Fringe Feast

by Patrick Gauthier

June 7, 2010

Summer theatre festival offers something for every taste

By Patrick Langston, The Ottawa Citizen June 2, 2010

Ottawa Fringe Festival

When and where: June 17-27, various downtown venues

Information: 613-232-6162, www.ottawafringe.com

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For someone who insists her motto is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Natalie Joy Quesnel is shepherding in plenty of changes during her inaugural year as executive producer of the 14th annual Ottawa Fringe Festival.

But, “I also didn’t hesitate to put my own stamp on the festival,” said Quesnel, who Tuesday unveiled the lineup of plays for this year’s “Fringe Feast,” which runs from June 17 to 27.

For starters, the festival will be bigger than ever — 60 performance groups at 16 downtown venues, up from 57 groups and 11 venues last year. Shows are coming from as far away as Japan (A Day in the Life of Miss Hiccup by Shoshinz) and Australia (Cactus: The Seduction by Jonno Katz, solo performance winner at last year’s Ottawa festival), and from as near as our own backyard, including Shadows by Rideau Award-winning Margo MacDonald.

There will also be a new and promising lunchtime discussion/debate series in the Fringe Courtyard at Arts Court. Open to anyone with a festival pass or willing to pay what they can, it will feature performers and others tackling such hot-button issues as whether fringe shows are really on the fringe of theatre.

This year, the festival’s two weekends will feature a fresh emphasis on youth and the family. That includes Mini-Fringers Make a Scene, an Orléans Young Players Theatre School program of drama games for youngsters aged four to 13 in the Fringe Courtyard. The two Saturday afternoons, which will give parents a chance to take in some of the festival’s other events, will culminate in short performances by the children.

Uth Ink, a youth playwriting collaboration between the Great Canadian Theatre Company, Third Wall Theatre and the festival, will also launch its show in the courtyard, a favourite gathering spot that this year will have a new, more inviting look.

That should help lure more patrons into the area, which in the past has unintentionally felt like the preserve of artists and veteran festival-goers.

New too this year is Fringe It Forward, the registered charity arm of the festival. Plans include partnering on fundraising programs with the Hopewell Eating Disorder Centre, a youth diversity program known as Jer’s Vision, and the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa.

Quesnel, a well-known member of the Ottawa theatre community and the festival’s former general manager, took over late last summer from former executive producer Kevin Waghorn. During Waghorn’s four-year tenure, the festival’s attendance jumped to more than 12,000 from 9,000.

“I don’t expect it to become Winnipeg or Edmonton,” Quesnel said, referring to the country’s two biggest fringe theatre festivals, which last year sold in the order of 81,000 and 92,000 tickets respectively. “But it could be better rooted in the community. That’s why we’re calling it Fringe Feast 2010 this year, because there’s something for every taste.”

With the addition of new classical and country music festivals to the existing motherlode of summer fests, Quesnel wonders if the capital will eventually hit a saturation point. “But we’re not there yet, and we’re emphasizing quality versus quantity.”

As always, she said, one of the draws of the fringe festival is not knowing what you’ll get.

“But even if the show is bad, you can go to the courtyard afterward and have a constructive discussion about why it didn’t work. Discussion is what the fringe is all about.”

As to must-see shows, Quesnel said she has Phone Whore, Cameryn Moore’s slice-of-life comedy/drama about phone sex, on her list along with Heroes Past and Present, a family puppetry show about superheroes by Ottawa-based Artellephant Productions. Watch, too, she says, for the world premiere of MAL by Rachelle Elie, who won the fringe’s 2008 outstanding comedy award for Joe: The Perfect Man.

Whether Quesnel will actually get to see those and other shows is up in the air.

“It’s taken me 45 minutes just to put together my to-do list today. How long is it going to take me to actually do it?”