Vancouver's arts scene is undergoing a massive leadership change, with the departures after this fall of the artistic director of the Vancouver Writers Fest, the Arts Club Theatre Company and the Vancouver Fringe Festival – all, coincidentally, with ties to Granville Island.
Fringe Fest executive director David Jordan is leaving after 12 years on the job. Jordan, 41, who also served for seven years as the president of the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals, will become arts services manager for the City of Burnaby.
He's leaving as the Fringe is conducting a diversity audit and is also in talks with two other Vancouver theatre institutions – Pacific Theatre and Langara College's Studio 58 – about collaborating on a new facility that could serve as an important incubator space for the city.
Ahead of his last Fringe, Jordan – who was born and raised in Prince George, B.C. – sat down with The Globe and Mail's Western Arts Correspondent.
When you started with the festival in 2006, how were things looking?
It was pretty bleak. And I didn't know what I was doing, so I didn't really know how bleak it was. But it was bad. We had an accumulated deficit of more than $100,000. That was probably 10 per cent of our budget at the time. But still that's a real morale-killer. People don't really rally around deficits. But we retired that in a couple years. So I think the first kind of boost we got was to go, "Okay, we can turn this ship around." But it was just hanging on like a cat on a screen door.
How did you turn it around?
We cut back on expenses; we just got really conservative. I held my breath and I went to funders and said, :I think we have to do this to make us sustainable." My great fear was that they would then say, "Well, we're going to cut your funding." But I think they understood that we were doing the right thing. And now we've grown to almost double the size [in attendance] that we were then. So it worked out.
What specifically did you do?
We put together a team of people who really cared. When I started, there was virtually no continuity. I think one person had worked the Fringe before. So we were starting from scratch in a way. I really focused on building staff capacity, taking seasonal positions and turning them into permanent positions so we weren't reinventing the wheel every year.
That doesn't sound like cutting expenses, though.
No, but we built them on employment grants. And then the new position helped generate more stability that generated more revenue and then we would turn it into an actual full-time permanent position. It was a slow and steady kind of approach.
How different is the fringe scene now? There's now a whole circuit across the country. And what does that mean for an organization running a fringe festival?
When fringe festivals went from being first-come-first-served to a lottery, that changed the game. It went from being [made up of] those who were the keenest to those who were luckiest and keenest. Because fringe festivals are so popular, we have career fringe artists now – making a very meagre living, but still that's what they're doing. There's a small club of them – such as TJ Dawe, Martin Dockery. And those people also develop fans, which in turn generates excitement.
The fact that Vancouver's almost last in Canada, just geographically, does that mean that touring shows are better by the time they get here?
It does. It's science. They are better. No one will argue with that. I know one artist who literally called his show something different in Ottawa because he didn't want it reviewed for Winnipeg because it wasn't ready.
My earliest fringe experiences were so hit and miss; you didn't know what you were seeing. Is there more of a blueprint now where people are fringing in a more organized way?
Maybe. I don't know, though. There's stuff in the program guide, I won't say what it is, but I'm not going to those shows. Every year, somebody says, "This show changed my life," and I turn around and someone else is going, "I can't believe I'm never going to have that one hour of my life back." And they're talking about the same show. But there's definitely misses. I think it's important to have the misses. You can't have the hits without the misses. I should put that on a T-shirt.
Can you think of something that's come to the Fringe that has blown up to be something major?
Charlie Ross's One Man Star Wars is probably the biggest local thing. He's working on a one-man Stranger Things. We don't have The Drowsy Chaperone, which came out of the Toronto Fringe. But Charlie's probably the poster boy for the took-it-big thing.
Is there a major disaster that you can recall – something that happened onstage or some drama off-stage?
In my first year, we lost money on our bar and we had beer donated. So for all the kudos I'm getting, that's where I started: I lost money selling free beer. All the other disasters are kind of HR-related so we'll keep them out of the record.
Is there a recipe for a fringe festival show's success?
No. I think there is a perception that there is a recipe for success and I think that when people try and follow that recipe, they fail. There's a perception if you can do a solo show that tells a personal story about your life or has a sexy title to it, these are all kind of clichés of fringe theatre, but you actually have to be really exceptional at those things to make them good. So I think there's no recipe for a show. It's the people who break the rules that amaze us.
And for a festival, is there a recipe for success?
Yeah I think so: community. Making people feel like it's a supportive place for artists, that it's artist-centric, that there's a place for everybody, that it's accessible for audience, that the tickets aren't too expensive, that it's a social atmosphere, that it's interactive, where artists are interacting with the public. Everyone's talking to each other because they're trying to figure out what shows to go to. And the artists are trying to hustle you. So I think that is the recipe, that sort of community. I call it a spontaneous community, where you're really interacting with each other. I often say that the difference between the Fringe and other festivals is you know when you come to the Fringe Festival, strangers will talk to you.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
The Vancouver Fringe Festival runs Sept 7-17.
Six Vancouver Fringe picks for 2017
An Arrangement of Shoes
Fresh from a sellout run in London and at the Edinburgh Fringe, this play written by Abhishek Majumdar and performed by Radhika Aggarwal is set in an Indian railway colony during wartime. This is its North American premiere. (Arts Umbrella)
Premiering in Vancouver, Brain Machine portrays the creation of the Internet and the chaos that results. In an attempt to escape technology, Andrew Bailey decamps to a cabin – where he accidentally creates a viral video. (Arts Umbrella)
Written and performed by Ingrid Hansen and directed by Kathleen Greenfield, this show puts badass grandma Kitt in space with a mission: to save humankind. (Waterfront Theatre)
The Inventor of All Things
Written and performed by Fringe stalwart Jem Rolls, this play digs up the forgotten, true story of Leo Szilard: physicist, eccentric genius, Jewish-Hungarian refugee on the run from the Nazis. (Carousel Theatre)
Just Not That Woman
In this one-woman show having its world premiere, Ali Kennedy Scott examines the forces at play in the 2016 U.S. presidential election using verbatim text, multimedia and magic. (Firehall Arts Centre)
Martial arts meets performing arts in this graphic-novelesque show by Qui Nguyen. After losing her lover to some undead hoodlums, Dewdrop gets herself a training montage and a sidekick and sets off for revenge. (Vancity Culture Lab at The Cultch)