Full confession up front…Natalie Joy Quesnel is a friend of mine. We’re not besties or anything like that, but she got me my first ever comp media ticket (for her show IPHEGENIE EN TAURIDE a couple years back at Ottawa U), brought me on board at the Ottawa Fringe Festival for some data mining on the then-super-secret 15th anniversary book project, set me up with my first official media pass for the Fringe, and even got me hooked up at Victoria Fringe the year after. I’ve had her and her fella Trevor over to my house for dinner, we’ve hung out for coffee and plays…she’s good folk, and I like her plenty.
So when I first heard, back in April, that she was no longer the executive producer of the Ottawa Fringe Festival, a position she’d held for the last three festivals (having worked as general manager and development coordinator in previous years when Kevin Waghorn was the XP) I was, like many people, rather surprised. But I just sort of assumed at the time that she had simply decided to step down to make time for other projects, family, etc….call me naive, but the idea that anything untoward had happened simply never occurred to me. At the time.
But over the following two months a funny thing happened…Nothing. Yes, nothing happening was the funny thing. As in, no one was named as Natalie Joy’s successor…her assistant Melanie Karin Brown seemed to be doing an awful lot more work than before in the suddenly created ‘Festival Coordinator’ title, and Kevin Waghorn was also returning to active duty as ‘Managing Director’, but as for an Executive Producer, well….the festival just didn’t seem to HAVE one anymore. And all that was forthcoming from the Fringe offices themselves on the matter was a disturbing wave of silence (a trend that continues as of this writing). No explanation or statement? No well wishes or public farewell to Natalie Joy, the well-liked XP who had run the festival with dedication and style for over three years, helped bring the Fringe out of debt, launched the mini-fringers program, gained charitable status for the Festival and increased City funding, and most recently partnered up with Northern Army for a successful rebranding of the Fringe’s look? What was up?
I recently sat down and talked with Natalie at some length about exactly that, and what happened on the 2nd of April this year. “I received a call at the office from a board member asking me if I would be in the office that afternoon. I confirmed I would be. That person arrived with another board member and gave me a dismissal letter.” Natalie insists she had no idea this move was coming, and was suitably shocked when she was given half an hour to clean out her things before being escorted from the Fringe offices at Arts Court. As for the reasons behind her sudden dismissal, she remains in the dark. “I was only told that the board felt it was time for me to move on to other things,” she explains, a phrase that in my own experience means someone’s not telling anywhere NEAR the whole story. And so far, the board of directors of the Ottawa Fringe don’t seem inclined to explain their decision to her any further. “Any of my requests to officially meet with board members to discuss my termination have been denied.”
Finding herself suddenly without her primary source of income and ousted from the festival she’d devoted much of the last six years of her life to came as a blow to Natalie, for sure. And not just because of the firing itself, but the alarmingly bad timing…she was let go with less than three months to go before the 2013 Festival launch (and weeks before a major grant application was due), and no plan to replace her seems to have been waiting to be implemented. Not that Melanie and Kevin haven’t being doing a great job in their roles…they’re both highly talented and passionate theatre pros, and the whip-smart staff Natalie has worked hand in hand with for the last few years are certain to ensure smooth enough sailing for this year’s festivities. But the questions remain, why dismiss her so suddenly, and why at that particular moment? As Natalie herself admitted, “I have no idea why they felt it necessary…forcing me to leave the organisation at such an important time of the year.”
So two big questions already, to my mind. Why was Natalie Joy Quesnel dismissed as Executive Producer of the Ottawa Fringe (and I freely admit, this might be none of my business…but surely, surely SHE at least deserves a straight answer on the matter)? And why with scarcely two months before the 2013 festival?
Now, I understand the realities of a business, as does Natalie. “If the board’s intent is to give new life to the organisation,” she said, “… or to bring in someone new to usher change, to a certain degree I can respect that.” And if it were only that, I honestly would likely not be writing this article. Which brings me back to the third question I raised earlier, and the one that, to be blunt, angers me to the core. And that is the utter silence on this matter coming from the Fringe offices. The idea that the Executive Producer of a theatre festival (by the Fringe’s own proud admission this year, “Ottawa’s LARGEST Theatre Festival”) could be summarily fired for no given reason less than three months before the event, without so much as a single public word or statement on the matter to this day…well, quite frankly it’s embarrassing. Embarrassing, insulting, and well and truly shameful. Was the plan honestly to take the years of work, sweat and sacrifice Natalie Joy Quesnel pumped into this organization (ask the people she worked with if you don’t believe ME) and simply sweep it under the rug? Pretend she never even worked there? Did they dare to think nobody would even notice?
I love the Ottawa Fringe Festival. LOVE it. I’ve been seeing as many shows as I can for the last 5 years, reviewing as many as I could for the last 3, and this year I’m going to BE in a show for the first time ever. Fringe changed my life, and continues to in amazing ways I never saw coming. I’m pumped for the fest this year, and you should be too. This article isn’t an attack on the festival, which in the end is all about the artists I love so dearly. This is a public calling out to the board of directors, who have made a bad situation worse by steadfastly trying to publicly ignore it…an act that is, in my mind, lazy at best. They are better people than this, and I want them to stand up and take responsibility for their actions. Natalie herself wants the story published because as she told me, she’s decided to brave the waters and head out to the Fringe this year, this time as a patron for the first time in a good long while. Better that the story comes out here and now than in a thousand conversations in the courtyard.
And there’s another reason she consented to let me write this article, somewhat more personal. “I didn’t have the opportunity to get closure,” she said, “… to end a festival year and to properly thank the people that have been so amazing to me during my time with the Festival. My staff, the artists, the volunteers, our dedicated patrons, have made my time at the Fringe so rewarding and fulfilling. That cooperative and community spirit is something I will take with me on my next adventures.”
What comes next for Natalie Joy is still a work in progress…she continues to teach with the University of Ottawa and Orleans Young Players, is now herself a board member (with Magnetic North Theatre Festival) and has directing gigs lined up with Salamander Theatre and Groupe des Deux. And now she’s looking to reconnect with the artistic community in Ottawa, starting with this year’s Fringe festival. Because any bad blood or unanswered questions aside, the Fringe itself will always be, to her, the Fringe.
“The Festival will always hold a special place in my heart,” she says, “…I’ve been involved in some way, shape, or form with the organisation for much of its existence. I still believe in its mandate and importance within the community. I plan on seeing as many shows as I can.”