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Fringe staff at the 2019 festival. Photo: Ottawa Fringe Festival.

Interview: Festival director Patrick Gauthier on cancelling the 2020 Ottawa Fringe Festival

By Bruce Burwell on April 6, 2020

I suppose we knew it was coming. Over the last week, the cancellation of summer festivals around the world had begun. One of the first cancellations I noticed was the granddaddy of all Fringe Festivals: Edinburgh. And it isn’t held till the end of August each year. But the news of the Ottawa Fringe Festival cancellation still came as a shock, since it was the first major summer festival in Ottawa to be cancelled.

Apt613 spoke to Patrick Gauthier, Director of the Ottawa Fringe Festival. The Fringe team also produces the Undercurrents Festival in February each year. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Apt613: Until I read the press release, I hadn’t thought about the problems that performers and producers would be having in rehearsing for the Fringe. Was that a big part of the cancellation decision, or was it just the uncertainty about whether you were going to be allowed to put this on in June?

Patrick Gauthier: It was death by a thousand cuts, really. It started when they announced the school closures. That really jolted everyone and something that hadn’t been real for us was suddenly very, very real. We also run the Arts Court Theatre, and the city closed the theatre shortly after the school closures. And then artists started getting in touch with us because they couldn’t make our deadlines coming up for program information and photos.We heard that people couldn’t get their photos taken because their photo shoots had all been cancelled by the photographer.

We thought, okay, we’ll just fix that and change that deadline for photoshoots and it will be fine. And then we weren’t going to have information in time for our print programs. So we decided to move the program completely online this year. We won’t print anything. We’ll just do that instead. And then we can push the deadline really far back for people. But then when artists started telling me that they couldn’t rehearse, and I had some young artists getting in touch and they were asking “What do you suggest? We had a rehearsal schedule and there’s 12 of us. And what should we do? Do you have any advice?” Because we have a lot of young and emerging artists in the festival. And that’s when it really hit home for me.

Of course people can’t rehearse. They’re not allowed to get together. So even if magically on June 10 everything went back to normal, people still wouldn’t have shows ready. And on top of that there was the international travel ban. International artists weren’t even going to be allowed in the country. So it was all these little things, they just eventually pointed the way to the decision that we were going to have to make.

Apt613: And I suppose, in some ways, it was better to do it yourself before someone else forced you to do it?

PG: Yes. We’re at the point of 90 days out now. This is about the time when we start making financial commitments. We start hiring seasonal staff, we start paying deposits on venues, we pay for advertising campaigns, we pay the printer to print the program. So to delay the decision any longer just means that we’re starting to pay for things that we may end up not using.

Fringe performers at the 2019 festival. Photo: Facebook/Ottawa Fringe Festival.

Apt613: With the cancellation this year, are the artists who have lost out in terms of a chance to perform this summer automatically guaranteed a spot in 2021?

PG: Well, we are going to be refunding all the artists’ fees. And we’ll be holding a spot for people. Then we’re going to get in touch with people in advance of our lottery next year and, because circumstances may have changed for people, they may not be available in June 2021. But the intention is that we’ll hold a spot for people. We’ll have a lottery for many fewer spaces and fill the spots that are still open via that lottery.

Apt613: How many performing artists are impacted by the cancellation?

PG: About 250 to 300 in any given year. And of those, a minimum two-thirds would be local.

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Apt613: And what do you think the income loss per artist is?

PG: We pay out over a hundred thousand bucks. I think it was $118,000 we paid out last year. So it’s over $100,000 in box office revenue that we won’t be paying out to artists this year.

Apt613: There was a note in the release about making yourselves available for virtual support for artists. What kind of support would that be?

PG: We have a few ideas. We’re going to be doing some professional development. We’re going to be running a playwrights unit. People who are writing new scripts, we’re going to offer a weekly group dramaturgy session for them. There’s six of us now who have very little to do between now and the end of June. So we’re going to try to make ourselves available whatever way we can and we’re also going to be talking to people and finding out: What do you need and how can we help with that? I have grant-writing skills, I can help people write grants. Really, we’re looking to whatever people need and how can we support the artists.

Apt613: You have a group of six full-time employees at the Fringe, correct?

PG: Yes, six full-time and everyone’s staying on payroll.

Apt613: So any other employees would have been people you would have been hiring right now for the period through to June and are not on staff yet?

PG: Yes we have some seasonal staff like our volunteer coordinators, our box office staff. We had planned on completely revamping how we delivered our box office services and we were actually going to hire about 10 to 12 additional people who just won’t be hired now. But we have our year-round box office staff who are very part-time during the year and work a bunch during the festival.

An enthusiastic Fringe audience. Photo: Facebook/Ottawa Fringe Festival.

Apt613: In the release you talked about Undercurrents happening next February. Are there any opportunities for anything else “Fringe-y” between now and then?

PG: We’re going to see how things play out. We’ve planned for a basic organizational shutdown through the end of August. We’re assuming that there’ll be no rentals at Arts Court, no availability of the space, no one in the office through the end of August. If we can do something small, a weekend of performances in the fall, we will certainly do it. We have an advantage because we have full-time people and because we’re also a small organization, we can be very agile. So if suddenly, in the middle of August, we find out that September 1 the country’s opening up again and we have a free weekend in mid-October, we could probably get something together and we’ve talked about that. But we’re not going to start planning anything until we have some certainty.

Apt613: So one thing I worry about is that there is going to be a lag in terms of how willing people are to go back being close to each other. Is there anything you have talked about that can alleviate that?

PG: It’s a kind of a cop-out answer, but I can see both sides. I can see what you describe as people wanting to slowly acclimate into society. I can also see “Hey, we can go out again, let’s go out and listen to things.” And the real response might be somewhere in the middle of those two, but neither of those things happening will be surprising. Like, massive parties wouldn’t surprise me. People being cautious wouldn’t surprise me. But we have to plan for the worst-case scenario in terms of festivals. Undercurrents planning doesn’t usually start until July, because Undercurrents happens at the end of February. So we’re going to wait and see how this all affects that. Like, how is the country July 1, and that will affect the planning for Undercurrents? We have some programming confirmed, some tentatively confirmed, and we’re at the place we normally are at with Undercurrents. But we’ll see in terms of — do we budget for smaller houses? Do we do fewer shows and fewer performances?

Apt613: Anything else you wanted to say that I haven’t asked you about?

PG: I think the release said it was a hard decision to make. It was, and it was an inevitable decision. But it was still hard. It was hard and easy at the same time. We had to do it, and emotionally it was just very difficult. But as an organization we’re committed to local artists. We’re committed to help people out. And we know it’s a tough time for everyone and we’ll still be around when everyone thinks this is all done, we’ll still be around. And next next year we’re going to throw a killer party and I’m looking forward to it.