Ottawa’s Popular Indie Festival Edges Toward Mainstream

Originally published in The Ottawa Citizen, June 1, 2011

The Ottawa Fringe Festival

When & where: June 16-26; various downtown venues

Tickets: In advance at the Fringe office, 200 Daly Ave., Suite 100; online at; and at the door. You’ll also need a $2 Fringe pin, available at the office and at the door as a passport to the festival.

Information: 613-232-6162,

OTTAWA — It’s not exactly sporting a suit and tie yet, but at 15 years old the Ottawa Fringe Festival is almost a member of polite society, according to executive producer Natalie Joy Quesnel.

Running June 16-26 in multiple downtown venues, this year’s version of the festival was unveiled June 1.

The celebration of independent theatre is no longer viewed as “just this weird and wacky and inaccessible festival,” Quesnel said in an interview. “It’s more inclusive. Everybody will find something they like. In some ways, it’s become more mainstream, and that’s not a bad thing because it means there are more people who believe in it enough to come and see it.”

This year, 60 companies — more than half from Ottawa, the balance from across Canada and other countries — tackle everything from an alien invasion of Earth (Pick Your Path by Ottawa’s Garkin Productions) to a night on an acute psychiatric ward as seen through the eyes of a jaded nurse (Fruitcake — Ten Commandments from the Psych Ward by the U.K.’s Rob Gee).

There’s also a show about Canadian jazz legend Lenny Breau (Last Gig of Lenny Breau by Vancouver musician Colin Godbout). Australia’s Allan Girod presents When Harry Met Harry, a tale about an awkward office worker who’s forced to take an interpersonal skills development workshop; the show sold out at last year’s Winnipeg Fringe Festival. And Ottawa’s Mi Casa Theatre, which scored a massive hit in 2009 with Countries Shaped Like Stars, is back with its new show, Live from the Belly of a Whale, described as “magic realism with music.”

Something for everyone indeed.

The festival has enjoyed substantial growth over its short lifetime.

Based in Arts Court, the event has mushroomed from a 36-company festival the first year to the current 60. Attendance in the same period has grown from a couple of thousand to roughly 12,000 in 2010. The operating budget, meanwhile, has quintupled: from $50,000 to $250,000.

Just as importantly, said Quesnel, the number of applications from international performers has skyrocketed, thanks largely to former executive producer Kevin Waghorn’s success in heightening the festival’s profile. Quesnel, who’s been involved with the festival since originally performing there in 2001, replaced Waghorn last year.

Some well-known Ottawa artists can thank festival performances for helping launch their careers. They include Pierre Brault, who debuted Blood on the Moon at the festival in 1999 and has since toured his one-man shows across Canada and internationally. Patrick Gauthier, now artistic associate at the Great Canadian Theatre Company and producer of GCTC’s Undercurrents Festival, is another fringe alumnus. Mi Casa Theatre, which has gone on to perform in the United States and at other Canadian fringe festivals, also got its first taste of real attention at its hometown festival.

To help celebrate its first 15 years, the festival has undergone a rebranding, including a fiery new logo.

The festival has also published a 100-page book covering its history. Off the Record is available online ( or at the festival’s offices in Arts Court.

A further vote of confidence in the festival: both Black Sheep Theatre and OYP Theatre School are back. It’s the 15th straight year for both, the only two groups to claim that record.

Black Sheep Theatre will mount the comedy/drama Playing for Advantage. OYP Theatre School presents a comedy showcase as well as once again hosting Mini-Fringers, a theatre day camp for four to 13-year-olds that leaves parents free to take in fringe shows.

Another theatre training institution, Westboro-based Ottawa Theatre School, presents Glitch, a new play by David Hersh whose show I ran to packed houses at The Gladstone last fall.

PlayTime with HM, formerly the Lunchtime Artist Series, presents five late-afternoon panel sessions on theatre reviewing, artists’ social responsibility, and other topics both serious and not-so-much.

In the end, though, the festival is about the shows, whether good, bad or merely OK.

“You never know what you’re going to get,” said Quesnel. “There’s a certain excitement in taking that risk.”

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

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