A theatre commons at Arts Court

fringe-arts-court

Natalie Joy Quesnel and Kevin Waghorn in the Arts Court Theatre

For venue rental information, click here.

I had the chance to sit down recently with Natalie Joy Quesnel and Kevin Waghorn of ithe Ottawa Fringe Festival in their new-ish offices down the hall from the theatre at Arts Court. They took over as managers of the space on January 1 and were eager to share their plans for the facility. As readers will recall, the demise last year of the Ottawa Arts Court Foundation raised concerns in the theatre community about the future of the facility. Happily, the new system seems to be working smoothly so far and theatre bookings for the year are off to a very strong start – which serves as a reminder to how much demand there is for performance space in Ottawa.

Kevin has primary responsibility for looking after the theatre, as well as related Arts Court spaces (the studio next door, as well as the multi-use Library and the Courtroom), which includes taking care of bookings as well as whatever maintenance and upgrades the facilities need. Funding for operations comes from the City as part of its contract with Fringe, but Kevin says that for any major capital upgrades Fringe will have to seek funding in the same manner as any other venue operator. That said, the City was able to provide Fringe with a one-time grant of $11,000, and after an assessment of current deficiencies Fringe decided to invest principally in new sound equipment for the theatre. According to Kevin, this was the best way to make a noticeable improvement for users of the space with the funds available. (Upgrades to lighting equipment, while also necessary, will need significantly greater funding. This is one of the things Fringe is looking at for the future.)

One thing explicitly excluded from the contract between Fringe and the city is the proposed addition to the Arts Court building to be constructed on the Waller Street side of the property. It looks like the new space will be devoted primarily to the Ottawa Art Gallery, with performance, rehearsal and studio space attached to the University of Ottawa theatre department.

From the client’s perspective, using the venue should be a seamless experience. Fringe does not have responsibility for other facilities within the Arts Court building, however, so there could be a few problems that the city managers involved with the venue would have to solve. A current example is the elevator leading to the theatre, which hasn’t been working recently – it’s a city responsibility, but it’s still unavailable to anyone who’s booked the theatre and needs to move large items. It does look like Fringe and the city are working well to fix these kinds of issues as they arise. Similarly, box office services are provided directly by the city, though users are not obliged to use them.

The Festival is about to announce three new full-time hires (general manager, technical director, and marketing and communications coordinator), all of whom will be spending much of their time on Arts Court business as well as the festival. In particular, the marketing coordinator will be tasked with making Arts Court a go-to destination and with helping clients booking the theatre in their own efforts at marketing and media attention. These activities will be directed at both the anglophone and francophone theatre communities.

The contract between Fringe and the city runs for the current calendar year with an option to renew for two years. This will give Fringe the time both to manage the venues on a day-to-day basis and to use their experience to plan for the longer term health of the theatre and its associated spaces. The Festival and the city are also committed to working together to ensure that the venue management and festival management functions run smoothly together.

Over the longer term, Fringe wants to develop Arts Court as a kind of theatre commons – not just a venue to be rented for performances but a place where theatre artists can regularly run into each other, trade “water-cooler chat,” and develop a genuine sense of community. GCTC offers a bit of this in the west end of town, especially during a festival like undercurrents, but the gap downtown is palpable. One way to make this happen that’s under consideration could be a revival of the concept of resident theatre companies. As Kevin pointed out, when the opportunity to manage the Arts Court facilities came up last year, the Fringe realized how well it would mesh with their own strategic vision to help theatre artists with year-round mentorship and support.

Both Kevin and Natalie Joy acknowledge that there’s been a bit of an information gap about Arts Court in recent months. For their part, they wanted to make sure they had everything in order before speaking publicly about their activities, so with the hiring process now almost complete they’re looking forward to making their official announcements by the end of the month and holding a launch event in March. Something to look forward to!

Meetings about Arts Court

It’s September now and the Ottawa Arts Court Foundation is officially defunct. Its tombstone, for those who care to look, is a sad and lonely logo on the old website at www.artscourt.ca. [Update: the old web address now redirects automatically to the new one.]

So the world moves on, and two public meetings took place this week to offer glimpses into what comes next.

Earlier today, the City of Ottawa staff who are managing the facility on an interim basis through the end of the year hosted a session in the Library at Arts Court. They offered information about what their activities will be for the next few months, including the particulars about things like booking the theatre, as well as a new website (www.artscourtottawa.ca), but declined to discuss any longer term issues, either concerning future management options or the fate of the planned new building. In short, while we now know who to talk to about bookings, we really don’t know where things go from here.

