC (2016 and 2017 Fringe Festivals; 2017 Agatha Christie Fest).

After rearranging my comfort zone because of the word ‘critic’ (my kids were raised at the height of the self-esteem movement where everyone was special and wonderful), I have come to embrace the title. A little free range criticism is good for the soul. I have progressed from Fringe attendee to Fringe reviewer to Fringe radio interviewee. (“River City 360” on 93.7 CJNU).

No other city embraces the Fringe the way Winnipeggers do. Some book their holidays around the Fringe, others volunteer and some spend years writing that quintessential play hoping to win the venue lottery. Me, I just show up to see what happens.

I think back fondly to the very first Fringe show I ever saw. It was a comedic monologue with Sandra Shamus and to this day every time my husband returns from a trip I sing her song, “My boyfriend’s back and there’s gonna be laundry.” The venue was a third floor firetrap walk up with no air conditioning and hard folding chairs. Those were the days.

To be able to review plays for CNC after years of writing and editing nonfiction academic treatises for a counseling journal is a bucket list come true. Having done many a process observation in my other career, I am conditioned to concepts of time on task, attention span, ability to focus and social interaction. In other words, I get to watch the audience as well as the play.

While my husband tends to use the present tense, I prefer to think that perhaps I was a princess in another life. Because I sure like being treated like royalty at the Fringe. (There is no proof that princesses grow up to be drama queens.) I like the red carpet treatment of not having to stand in line as media folks can arrive five minutes before show time. As long as we remember to book in advance.

I have learned to embrace the ‘f word’ since one tends to hear it so often at the Fringe. I have learned that if reviewing a play a friend has written or starred in, it better be good.

This year I witnessed tales of alcoholism, sexual abuse, divorce, mental illness, burnout, stress, heartbreak, depression, suicide ideation, longing, unrequited love, abandonment, loneliness and dementia. That was just in the first three plays I saw!

Fortunately I know how to safeguard against vicarious reviewer trauma. Red wine, good friends to debrief with and comedies fix anything.

The theme of the 30th Anniversary of the Winnipeg Fringe Festival was “Anything Can Happen; and We Let It.” Anything really can happen at these things. Imagine my delight when an octogenarian gave me a hug while in line for “Forget Me Not!”

“You’re the youngest person I’ve seen in two days,” he said. What a hoot. That just proves my theory that if you want to look younger, hang out with an older crowd.

Actually, what MTC lets happen is some amazing talent. The first show I reviewed on opening night (Joe Job) set the bar for me. The show I saw on the last day (Josephine) was magnificent. Sandwiched in between was a potpourri in celebration of live theatre. The Fringe is but one reason Winnipeg was named ‘Culture Capital of Canada’.

I have learned it is important to balance one’s list of plays to review. This year I saw improv, storytelling, comedy, a musical and a kids’ show. I think all adults should get in touch with their inner child and attend a kids show, its pure therapy.

For two glorious weeks fringing becomes a time out of time experience. I wear my CNC button proudly to every show I review. And explain to people it’s not a typo. I still use my real name in reviews, even when I think the show is awful.

Deadlines, photo cropping, back stage snooping, late nights composing; what a great adventure. Thanks CNC, it’s been a blast!

Love, Princess Heather.

Heather Emberley / Gracie Sweetstory


Heather Emberley is a repurposed school counsellor specializing in the psycho-social infrastructure of experience, an EAL teacher, freelance writer and sidekick of Gracie Sweetstory. They are stewards of a Little Free Library and their favourite word is postantineoconceptualizationalisticism.

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