Sarah Rankin studied theatre at Mount Allison University and has been the director of Saint John’s Fundy Fringe Festival for six years. She plays a significant role in the art world as she works hard throughout the year to bring in talented performers and artists, connect with generous sponsors and venues, and hire the dedicated team of staff and volunteers that all work together to make the FRINGE possible.
Fundy Fringe happens for a week every summer. Throughout the year what does the process look like as you’re getting ready for it?
It usually starts with the grant applications because you can’t do anything unless you can pay your bills, so the moment that the festival is done I immediately go into grant writing for 2020 or whatever the next year is. And one of them is due almost right out of the gate, which seems like it would be stressful, but it’s actually really good because everything is fresh in my mind. So I can write that final report, get ready for the following year, knowing these were our successes, this is what worked out well, these are the things we need to step up for the next year. It’s also fresh in everybody’s minds too. I can go and sit down with a sponsor and say “We had a great year. You were there. It just happened. We’re already gearing up for the next year. I’m hoping that you’ll still be with us. Let’s talk about what that’s going to look like.” Then we get into the lottery and get in the applications, which is always fun because I just love seeing ideas and I love seeing what people are coming up with. So that’s always my favourite part and the ones that want to push the envelope or they’re coming back to us. Those are really cool too. To know that they had a good time and they want to stick with us and they’re part of that family now. Or seeing new local talent. I love seeing an application from Saint John and I don’t know the artist. That excites me. Who are you? I want to know what your story is. And then we have our big lottery draw in March and then it becomes the business of figuring out who’s going to go into what venue, what are they going to play, how are we going to schedule this, what are we going to do around them, is there any(one) that we can partner with (like) specific organizations to promote them and hire the summer staff and then it just starts rolling out before we know it. It’s the end of August and it’s time to fringe.
Tell me a little bit about your background.
I studied theatre at Mount Allison. (I) pretty much did two shows a year when I was there, predominantly acting, a bit of directing, a bit of stage background. I think when you do theatre everybody should have their goal. Do you want to be a director, do you want to be an actor, do you want to work backstage, but I also think that everybody needs to try all of them at least once because that way you gain an appreciation for what the other person’s doing. Being an actor on stage and not knowing how does the set get built, who does the paint job, how did they get the paint job, where did the props come from. That could be really detrimental because you don’t gain an appreciation for the hard work that the crew puts into making sure that that light that’s shining on you is picking up the colour of your costume perfectly or it’s highlighting this mood in a certain way. There’s an art to those things. And then I do think there is something to be said for somebody in the crew treading the stage a little bit too because acting itself is not easy. (It involves) the memorization of lines, the absorbing of a character, warming up, throwing yourself out there at the mercy of the audience four times a week. I think it’s really good for everybody to try a little bit of everything and that’s why I went to Mount Allison because they’re not a conservatory program. They were a program where they wanted you to take courses in other things so I was taking all of my necessary courses to get my theatre degree, but I was also taking astronomy, I was taking art history, I was taking psychology, French, cinema studies, dabbling here and there. After that I went and got a teaching degree because (in) typical New Brunswick fashion I felt like I needed a back-up plan…I supply taught for a little while and a contract was put in front of me…I’ve been fortunate with the Saint John Theatre Company. They’ve been really supportive of both of those things. I do my day job, but I’ve had the opportunity to tour with them as an actor and get paid and to run the Fringe. Those are huge. To have that balance, not a lot of people get those chances, so I know I’m really fortunate.
What’s been a highlight so far of working with Fundy Fringe?
Every year with the festival I feel like there’s always that one show that you go, “Oh my gosh! This is incredible!” I would have to say the one show that will forever, ever stick with me is a show that we had applied…probably two years ago. I first met the artist the year before that when he brought a different show. His name is Paul Power. He’s a director, actor, playwright, producer from Newfoundland and he brought a show to us called “Roomies.” And I loved it. I thought it was a great show about these two college roomies in the 1970’s. One of them (was) disabled and finding a way to get along and make that work despite his roommate’s prejudice. And then the next year he came at us with another show called “Crippled” and that was the one that really was the most moving one for me because it was very autobiographical of Paul’s real life struggle of not only being disabled, but also losing his partner when his partner had a heart attack very suddenly at a very young age. So that was a heart wrencher for sure, but it’s one of those shows where you when you watch a show like” Crippled” or you watch a show like “Roomies” and you’re seeing somebody who represents such diversity in the arts finally having an avenue for their voice to be heard, not only as a disabled performer, but also as an LGBTQ performer, a Canadian performer, an emerging one at that. That’s what fringe really is all about for me, getting those unheard voices on the stage…It’s empowering for them because it’s something that they’ve never been able to do before and Fringe makes it so easy to get it done. If you can get in on the lottery, from there it’s easy because we’re going to give you a venue. There’s a small fee they have to pay, but from that little tiny fee they get a venue for 5 days, they get published in our program, they get promotion because we bust their press release out to everybody that we can. We’ll talk them up, we’ll list them on our social media, we give them tech, we give them the volunteers to run the box office, which are all things that would normally cost thousands and thousands of dollars. And then they get to keep all their box office money so they’re also getting paid, which doesn’t often happen in the arts. It’s one of the few avenues for theatre performers to actually be paid if they are not a full professional.