The other news this week was the announcement of a “Request for Expressions of Interest” to manage the facility for the 2013 calendar year. Responses for the REOI are due on October 3 and will “inform and or validate a future Request for Proposal (RFP) phase,” which presumably will need to be completed quickly if the selected manager is to be up and running by January 1. What’s not addressed is what happens after December 31, 2013 – in other words, the long-term options for Arts Court remain as murky as ever. The city has scheduled an information session to discuss the REOI on Thursday, September 13 in the Arts Court Theatre from 5 to 7 pm.

Meanwhile, the Ottawa Fringe Festival, which has been considering putting in a bid to run Arts Court, held a community meeting on Wednesday evening at a local pub to explain its interest and to respond to questions. The format of this meeting was decidedly informal, with those present gathered round tables in the pub as Fringe board members fanned out to chat. Given the general level of uncertainty, confusion and rumor about Arts Court that’s out there, I noted at the outset that having half a dozen separate conversations going on at the same time might not help address the unease, so the Fringe folks allowed for a bit of general Q&A at the outset.

I can only speak to the conversation at the table I was at, which raised a variety of substantive concerns both about the challenges facing Arts Court and the risks surrounding the specifics of the Fringe bid. Some of these include technical issues about the theatre space, needed capital upgrades, the state of the box office systems for ticketing, and the expertise that Fringe can bring to the table in managing the facility in addition to its festival, among others. I’m sorry to say that I found few answers to these kinds of questions beyond an acknowledgement that Fringe would have to address them in either their Expression of Interest or their subsequent Proposal.

It may be that the Fringe folks are reserving their answers for their bid rather than sharing them at the pub, and that the utility of the meeting for them was to help craft that bid based on what they heard. But after talking with some of the others who were there, my sense is that the meeting did little to ease the concerns of those who came out, beyond perhaps the comfort of knowing that Fringe might get to run the facility for a year instead of the city. (No one was aware of other potential bidders, beyond the odd rumor.) I’ve heard that Fringe will be circulating a summary of what they heard and will look forward to reading it.

It seems to me that there remains a crying need for some arena in which all interested parties (including independent artists with no direct formal tie to Arts Court at the moment) can both hear what’s going on and air their concerns, and I’m hopeful after talking to some of the participants at both meetings that something along these lines will be organized. In the interim, the best forum for information seems to be the Phoenix Project on Facebook.

Comments, anyone? I’m very interested to know what might have been discussed at other tables at the Fringe event, as well as others’ perspectives on these two meetings and what needs to happen next.

The Show Must Go On

Last night was my first opportunity to see a performance of Ex Cathedra at the Ottawa Fringe. While I’d had the chance to chat from time to time with the folks putting it on and did sit in on their tech rehearsal, this was going to be my first chance to see how they interpreted the play.

Alas, fate does sometimes intervene, and one of the two actors is unable to perform due to illness. I imagine no one is more troubled by this than she is – after all that work and time, to be stuck in a sickbed is surely the last place she wants to be, and I do hope she’s better soon.

But what do you do when half of your cast can’t perform? This is Fringe, after all, and no one has the resources for understudies. And yet, as the saying goes, the show must go on!

To their credit, Troupe de la Lune has found someone to step in as a kind of understudy, and although she’s had minimal time to prepare the company was able to offer a perfectly fine “dramatic reading” of the script – and honestly, it was easy to forget after about twenty seconds that anyone was reading from a script.

Were there certain subtle nuances missing? Of course – these come out of the rehearsal process and the luxury of time to digest the script and consider the meaning of the lines. But in my own rather unscientific sample of the audience who were present last night, it was clear that people got the point of the play and were perfectly forgiving of an unfortunate situation; it would take quite the curmudgeon to feel otherwise!

So kudos to the company for figuring out how to keep going – after all, the show must go on!

Did you see one of the dramatic readings? What did you think?

Going into Tech

The Ottawa Fringe Festival is about to open and I’m excited that one of the productions being presented is my play Ex Cathedra, part of The Lavender Railroad. The company that’s putting on the show, Troupe de la Lune, approached me about the play when Jer’s Vision put on a staged reading of the play for one of their workshops some months ago.

I haven’t been directly involved with this production, though I’ve met with the people putting it on to answer questions they had about the script, so when I sit down in the Fringe audience a few days from now their work will be as fresh to me as it is to anyone else in the house. But I did drop by their tech rehearsal yesterday just to say hello, and it was great fun to get a sense of what their show will look and sound like, even though I didn’t see (and didn’t want to see) anything from the play itself. It was enough to get a sense of what they wanted to do with their lighting and sound, as well as how they planned to use the space they have.

And speaking of that space … they will be performing in the Léonard-Beaulne studio, which is the same space that the Evolution Theatre production of Lavender Railroad was done in.

For a quick video preview of the production, check out Ottawa Tonite.

The play runs for half a dozen performances during the festival – schedule details are here:

http://www.ottawafringe.com/shows/ex-cathedra