Born and raised in Brandon, Chuck McEwen attended Vincent Massey High School and was a sports aficionado, playing basketball, volleyball and taking part in track. But a tendency toward shyness, at least where public speaking was concerned, led him to try to do something to improve his skills in that area, so he took a theatre course in university. And the rest, as they say, is history. From 1994 to 1998, he worked as festival co-ordinator for the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, then moved to Toronto to be executive director of the Toronto Fringe from 1998 to 2007. Then in 2008, McEwen moved back to Winnipeg as executive producer of the Winnipeg Fringe Festival. (SUBMITTED)
Did you take university training in theatre? What’s your background in that field?
I was never an outgoing person. In fact, I avoided any kind of public-speaking endeavours. So I took one year of university right out of high school at Brandon University, and then I took about five or six years off, then I went back to U of M in 1988. And to try and get over some of my public-speaking issues, I decided to take intro theatre — an acting class. And I got hooked.
That’s a pretty big transition, isn’t it? A lifetime of sports and then into theatre? Wow!
Yeah. Well, I went back to get into film studies and I did take some film courses. But I just figured being able to speak and communicate and not be as nervous in front of a group, ‘Oh — maybe I’ll do some acting.’ And the class was full at the time, so I had to go and talk to the prof and he agreed to let me in. It helped being a bit older — I was 25 at the time, so I think all the other students, almost, were 18-year-olds. So the diversity of the class, maybe — I didn’t get in based on skill, that’s for sure. (laughs)
So did you do any performing to help get over your stage fright or fear of public speaking?
Yup. That first year was the intro acting class so we had to do monologues and scene work and so forth. And then I took the second-year acting class. But then in my second year at U of M, I took the production class, which is the technical stuff. I was able to stage manage and do some lighting design and do some set building. That was where my interest lay, more with the production side, as well as directing — I wanted to do more directing. So I took those kinds of courses and worked on those kinds of positions and all the various Black Hole Theatre productions, which is the University of Manitoba’s theatre program. I was able to do a lot of technical stuff as well as some of the directing elements, so I focused on that. I don’t have the acting skills required to be a performer. I did a little bit of acting, small parts here and there — I did a Shakespeare in the Park production way back in the day, and it was fun. But it’s not where my talents are solid.
Did your courses touch on managerial skills, because I would see that as your primary role now, yes?
That’s right. I was mostly involved in lighting work — I did a lot of set design work. And when I graduated, actually the first jobs I was able to get were doing crew calls for lighting hangs and things like that. I was able to be a set carpenter for a couple of productions with Popular Theatre Alliance of Manitoba where I built the sets. And one of my roommates from university was the administrator at the Gas Station Theatre in Winnipeg and he left that position and I was able to get it.
So that’s when I started to get into the administrative side. That’s where I was doing rental contracts and bookkeeping and those kinds of things. So I shifted into the managerial side once I got the Gas Station Theatre job.
Arts, especially in Manitoba — a lot of it is sort of contract to contract, gig to gig, and there’s a certain ability to live with that kind of lifestyle — not knowing if you’re going to be able to pay next month’s rent. And I didn’t quite have the temperament for that either, so I leaned toward trying to get into administration where at least you had a regular job, a regular paycheque, a bit more stability. Planning and stage management were also things I was interested in, so those skills helped very well with the administrative side — being able to plan schedules with multiple groups of people, as well as staff management. So when the job came open at the Fringe, I was able to use the skills from the Gas Station Theatre and I also worked the Video Pool for a short term as the general manager there. So I had a good set of overall skills before I went to the Fringe, and that helped.
It must be great to be passionate about what you’re administrating, because lots of managers don’t necessarily have the chance to work with something they care about — they just manage it, if that makes sense. So this, in a sense, has got to be sort of a match made in heaven for you.
It is. You know, when I got involved in theatre, I had no background in it — I had hardly attended any theatre. A couple of musical productions in high school were sort of my total experience. But I really discovered a love of theatre and its way to sort of take over an audience — to be able to entertain as well as educate and provoke and shape thought, make people questions their beliefs — things like that. I really got into the importance of theatre for a community and that worked well with my shifting into the Fringe world where the Fringe concept is to give all artists, no matter whether they’re professionals or students or community theatre groups, the ability to actually create their own work, tell their own stories, find their own audience, and to share their stories, their love of theatre and allow the audience to be a part of that creative process.
So being able to support emerging artists or established artists who are trying new things creatively and artistically, really was a good fit for me. I think it’s a great way for the average person to get engaged with theatre — it’s a pretty open, accessible event. And you can find anything for anybody at the Fringe, no matter whether you’re a regular theatre-goer or not. If you’re into hockey, you can find a play about hockey. If you’re into politics, you can find a play about politics. If you want to just be entertained, you can go see a sketch show. There’s something for everybody at the Fringe and I think it’s a great introduction.
