visitorium

The Joy of the Fringe

In Fringe Fest, Theatre on June 17, 2013 at 9:36 pm

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?

 Natalie Joy Quesnel

Natalie Joy Quesnel

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?

This is NOT how you conduct PR.

This is NOT how you conduct PR.

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.”

  1. Thoughtful and well written. Nice work, Kevin.

  2. Ms. Joy is a classy lady! She ran a tight ship and never stopped smiling. She was a big help to me in 2010 and continued to big support this year. t. This was a bad decision and poorly carried out. Her name was on
    the Web site over a month after s he was let go.
    I agree with you Kevin this was unfair. Someone who gave 6 years of her life in exemplary service deserved better.

    • Thanks Wayne…I’m really bummed that I’m making my Fringe debut without N-Joy at the helm like I’d expected. But I’m glad she’ll be around the grounds at least!

  3. Great work Kevin. These are questions need to be asked. Excited as I am for Fringe-time, the way that Nat was let go was totally shameful – a stigma on this year’s Festival, for the community who knows how much she has put into it.

  4. Wha??! OTS and now Fringe going firing crazy… what is going on? I can imagine possible reasons, à la “we’re in a financial crisis and can’t afford you” or “we’ve decided to restructure the organisation”, but why not be open about it, at least to the main person affected?
    Anyway, it’s very classy of Natalie to still support and attend the festival.

  5. Hi Kevin,

    Your open letter, I feel, is misguided.

    This isn’t the place (nowhere is) to publicly discuss any organization’s HR matters. The Ottawa Fringe being no exception.

    I’d like to address the “utter silence coming from the Fringe offices” that has seemingly upset you. I have to admit, I’m a bit sore about reading lines that call myself and colleagues “embarrassing, insulting, and well and truly shameful”. That’s because, Kevin, you’ve never asked these questions before writing this piece, and more importantly, have not bothered to examine the facts of the situation. Reporters from Ottawa’s newspapers inquired about the matter, so did artists and community members who dropped in to the Ottawa Fringe office at Arts Court to ask questions. The Visitorium did not.

    As a former journalist, I’m a little surprised that, writing such a piece, you did not reach out to the Festival for comment. For future reference, my contact details are as follows:

    613-232-6162 x103
    gregg@ottawafringe.com

    The reality is that this is a private personnel matter, that for what should be obvious reasons, not the least of which are Natalie’s privacy, is not going to be aired in the comments section of a blog. Many public words have been shared, especially to inform participating artists, partners of the Festival, seasonal staff and volunteers. Would a press release have been appropriate? Absolutely not. A tweet? Disrespectful.

    When I say that I feel your piece to be misguided, that’s because you’re slamming the Festival’s communications team for perceived ineptitude when, surely, your bone to pick is elsewhere. If you wish to write a letter to the Festival’s board of directors, use the publicly available email address: board@ottawafringe.com.

    In response to your specific comment about there being no producer, that role is being filled on an interim basis by Melanie Karin Brown, and a thorough search will be conducted following this year’s festival.

    In the future, you know where to reach me. I’ve had a media pass with your name on it waiting in my desk for a couple weeks now… Thought it was odd not to receive an accreditation request from The Visitorium, but figured I would see you sometime soon and we’d have the chance to speak.

    Ciao for now,

    Gregg Clark
    Communications manager
    Ottawa Fringe Festival

    • Gregg,

      I can understand that a piece like this may be upsetting, especially given the work you and other members of the Fringe staff have put into making the festival a successful one. That having been said, I’d like to defend Kevin on several points.

      As far as I understand, an organization’s treatment of its staff is not privileged information bound by confidentiality. This is Kevin’s blog. You can certainly respond to what he says, but he’s allowed to write about a situation that’s bothering him.

      Furthermore at no point has Kevin suggested that the Fringe board respond on this blog. I agree with you that a public explanation from the board may not be appropriate. But surely Natalie Joy deserves one. The fact that the board refuses to do even that much, is, in my opinion, shameful. I don’t blame you or the festival staff for that. But like Kevin I am baffled and deeply disappointed with how the board has handled this.

      Which brings me to my final point. Kevin specifically mentions the
      great job the Fringe staff are doing. In fact, he gives a pretty nice shout out to Festival Co-ordinator Melanie Karin Brown for all the extra work she’s being doing to get things up and running this week. Kevin is, as you suggest, picking his bone with the board. I quote:

      “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”

      This isn’t a beef with the Fringe staff or the festival itself. This is about the board.

      By all accounts, Natalie Joy was doing a fine job in her role as executive director. It’s very difficult to understand why the board felt the need to remove her without even telling her why. The whole thing seems pretty unjust and it is absolutely appropriate for Kevin to express his thoughts on the matter in this space.

    • Sheesh. How on earth did you manage to become the communications manager of anything? While I agree that this post might be in poor taste, a response like this is in far, far poorer.

      The classy thing would have been to reply to Kevin privately. This is a high school move, pal. You say this blog isn’t the place to discuss an organization’s HR matters—well, the comments section is certainly not the place to grind your PR axe.

  6. […] eternally unknown.  While some rabble-rouser already blogged about that at length (in what was my most read post ever by a country mile), and I still have grumpy feelings about the whole affair, two wonderful things […]

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