So I’m guessing the reason you guys are able to offer that is due to grants and sponsors?
Yeah, we’re very fortunate that we get grants from Canadian heritage, the province, the city. The city’s been very supportive of us, the community arts board has been very supportive of us as well. All of our venues that we use we have formed really close relationships and partnerships with. They’ve been very generous to us as well. The Saint John Theatre Company…we get to share their staff, we get to share their building. It’s a great partnership. So without them it definitely wouldn’t have been possible.
What’s been a challenge that you’ve had to face?
I think one of the greatest challenges for me personally, I don’t know that this is everybody, is finding a balance between my life and my work. I think that’s something that’s true for a lot of people and we often think of work/life balance as being something that’s strictly for those who work in an office doing 9-5, but it’s a huge problem in the arts. Because we’re so entrepreneurial about how we do things it can really take over every single element. You’re constantly checking your phone because you’re getting messages left, right, and center about this, that, and the other thing or you’re checking to make sure oh, did that e-mail get sent through, or you’re waiting for a sponsor to get back to you with a yes or a no. That can really, really be damaging if you have any form of anxiety and it can create an environment of anxiety which isn’t healthy. So that was kind of my big thing especially for this summer. I did not want to become that person again that just felt like full of anxiety and stress when I really should just be enjoying it with everybody else. So I’ve been trying to be really good about turning my phone off or taking an evening off and telling myself it’s ok, you’re allowed to do this, but it’s still always going to be a work in progress. I had to have my husband take my phone away from me yesterday. I was like it’s turned off, put it in your pocket, I don’t want to see it and then I went to ask him later on where’d it go? He’s like “Oh, I just threw it in the toilet.” He didn’t, thank goodness, but he thought he was funny. So that’s been a big deal for me, finding that balance between taking personal time, taking the time to re-evaluate, create a check-list, and just tackle the next day with the checklist in mind. So that’s probably my biggest challenge personally. Because the problems that normally would be a problem don’t become a problem anymore when you’ve had that time to just zen out for a little bit. It’s easy to get stressed about a volunteer whose worried about their shifts or who they’re partnered with or feels passionately about something and they really want to talk to you about it or an artist that is stressed out or upset about something. It’s very easy to get rolled into that and carry that on your back, but if I can take that time to just zen out those problems don’t seem as big and I can handle them a lot better.
What kinds of things have you been inspired by lately?
I generally am most inspired by other people’s work and not specifically in theatre. I’m inspired by what a lot of people are doing in the visual arts. I get inspired a lot by the music scene here in Saint John. I know a lot of people say Saint John’s been going through this huge transformation, this renaissance with the arts, it’s incredible, festival month, look at us go, look at us Saint John! But Saint John used to be like that. And when I look at other Fringe Festivals too I get so inspired by their work. I had the luck of going to the Toronto Fringe this year and just bopping around from show to show, talking to artists, talking to their staff, and just being in Toronto while that was happening was really inspiring because it gave me a chance to say “wow, here’s some things that they’re doing really, really well. I’m going to borrow that. I’m going to try to apply that, scale it down a little bit because it’s not necessarily going to work the same way in Saint John.” But also looking at things and saying “we do a really good job of this” and feeling like there are good things that we’re doing (and) we can be inspiring as well. And that happened actually. I was at a conference in San Diego a couple of years ago and we had had a performer in the line up that year who was from San Francisco. She also runs the Fringe Festival in San Francisco, so I had known her already. I was all excited about her coming, but I was also all worried about her coming (thinking) oh god here’s a fellow festival director. She knows me well enough I know her well enough. Everything has to be perfect. I can’t make a bad impression on this person. She’s been running a Fringe Festival for 30 some odd years. She knows this in and out and sideways. And I got to San Diego for a conference and we’re all sitting around, we’re all taking about our successes and things that we’re struggling (with) and it comes for her turn and so her partner Richard starts talking and said “well one of the decisions we made this year was to send Christina to the Fundy Fringe” and I’m like oh no here it comes. And he’s like, “it was the best decision we ever made. We have been wondering do we need to make our festival bigger, should we be doing all these things? We went to Fundy and we went nope. You don’t need to do all that to have a great festival.” So the fact that we could inspire a festival that’s been running for 30 plus years…I think it just comes down to our volunteers, our volunteers are incredible human beings that are kind and courteous and will do everything in their powers to help you out and just the general spirit of Saint John. We are, I would think, a fairly welcoming city. We’re helpful.
