This One Goes to Eleven: Janet Munsil

One of the true forces of nature at work over on lovely Vancouver Island. In addition to being an acclaimed playwright, Janet has been the organizer of the Victoria Fringe for the past 18 years. She sits as the Fringe’s Artistic Producer, and organizes year-round theatrical events, like Uno fest and Intrepid’s Presenting Series.

We’re proud to host Janet here on the verge of the 2009 Vic Fringe, running from August 27 to September 6.

janetmunsil_5609

1. In one word, describe your present condition.

Standing at the intersection of Art and Showbiz.

2. In as many words as suit you, describe the present condition of Victoria Theatre.

Finally emerging from its chrysalis and taking flight, gorgeous and exotic, after the world’s longest freaking pupation.

3. How does the Victoria Fringe impact independent theatre the rest of the year?

After the city’s three “rentable” venues closed in the 90s, the Fringe pretty much was the independent theatre scene in Victoria – it was sad. A lot of artists just packed up and moved – there’s a missing generation of theatre artists here.  With a few very notable exceptions of established professional alternative companies, (Theatre Inconnu, Theatre SKAM), no-one was even trying to produce fringe-style theatre in Victoria at other times of the year. Although we save half spots in fringe for local companies (about 25 spaces), eventually that dwindled down to 2-3 per year. The loss of small venues, and failed attempts to revive them, was hard on morale for indie companies and artists – and audiences. They had a lot of catching up to do by the time things got rolling again.

Now there are several small venues in Victoria – Theatre Inconnu has it’s own space across the street from the Belfry, Intrepid Theatre operates two spaces (the 50 seat Intrepid Theatre Club and 150 seat Metro Studio), the Victoria Event Centre is a great cabaret space and home to the brilliant Atomic Vaudeville, a few dance and art centres got rolling, and Theatre SKAM is still out there making theatres anywhere and everywhere – bike trails, art schools, campgrounds.  What’s interesting about all these spaces is that they were created out of “private” partnerships with commercial landlords, other non-profits not involved in arts who had empty space,  and personal donations, initiated by the companies who needed the space. No matter how many civic facility reports pointed directly to the need for smaller performing arts spaces (and not the Sydney Opera House in the Inner Harbour), the city was never going to address the problem. So we stopped waiting around and did it ourselves.

4. If you could change one thing about how the Fringe is structured, what would it be?

Nothing. I stand behind the priniciples of the fringe completely – unjuried, uncensored, 100% of the box office to the artists, accessible to everyone. It works. It shouldn’t work, but it does. There are brilliant shows, great efforts, and learning experiences – but seriously, you’ll see the same percentage of each in a juried festival. I go to lots of fringe and non-fringe theatre festivals, and the ratio of “good” to “WTF?”, in my opinion, is generally about the same – only at the Fringe,  I always feel like the artists are giving it everything they’ve got – and of course they need to learn all those promotional and marketing skills to stay afloat in such a competitive marketplace. If I see crappy theatre at a big ticket juried festival with loads of promotional bucks behind it, I’m more likely to feel angry, sad, and robbed.

5. Who are your great influences as a playwright?

I have lots, but I do love Tom Stoppard. I want to be curious as a playwright, to investigate all kinds of biographical or historical or political subjects that interest me, through theatre. “Clever” is too often an insult, and beautiful dialogue that sounds like intelligent people talking is underrated.  Why not be as clever, articulate, and literate as possible, while still being entertaining? I love Sondheim too, same reasons.

Smoking with Lulu with Thelma Barlow and Peter Eyre at West Yorkshire Playhouse

Smoking with Lulu with Thelma Barlow and Peter Eyre at West Yorkshire Playhouse

6. If I gave you one million dollars to improve the independent theatre scene in Vic, how would you spend it?

In a world where our company wasn’t facing cuts and funding freezes…I’d put half of it into upgrades of existing small theatres that the communtity can rent. New risers, better signs, ventilation, small things. Assuming the other half isn’t worth investing in an endowment for the forseeable future, I’d love to see a new small professional producing company get started in Victoria. There’s still room on the ladder between the Fringe and the mainstages, and a lot of rungs missing yet.

7. What has been your proudest theatrical moment to date?

It’s not really a theatrical moment, but when Smoking with Lulu (Emphysema: a love story in Canada) was on in London, I was walking through Soho to rehearsal and remember thinking – how the heck did this happen?  Also, I was directing Pinter’s Trouble in the Works when I was in second year at UVic, and in the scene Mark Dusseault (now publicist at the Belfry) sat at a desk and picked up one of those hinged picture frames, like pictures of your kids might go in, and said “My Jacob’s Chuck? Not my very own Jacob’s Chuck?” That might be my number one moment, really, but you had to be there.

8. What is your best advice to young companies entering the Fringe world?

Do the best work you possibly can, and learn as much as you can, artistically, promotionally, organizationally, from your own experience and from seeing the work of other artists. Within the “Fringe world,” no one cares where you came from or where you went to school – if you’re really good and have something to say, you rise to the top, and you can be seen by thousands of people, across the country. And it will be your own genius and originality that got you there.  You can walk out on that stage a nobody, kid, and come back a star. All the theatre cliches live on at the Fringe, that’s why I still love it after 18 years of organizing it. It has an energy, hopefulness, simplicity, innocence, ambition, and enthusiasm about “puttin’ on a show” that is the reason people get involved in theatre in the first place…and then we forget. My theory is that people get snooty about the fringe when they’ve forgotten what they used to love about theatre.

9. Should the relationship between Vancouver theatre and Victoria theatre be strengthened, and if so how?

Yes, of course. It’s cheap and easy to move a show between the cities. Intrepid has made an effort to get  more Vancouver work over here – lately boca del lupo, neworld, here be monsters, theatre terrific, and lots of solo artist for the Uno Fest. And now I think more theatre companies in Victoria are at a stage to be “exported” to Vancouver and the rest of the country,  I don’t think this was as true five years ago.

10. What are your top 3 theatre reads?

Act One, by Moss Hart. The Life of Kenneth Tynan, by Kathleen Tynan. Fat Chance, by Simon Gray.

11. What’s next?

The 23rd annual Victoria Fringe, in late August. I’m writing a play about the educated horse Beautiful Jim Key, and the start of the civil rights, literacy and humane movements in the early 20th century. And from October 22-25, Victoria is hosting the next Performance Creation Canada gathering, which we’re all excited about. C’mon over.

That Elusive Spark at UVic (Trevor Hinton as Phineas Gage, Photo Tim Matheson)

That Elusive Spark at UVic (Trevor Hinton as Phineas Gage, Photo Tim Matheson)

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