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McNally received print coverage for his use of digital methods to reach out to an audience. Photo: Ottawa Citizen.

One artist’s reflection on 25 years of Ottawa Fringe

By Apartment613 on June 24, 2022

By McNally

With the Ottawa Fringe Festival’s 25-year bash on June 25 (at Arts Court), I thought I’d take a look back at my own involvement with Fringe over the years.

McNally received print coverage for his use of digital methods to reach out to an audience. Photo: Ottawa Citizen.

My association with the Ottawa Fringe Festival (OFF) goes back to its beginning in 1997, when some friends staged a production in its first season. Since then, I’ve gone on to appear in five productions (four of my own) and hosted the Midnight Madness Preview Stage for five seasons. After that I wrote reviews for about 10 years in the new digital media space that began to emerge around 2009.

In 1997, while walking my dog in Centretown, I started noticing posters popping up with Ottawa Fringe logos on them. Shortly after that, some friends came into The Manx, where I worked, telling me that they were putting on their own play at this newfangled theatre festival.

The 1998 Fringe application. Photo: McNally.

And I had also written a play! At the time, I wasn’t sure if my writing aspirations were just that: aspirations. But I was determined to find out. I missed getting into the 1997 and 1998 festivals, but got into the 1999 season with my solo show about a hitchhiker.

McNally onstage at the Fringe. Photo: Ottawa Sun.

But would anybody show up? I got a friend to direct and we started rehearsing and I started getting jittery the closer we got to opening because, really, the last time I was on stage was in a Grade 6 Christmas play. At the very minimum, I figured I’d find out if my aspirations were just that. And if they were, well then at least I’d given it a shot.

And lo and behold, on opening day people did show up. Seven of them. And the awesome thing was that I didn’t know four of them! The run ended up with a total audience of about 150 (across six shows) and even though I’d only lit the flame on the equivalent of a half-broken birthday candle, the flame was lit!

Hey Bartender poster, 2008. Photo: McNally.

One big change I’ve noticed over the years is the increasing use of technology. In the beginning, there were sandwich boards all over the place covered in posters. Patrons could handwrite reviews and put them in the review box in the Fringe Tent (located in the field beside Arts Court, where the Ottawa Art Gallery now stands). Staff would then type the reviews up at night and print them out as a small ’zine called OFF the Record.

Now troupes can post videos online and solicit reviews on their own OFF page. The first time I was able to do that was with my 2008 production of Hey, Bartender! I was even interviewed by print media about this new digital way to connect with audiences.

After 2008 I shifted focus creatively and published my first novel. In terms of supporting the Fringe and local arts, I began writing reviews for a number of years in the emerging digital mediascape, of which Apartment613 is now a part.

As I look back over the first 25 years of the Fringe and how it has grown alongside my own writing career, I think about my first production in 1999 and how, at my very first show, four people I didn’t know bought tickets. The Fringe started me off on my journey, as I’m sure it has for many others and will continue to do so as the Fringe keeps strongly chugging into its next 25 years.