So you’ve been to the Fundy Fringe in Toronto. Have you picked up on any specific things when it comes to theatre in the Maritimes that are different from other places?
Yeah, I think there’s a certain work ethic. I’m not saying that there isn’t a work ethic in Toronto. I think they work hard too. I think if you’re a performer anywhere you have to work hard, but you have to work hard in a different way. For a Toronto based artist it might be (that) you have to work really hard at being special and unique so that you stand out because you can throw a stone and there’s going to be 20 other actors like you. Whereas in Saint John it’s working hard at perfecting the craft, it’s working hard at promoting yourself, it’s working hard at creating something meaningful, something that has a purpose to it and I find that’s where Saint John differs. When I look at the people in our line up year to year and the stories they write, the stories they are writing are meaningful with a purpose. They want to make a change, they want to see a change. I think that’s the biggest difference for me personally. We’re storytellers right? That’s the thing about the Maritimes. If I think back even to my grandfather and my aunts and uncles and I think of growing up. One of the best things that we do as Maritimers is…we wind up in the kitchen with the aunts and uncles and the cousins and someone’s got a good story to tell. And that’s who we are. We’re storytellers.
Have you found ArtsLink resources to be helpful at all to you?
Where I’m a festival director, there aren’t a lot of resources out there, unfortunately, for festival directors, which is why I’m so fortunate that we have the chance to see these Fringe Festivals that I can pull resources from, but I would say as an artist myself I think…it’s just the knowledge that ArtsLink is there, that there is an organization that works as an advocate that will have our backs in a heartbeat to help either our artists or us in any way that they can. Just that knowledge, I think, is empowering. And being available to answer questions, or we’re trying to get this or that or whatever it might be, we need help with finding another sponsor, we need help with finding a place for this artist to sleep for five nights, even those little things. And I know that there are some of our artists that do benefit as well from your services. I just wouldn’t know who they are in particular because I’m not hovering over them being like “so did you check out that Catapult program?” One of our artists, actually, that we do have in the line up this year did go through the Catapult program, Laura-Beth Bird, and I was her mentor so that was a weird thing for me. Sarah first approached me and she was like “do you want to be a mentor?” And I’m like, “you want me to give somebody advice on how to…are you sure?” But it was great. It was pretty straightforward stuff. I met with her a couple times, gave her a couple of tips here and there.
What would you like to accomplish in the next five years?
As far as the Fringe goes, some of the goals that I had set years ago are finally starting to come into fruition, which is having a component that is for kids to help them develop their talents so we’re doing our first kids Fringe this year. I’m very thankful because Interaction Performing Arts has been fabulous partnering with us on that one and being a godsend when it comes to providing space and resources. So (we) would not be able to do it without them. And then hopefully we can just grow that, and snowball it into an actual full out component of the festival. I’d love to see more sight specific shows, so non-traditional theatre set up, shows that are more out in the community, in the public spaces. I think it would be really empowering for an artist to see their work in that light. And hopefully just keep growing our audience base because that’s really the most important thing. The artists getting paid depends on how many bums in seats there are. If they’re only getting ten people a night that’s a hundred bucks for that show, but that’s only 500 over all. That’s not enough, so if we can get more encouraging patrons to come see more shows and to come see shows that they might have to take a risk on. It doesn’t look like it might be interesting to them, but who knows, it might be. Instead of going to see a friend’s show that one night, go see your friend’s show that one night, but then also go in the next hour to see a guy that’s come to us from Toronto whose got a story as well or take an afternoon and go check out the kids shows because we have to support as many of them as we can, not just the ones that we know.
For this upcoming Fundy Fringe you said the kids sessions are going to be a newer thing. What else do you guys have going on that’s different from previous years?
We have partnered with an organization based out of Quebec called Nature Lab and we are going to be carbon neutral. We’ve purchased carbon credits from this group and they helped us to calculate the amount of CO2 emissions that the festival generate(s). It worked out to about 5 tonnes of CO2 between transportation, lighting, set up, printing, getting the printing stuff sent to us, volunteers travelling, the staff travelling, five different venues…It can create a huge carbon footprint. We wanted to somehow counteract that, so we purchased carbon credits from them and the money from the carbon credits is going to go (towards) planting trees. That’s brand new for us this year and I don’t think they would have come across our plate at all if it wasn’t for a show that’s in the Fringe this year who originally partnered with them for their tour. They wanted to make the tour carbon neutral, so then the artist reached out to us and said, “would you mind if we put you in the loop with this group?” And I said “no, not at all.” (I) had a phone conversation with them and everything seemed to make sense so that’s going to be a new endeavour for us. We really like that we’re getting that. ACAP Saint John is helping us out with that too so they’ve been really cool. Those would be the big things that are brand new this year. We have our usual favourites with the Big Tease Preview Night and we do after hour events too just to keep things fun. We’ll have a dance party, we’ll have a movie night, we’ll have a board game night, things like that. It’s just fun.