Jobs Special: Festival directors: Would you like a beer with that?

Would you like a beer with that?

Amy Blackmore takes the Fringe Festival reins
Photo: Cindy Lopez

What it takes to be a festival director in the City of Festivals

In Montreal, festival directors are like rats – they scurry all over the damn place! That, of course, is to be expected in a metropolis hailed worldwide as the City of Festivals.

In fact, the City of Montreal boasts and brags about this moniker everywhere, every chance it gets, including on its own website, which notes, "Every year Montreal plays host to about 100-odd festivals [and] nearly half of them are world-class affairs. This phenomenon has generated a bevy of cultural, economic and tourism benefits unseen anywhere else in North America."

But as millions of Montrealers and tourists attend this city’s famed festivals, behind-the-scenes festival directors are competing for the same tourist and government funding dollars.

So life can be hell for festival directors.

Like former St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival director Jeremy Hechtman half-jokingly told Hour in 2006 about signing the St-Ambroise brewery as a festival sponsor, "I’m willing to change my son’s name to St-Ambroise if it helps!"

This summer Hechtman – who decided to step down as Fringe director after 15 years at the helm – was replaced by Amy Blackmore, who began volunteering at the Fringe a decade ago when she was just 16. "The next year I did my [first] Fringe show and when [the Fringe-affiliated] Mainline Theatre opened in 2005, I started volunteering for the venue. I was mopping floors and cleaning toilets. Oh man, it was disgusting!"

But she learnt the ropes from the ground up and when Hechtman needed an assistant, Blackmore knew more about how the Fringe was run than just about anybody else. "As a kid I grew up in church so I was always organizing church suppers and stuff. Organizing the Fringe is like organizing a twisted church supper!"

Over at Montreal’s 15-year-old Fantasia film festival, festival co-director Mitch Davis also worked his way up. "[Fantasia founder] Pierre Corbeil was hiring buddies who were film maniacs and I was hired in the festival’s second year [in 1997]," Davis recalls. "It ended up doing so well the festival became an annual event and we were hired full-time. Yes, we were lucky. But we were also knowledgeable. I tell you, it was – no pun intended – a fantasy job come true!"

Many of Montreal’s festivals are not yet 20 years old. Most of these are still run by their original founders, like the Divers/Cité queer arts and culture festival which was co-founded in 1993 by Puelo Deir and Suzanne Girard.

In 1994 Divers/Cité’s budget was $42,000. This year it is $1.8-million. Today, Girard – den mother for two generations of gay activists and still Divers/Cité head honcho – says, "Community organizers think our budget is huge, but people [in the tourism industry] say we’re small."

Divers/Cité was inspired by the anti-gay Sex Garage police raid of 1990, which also spurred the creation of the BBCM Foundation’s famed Black & Blue festival, which turns 20 this October. On the occasion of Black & Blue’s 10th anniversary, BBCM co-founder Robert Vezina, still running the festival today, told Hour, "We just thought everybody needed a breath of fresh air."

Now increasingly competitive, festivals – scrambling to "own" certain dates on Montreal’s short summer calendar and hustling for the same tourism dollars – are hiring old pros to run their festivals. Linda Leith, founder and artistic director of the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival (the festival debuted in 1999), is stepping down after steering 12 annual festivals.

The Blue Metropolis Foundation’s job posting to replace Leith states it is looking for "a dynamic individual with superior management, leadership, entrepreneurial and communication skills, the candidate will lead Blue Metropolis in a new period of development and growth. He or she will be recognized for his or her vision, a strategic and a team-oriented leadership and management style together with a personal commitment and experience related to cultural programming and activities. A university degree in an appropriate discipline or the equivalent, as well as broad experience in management, whether in not-for-profit organizations, educational and governmental institutions, or the private sector are required as is fluency in French and English."

Clearly, when it comes to becoming a festival director in Montreal today, the times they are a-changing. Even UQAM now offers a tourism management certificate for festival directors.

"Running the Fringe I now find that I’m always ‘on,’ I’m always looking for money," says Amy Blackmore. "Some people say running the Fringe is like riding a rollercoaster, but I think it’s more like riding the spinning teacups: There’s a lull, then it spins around so fast you don’t know what’s happening, and then there’s a lull again!"

Suzanne Girard has been riding those highs and lows at Divers/Cité for 18 years. "The festival still challenges me every year and gives me satisfaction," Girard says. "The day I’m no longer challenged, that’ll be the time for me to go."

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