Monday, July 6, 2015

Please Don't Punish The Artists

Angry. Seething. Incensed with a side of outraged, and a generous sprinkling of righteous indignation on top.

Fringe Theatre Adventures' decision to reject Daniel Hughes as a volunteer, with a form letter, and an icky token offer of, well, a token, was appalling, unforgivable and revealed a fundamental gap in their understanding and valuing of volunteers humans.

It upsets me that I cannot volunteer at the Fringe this year as I have many years ago as a friendraiser greeting people....
Posted by Daniel Hughes on Saturday, July 4, 2015
It showed a disturbing able-ist mindset within the organization, one which might not be shared by everybody connected, but by enough people that it influences policy.

And since the Fringe Festival gets thousands of unpaid hours every year from their volunteers, the philosophy of "treat them better than gold" should not be rocket science.

Apparently for some it is. Whoever was at the helm of their social media doubled down with the contradictory statement, "The Fringe is an inclusive organization that provides many opportunities for people with disabilities to volunteer," ironically after conclusively proving that they are not.

The Fringe is an inclusive organization that provides many opportunities for people with disabilities to volunteer where...
Posted by Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival on Sunday, July 5, 2015
This was followed by one of the worst, most diminishing statements I have ever seen by Executive Director Jill Roszell (and as a communications professional, I actually study this stuff).

I am on holidays right now and this will be my only response to this until I get back. Please realize that like many...
Posted by Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival on Sunday, July 5, 2015

Seething anger. Seething.

The community came unglued. (I am still looking for some crazy glue to reassemble myself.) And rightfully so. This was a horrible situation that was terribly handled.

An apology was demanded. And finally, it came:

Dear Edmonton Fringe Family,Today the Fringe was not at its best. There are things that we need to take responsibility...
Posted by Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival on Sunday, July 5, 2015
For the record, it is a great example of what they should have said in the first place. The Fringe took full responsibility for their mistakes, weren't defensive in the least, and promised to not only fix the problem but keep the public informed as to how exactly they are going to fix it.

Whether they accomplish that goal remains to be seen. And we, as the public, need to keep their feet to the fire to make sure they do so. We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to the entire community they completely diminished with their actions.

They have a real opportunity to make a change for the better here. Let's give them a little breathing room to do it, but not let up on the scrutiny, or our expectations that they make this right.

And they may fail. In fact, even if they recover, they will still likely bear the brunt of this mistake at this year's festival, and perhaps they should.

But please, please don't punish the artists.

Having performed at the Fringe many times over the last 20 years, there is one thing that has always bothered me about the setup of the festival. There is nothing to be done about it, and it is patently unfair, but that's just the way it is: The artists have no leverage over the festival.

Even if you breathe fire.

There has been a lot of talk about boycotting the Fringe this year. And though I understand the urge to do that (see: "Seething anger. Seething." above) it's important to understand that the effect of that action is going to be relatively insignificant on the people who made the mistake, and devastating to an entire community of artists who had nothing to do with it.

Artists are dependent upon the Fringe, not the other way around. For each ticket you refuse to buy, you're withholding a couple dollars from the Fringe - a large organization with corporate sponsors - and over $10 from artists who earn close to the poverty line, and are counting on this festival for a much needed chunk of change as part of their annual income. In this instance, punishing the artists does nothing but punish the artists.

It's kind of like kicking your dog to punish your son for pulling his sister's hair.

So what can we do? How do we make our voices heard? How do we constructively vent our outrage?

  1. Make sure the Fringe knows what the core of the problem is. Letters, phone calls, social media, etc. Don't just rage at them, but offer genuine feedback. Show them what they did wrong and how to fix it. Although it is absolutely no excuse, I fear that the people who made these decisions really didn't know better. That's seriously problematic, but this is an opportunity for the Fringe to really up their game.
  2. Give them some time to come up with a very visible response that actually speaks to the core of the problems. They promised it, let's give them the opportunity to deliver.

