One Toronto festival’s loss is another’s gain.
Two weeks ago, the Toronto Fringe – the city’s largest theatre festival – announced Lucy Eveleigh was leaving the organization after 11 years, five as its managing director and six as executive director.
During her tenure with the Fringe – which has helped launch hits such as Kim’s Convenience, The Drowsy Chaperone and ‘da Kink in My Hair – Eveleigh accomplished a lot, including record-setting ticket sales in 2019.
She overhauled its ticketing system to go completely paperless, rebranded its popular patio activities and implemented many diversity and accessibility initiatives, including having 50 per cent of the Fringe’s lottery spaces held for racialized artists. She also got the festival through the worst of the pandemic, during which it put on two digital versions.
Originally from Somerset, England, Eveleigh has held management positions at Toronto’s SummerWorks and Montreal’s Just for Laughs. She also worked at the biggest Fringe of them all, in Edinburgh.
Earlier this week, the Luminato Festival announced Eveleigh was going to be its new festival producer. She begins in early 2024.
When I talked to you in July right before 2023′s festival, we discussed the fact that you had been with the Fringe for 10 years and that the future of the festival depended on this one. It was a success. So why have you decided to leave?
It was a mix of things. An opportunity came up. But before then, right after the festival we learned we didn’t get the Experience Ontario government grant, which is typically between $75,000 and $100,000. I’d spent that money for the 2024 Fringe – we always get it. When I got the news, I burst into tears. We had a really successful festival, shows sold out, people showed up and donated. And it wasn’t enough. I thought, “My god, I’m banging my head against a brick wall.” It felt like a losing battle. I feel like no one in Toronto got this grant.
Many arts organizations have a reserve fund for emergencies. Is there anything like that at the Fringe?
We have one, but those funds are running out. Many in the arts sector are facing this issue now. We’re concerned about safeguarding the organization into the future. This has been the first time since I’ve been here where I’ve felt, “Oh, we may only have a couple of years, and could run out of money.” Looking ahead, survival is going to be about coming up with ways to diversify revenue. It’s hard to cut expenses at this point.
Are Fringes across the country facing similar problems?
I think the Fringes that are doing well are the ones under an umbrella. Edmonton and Winnipeg are year-round. Winnipeg is part of Manitoba Theatre Centre, so there’s some security there. Edmonton has a theatre space and year-round programming. There’s a way to amortize your cost of a full year like that. We’re thinking about ways to partner and work with other organizations in the city to safeguard the Fringe’s longevity.
Those places also have less going on at any given time, so the festival can take over the city. Does that hurt Toronto?
A lot of those other cities have a big street presence and they’re centralized. In recent years we’ve expanded to east-end venues. But it might be easier to centralize the festival while we’re lean until we can build it back up.
How much did the pandemic contribute to the situation?
Everything’s different. I was a bit naive. I assumed we’d come back, but audiences aren’t the same, everything’s more expensive, everyone’s struggling. We have to think about bold, adventurous moves to survive.
What are you most proud of about your time at the Toronto Fringe?
I’m proud of the work I initiated around accessibility, and how we handled the ticketing system. Also creating a better work/life balance for staff. I’m proud of the diversity initiatives – it’s been a slow, and very late-to-the-table process, but it’s happening. I’ve received some lovely e-mails from people about my kindness and how I made the Fringe welcome to all: artists, volunteers, patrons, everyone.
I’m also proud of being able to make the Fringe more sure of itself. The Fringe’s attitude has always been, “Don’t mind us. We’re just in the corner doing our own thing.” And I feel like over the past few years, perhaps spurred on by the pandemic, there’s been a real understanding and awareness of how the Fringe is crucial to the ecosystem of this city – and beyond. Without it, things would drastically change. So we are important. We deserve funding and recognition.
Congratulations on your new position at Luminato. As festival producer, what will you be doing?
I’ll be overseeing the logistics of the festival. Outgoing producer Sonia [Sakamoto-Jog] described the position as an “air-traffic controller.” I’ll be overseeing projects, staffing, managing people and teams, and making sure each project has its own team. It’ll be about keeping all the pieces together. When I start in 2024 a lot of the festival will have been programmed. They’ve done that internally until they have a new artistic director in place.
It’s always seemed to me that Luminato had an identity problem. Do people know what it is?
I think many people do. Lately Luminato has been about partnerships and tapping into other audiences. A lot is about spectacle, like Walk with Amal, a free event that everyone could be involved in. And even though I’m leaving the Fringe, I’m still going to be an advocate for the indie theatre scene. Luminato works with established artists and indie artists. So I’m excited to bring my expertise about that to this new job.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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