Public Purse & Purpose Predicaments

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I watched the recent public relations mini-crisis concerning the spurned Edmonton Fringe volunteer unfold with some interest. Now that it seems to have settled down I thought I could weigh in without interfering with the Fringe’s ability to manage their brand. I really, really hope that this doesn’t spark uproar again; unless that spark ignites a conversation about how we as a society are going to help organisations that promote the arts to survive and grow.

Understand, I love the arts. I love theatre. I love this festival. I raised my son at this festival and am watching with a mixture of pride and envy as he is pursuing his theatre dreams nurtured by Edmonton’s theatre community. This involvement and passion informed how I felt about this issue when it hit the media.

As I have gleaned it from the media coverage, this is what happened:

At least two individuals were sent letters telling them that the Fringe Festival would not be able to accept them in volunteer positions this season. The volunteer positions had certain requirements that aligned them with the Fringe’s goals. Both of the individuals had disabilities that limit how effectively they would be able to function in these volunteer positions.

It really is that simple.

It is important that we not confuse the Fringe’s not-for-profit, publicly supported status with a mandate to provide a social service. They provide a social good absolutely, which is why they receive public funding. However they don’t receive their public funding to serve the broader needs of society, but to fulfill their specific  mission, vision and mandate.

To be successful as an organisation, whether you are for or not-for profit, an organisation must have a clear mandate. In the case of the Fringe this is clear. The Fringe is about and for theatre. It is about and for actors and directors and playwrights and designers and stage techs – about and for the people who make their living and make their lives through theatre. The Fringe provides a home and fertile ground for new artists and artistic expression. The Fringe offers a less intimidating and more incidental way for citizens, who may never in any other part of their daily lives encounter theatre, to discover the unique joy of live theatre.

Having in place expectations for each volunteer position to guarantee that each volunteer most efficiently and effectively contributes to the growth of theatre in our community is how the Fringe will meet its mandate.

I understand that a people, including the people who did not get the volunteer positions they wanted, may feel as passionately about being part of this great festival. It makes complete sense to me. However, to maintain control over direction and messaging and branding, the Fringe must be able to choose how they present themselves to the community and that includes having the ability to put in place guidelines regarding suitability for volunteer positions.

Take the example of the non-verbal man who was not accepted for a position as a greeter at the gate.

That front gate is where that person who has never ever been to a play will enter the festival grounds. It is where the Fringe can provide that potential theatre fan with an introduction to the festival, and to drama and the arts in general. I am always shocked to find how many people think they have attended the Fringe, but have never attended a play. It is essential that the greeters at the gate be able to tell people that this festival is more that a few street performers and line-ups for churros. That obviously requires verbal communication. It is a necessary requirement.

This is not a value judgement with regard to the volunteer, this is a needs assessment with regard to the position and organisation.

I completely agree that as a culture we should be as inclusive as possible. I do not agree that being inclusive is antithetical to having in place standards and requirements for participation in specific aspects of our society. As I understand it, the one man is now advising the festival on their inclusiveness policy but not volunteering. I’d encourage the festival and the man to consider having him in a volunteer position for which communicating is not the position lynch-pin. He should participate if theatre is his passion, and the Fringe should be open to encouraging the participation in theatre arts by everyone in our community.

All of this, however, must align with the Fringe’s mandate first and foremost. I personally think the festival handled this very well.

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