So, what if they don't fix it? I am hopeful that the Fringe can make good on this. There are excellent people within the organization and on the board. They likely feel as angered by this as the rest of us do. But, what if this situation isn't resolved, and you are still outraged? Here's how you can make your feelings known with the least damage to the artists:

  • Don't buy programs. It's all online anyway, so you're not necessarily missing out.
  • Don't go to the beer tents. The Fringe makes a noteworthy chunk of change there. The local businesses would probably be thrilled to sell some more pints.
  • Don't buy merchandise. If they continue to make mistakes like this, do you really want a keepsake reminder of the year the Fringe went bad?
  • Let their sponsors know, as visibly as possible, what you think. Make sure it's clear to them that you see their businesses in a poor light for supporting a festival with this policy. The Fringe losing a sponsor over this would be a massive shakeup.

But first, again, I strongly suggest giving them time to fix it. Not letting it go, but saying, "Alright, you say you want to do better. Show us." And holding them to it.

The Fringe has an opportunity to learn from this. To fly or fail. This could be a chance for the Fringe to learn what inclusiveness actually means. And if they fix it, go, enjoy the beer tents, buy merchandise, drop donations at the gate. Send a letter to the senior executives of a sponsor to say how impressed you are. Reward the Fringe for making it right.

But whatever happens, please don't punish the artists. See some shows, drop some bills in a street performer's hat. It wasn't their fault, they don't have any power in the situation. The last thing we want to do is punish the wrong people.

Isn't that exactly what we're angry at the Fringe for doing?


UPDATE:  Daniel and his family have also asked people to not boycott the Fringe. If we are upset on his behalf, we owe it to him to respect his wishes, don't we?


  1. I kind of feel like this situation is getting blown somewhat out of proportion.
    Maybe the fringe could have told Daniel in a better fashion than they did. But are we really going to vilify the fringe for wanting people who can perform the tasks they're required to perform in any given volunteer position?

    1. Yes we are going to vilify the Fringe because they are acting like villains.

      This young man has performed the duties at previous Fringe Festivals. The whole concept of the festival is embracing those on the "fringe" of society. But here they are excluding those that they are supposed to represent. There are other options such as pairing Daniel or others like him with a partner volunteer but that doesn't even seem to have been considered. Failing to cite real reasons that rational people could understand such as: it creates an unreasonable burden (with examples), costs too much money (with justification) or that there are insurance issues (if there are any) would have made this more palatable and professional.

      As it stands the Fringe organizers are the bad guys here and deserve our contempt

  2. The thing is, their communication with Daniel shows a deep-seated lack of values when it comes to dealing with volunteers, and a very able-ist slant. So much so that they sent out form letters, and thought they could make things right with a token gesture at a 'community party.' This goes against any claim to being an inclusive festival, and shows a disrespect for their volunteers - of any ability. There are many festivals in this city who have been using volunteers of all ability levels for years and not followed as disrespectful a course of action as this, so there's not a lot of excuse. Their original responses to the controversy also reinforced their values.

    If we want to live in a better world, this is exactly the thing we need to call people and organizations out on.

    And I'd say Daniel, as one of the volunteers who was directly affected by this, would not say things are being blown out of proportion.

  3. Seems like a bunch of social justice warriors crying over spilled milk. So the disabled dude can't do the job the festival wants him to do, that's how it goes.

  4. Daniel has volunteered for many years and is suddenly not able to perform duties that he has been volunteering for in the past? There was no consideration of alternatives (helping to clean the venue, simply walking around with a volunteer shirt on and smiling at people etc) This is an unpaid and thankless position and the organizers should be grateful for anyone - regardless of "ability" who is willing to give up time.

    If there are TRUE issues like liability insurance, an unreasonable cost burden for volunteers etc then tell us. Don't just say you are on vacation and there are two sides to the story. Tell us your side and let us decide if there is merit to the rejection. This reeks of damage control and stalling tactics and possibly the hope that this will all blow over. Call this SJW crying all you want, but if it was you in Daniel's position, you'd be thankful that people recognize the wrong here and were crying foul on your behalf