Eric Coates is Artistic Director at Great Canadian Theatre Company. He has been working in the theatre industry since 1986.
Greetings, Ottawa Fringe Festival fans. Fifty-four shows comprise the Fringe this year and I read the promotional blurb for each. I then randomly selected one sentence from six different productions, thereby creating the greatest Fringe pitch of all time:
Want to live the life you’ve always dreamed of? Took a shit in the woods and wiped using pages from your guidebook? Do you need help? Let’s get personal. Join an actor on his quest for a career that goes from acting work to the many jobs in between. Present tense, days apart.
If someone would like to create this show, I’ll boost it on the Google. In the meantime, I have winnowed fifty-four contenders down to a manageable list of four, all of which I hope to attend. The other fifty, I’ll leave to you (collectively), which seems like a reasonable division of labour, given that there is only one of me, yet you are legion.
1. I Am the Most Unfeeling Doctor in the World (And Other True Tales from the Emergency Room) written and performed by Melissa Yuan-Innes (Ottawa)
In Michael Healey’s play, Generous, a politician at his wit’s end says, “Establish unattainable goals at our behest, and we will mock you senseless for failing to attain them.” I have long been intrigued by society’s determination to condemn those who wish to serve. Clergy, educators, and physicians immediately come to mind as our favourite targets, in addition to politicians. Melissa Yuan-Innes is an emergency room physician who deals with this dynamic every day of her working life and she has decided to share the frustrations and triumphs of life in her chosen field. There was a time that I would have bristled at the idea of someone with no theatre experience charging money for tickets, but the Fringe is precisely the place to step into the void and I applaud the courage and determination that Dr. Yuan-Innes shows with this decision.
Full disclosure: several months ago, the Fringe Festival approached me about providing mentorship for this project, so I have met with Melissa on several occasions to provide dramaturgical feedback. I have no vested interest, pecuniary or otherwise, in the success of the production.
2. The Knitting Pilgrim by Kirk Dunn and Claire Ross Dunn (Toronto)
This show has been on my radar for several years. I recall an initial conversation about it shortly before I moved to Ottawa in the autumn of 2012. The co-writer and performer, Kirk Dunn, with whom I was familiar as an actor, had immersed himself in the unlikely world of knitting and he was determined to marry this with his theatre practice. And he proceeded to do so with a deliberately spiritual devotion to the task. The triptych of Stitched Glass tapestries which he knitted explores the commonalities and conflicts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He regularly combines the one hour performance with a knitting workshop and opportunity to discuss the issues confronting the Abrahamic faiths.
I love the idea of a lush, textural medium, such as knitting, working as a metaphor for the interconnectedness of spiritual texts and practices. I am hopeful that the show provides some kind of respite from the despair that has so firmly settled on society in recent years. If, by chance, it manages to remind viewers that spirituality can be a vehicle for progressive ideas, then it will, indeed, be a Fringe miracle.
3. My Good Friend Jay by Montana Adams – Porcelain Bear Collective (Ottawa)
Here on the Algonquin territory, young Indigenous theatre artists are making a sustained and powerful sound. And Montana Adams is one of the emerging leaders whose determination and resilience is making this happen. The description of this show includes the phrase “…Ontario, Quebec and New York State corners”, which nicely captures the conundrum of Akwesasne’s sovereignty. How, exactly, do you refer to political boundaries that have been established around, over, under, and through your own nation?
I assume that the choice of “corners” rather than “borders” is a comment on the arbitrary nature of colonialism and its inherent disregard for the rights of Indigenous territory throughout the world. I look forward to finding out how the Porcelain Bear Collective tackles the idea of Mohawk sovereignty from the next generation perspective. I am also curious to see how much of the story focuses on internal versus external pressures of contemporary political life in Akwesasne. I have enormous respect for this project and I hope that the Fringe audience makes a point of attending.
4. Get Yourself Home Skyler James by Jordan Tannahill – The Precariat (Ottawa)
As Fringe offerings go, a ten-year-old play is an unlikely choice for me, but this selection has a lot to do with the artists themselves. First, the playwright is not only one of the most exciting artists to launch their career from Ottawa, but he’s also one of the most provocative activists in the world. Jordan Tannahill’s political activism, primarily focused on oppression in Hungary these days, takes a different form every time I come across it online and I live in a state of admiration for his eloquent, sometimes physical, resistance to the status quo. A 2009 script from Jordan is likely to be as current in sensibility as anything else on the Fringe circuit.
The performer of this piece, Kel MacDonald, is emerging on the Ottawa theatre scene as the young artist whose curiosity leads her into every corner of the industry. Whether she’s stage managing an indie show, working the box office at Arts Court, or walking lights at GCTC, she shows up with an intense interest in what’s happening locally. I can’t think of the last time I attended an indie show and she wasn’t working onsite in some capacity. I admire her determination to see theatre from all sides, and this is my first opportunity to see how she tackles the onstage portion of the business.
Four Fringe shows isn’t a lot of shows, but I’m using this as my starting point. I hope to see more, in which case each one will feel like a bonus. However it pans out, I wish everyone at the Fringe a happy and productive festival. Thanks to everyone who supports theatre in Ottawa and beyond.
The Ottawa Fringe Festival runs from June 13–23, 2019 at Arts Court, Knox Presbyterian Church and the University of Ottawa. Tickets cost $12 online plus a $2 processing fee. Except for processing fees, all ticket revenue goes to the artists. N.B. The one-time purchase of a $3 Fringe Pin is required to buy tickets. That $3 goes toward supporting the Festival. Visit ottawafringe.com for the full schedule and box office info.