In a sense, it’s named the Fringe for a reason, because a lot of the acts will push the envelope in a big way.
That’s right — there is some of that. There is also a lot of traditional theatre at the Fringe. And the real reason the Fringe got its name started in Edinburgh when a bunch of artists weren’t accepted into the Edinburgh Festival, which is a juried artistic theatre festival. So they got together and decided to do their shows anyway, and they rented a number of small venues around the periphery of the main site — around the ‘fringe’ of the Edinburgh Festival site. So it really didn’t start out with sort of the idea of ‘on the edge’ kind of theatre — it has certainly gotten that feeling over the years — but it was more just artists saying, "We think our shows are worthy of being seen — we’re going to do them no matter what and we’re going to try and find an audience." And now the Edinburgh Fringe is the largest theatre festival in the world. This year they have over 3,000 productions taking place in Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival.
Good heavens! Now the Winnipeg Fringe has increased exponentially, too, over the last couple of decades — I was in a show in it in 1992, and it was well established before then.
Yes, we’re going into our 27th year. I’ve actually been fortunate enough — I only missed the first year. I was able to start participating in 1989, the second year. I was stage manager for The Black Hole Theatre production that they submitted that year, and then for the next four or five years I was able to co-direct a couple of shows and also attend many. But you know, the Fringe, from the very first year, was always very well received by Winnipeggers. I think Winnipeg and Manitoba have a very strong theatre-going, arts-going community. So the concept took off very, very quickly. It also helps to have the support of the Manitoba Theatre Centre — MTC produces the Fringe Festival — it’s their event. It’s the only regional theatre in the country that actually does produce a Fringe Festival. So having all those resources at the very beginning also gave us a bit of a leg up compared to most Fringes where they’re their own organization. So obviously they’ve got more challenges doing some of the basics — getting staff and resources and what have you.
But from the very first year, Winnipeggers came out and embraced the concept, as did the artists. Luckily, when the Winnipeg Fringe started, there were, I think, four other Fringe Festivals across Canada, so there was already a small group of touring artists from this country and other parts of the world — U.S., England, Australia. That very first year in Winnipeg, we had a substantial number of touring artists from a variety of places, which was also very unique.
How many productions have you got this year?
It’s grown over the years — as you say, back in ’92 there were maybe 50 or 60 or 70 groups? This year we have 178 performing companies from across Canada and around the world.
Wow! That’s got to be a lot to manage, too, because they essentially bring their troupes — you provide not only the venues, but you orchestrate timing and a lot of the technical stuff is your bailiwick as well, right?
That’s right. The Fringe is a very unique model for a festival. The artists pay $725 for an application fee and if they get in, that’s all we charge. We provide them with a venue, lights, sound equipment, a technician, box office services, the program, publicity, and we give them seven performances if they get in through our lottery, which is how we select the artists. And then in return, all they have to do is create the art and they get to receive 100 per cent of the box office revenues. So if they make $5,000, they keep $5,000. If they make $500, they keep $500.
Do they determine the price of admission for their shows, or do you do that?
We set a maximum price of $10, because part of the mandate of the Fringe is to be accessible and affordable for both the artists and the audiences. And in today’s world, $10 is less than a movie ticket on a Saturday night.
For live theatre, that’s fantastic!
Yup. And we have passes. There’s two-for-$10 shows for groups that are maybe just starting out, and we have a frequent Fringer pass where you can get 12 tickets for $94, so that’s a great deal as well.
We have a free component that we put on the outdoor stage, where we have buskers and bands. Anybody can come, even if they can’t afford a ticket.
What I like about the Fringe is — it’s also a challenge — there’s no specific audience base. Our audience base ranges from seven- or eight-year-olds all the way up to people in their 80s and 90s, from all economic backgrounds, cultural backgrounds, educational backgrounds. There’s no specific target audience — it’s theatre-lovers. It’s just like a big party.
The thing is, there are no strangers at the Fringe. You could be by yourself, out seeing a show, standing in line, and probably within five minutes, three or four people are going to be asking you what you’ve seen, what you liked, what you’re going to go to next, how many years you’ve been Fringing. It’s really this great sense of community where people share their love of theatre and the festival environment.
The Winnipeg Fringe Festival takes place July 16 to 27 at 30 different indoor venues as well as in Old Market Square. As of this coming Wednesday, all information can be found at winnipegfringe.com
Listings and programs will also be available at provincial Liquor Marts.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition June 14, 2014