Meet the Hamilton Fringe Festival’s Executive Director, Claire Calnan

By Anna Camara

Claire Calnan knew early on that she was headed for a life in theatre. Born and raised in the former village of Weston, Ontario, she jumped in feet first and entered high school at the Etobicoke School of the Arts. After graduation, she moved to Vancouver to study at Studio 58, a professional theatre training school whose alumnae include actor and writer, Carmen Aguirre, and master of improvisational comedy, Colin Mochrie.
After her schooling she returned to Toronto and immersed herself in the independent theatre scene. Through her early work, she was fortunate to meet Ravi Jain (Why Not Theatre), Dean Gilmour and Michele Smith (Theatre Smith-Gilmour), all graduates of the famed Paris theatre school, L’Ecole Jacques Lecoq. She also worked closely with actor Jenny Young and visionary director and dramaturge, Weyni Mengesha, who later developed one of the most successful plays in Canadian theatre history, da Kink In My Hair. All of these artists were influencers
who became friends and colleagues, forming the kind of artistic community that Calnan had imagined and desired since her youth in Weston.
To support her early career she had yet to land her first professional acting job Calnan took a part-time post as a relief worker in a group home for young women. She drew important insights from the experience that would affect the way she made theatre. Those young women were great storytellers and she began to explore the relationship between storytelling, theatre and the other work she was doing. That exploration gave rise to the AMY (Artists Mentoring Youth) Project, a barrier-free performing arts education program for young women and non-binary youth from the Greater Toronto Area. The partnerships and collaborations that she and AMY co-Directors Pasha McKenley and Weyni Mengesha formed with theatre companies and festivals are the architecture that holds the project together and a blueprint for Calnan’s own brand of community building.
Meantime, Calnan got her professional start, as many young actors continue to do, at Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre. There she met yet another former Lecoq student, director
and producer, Leah Cherniak, who both mentored Calnan and taught her to mentor others. They share an enduring bond and Cherniak remains Calnan’s mentor in the collaborative Canadian theatre community.
Before moving to Hamilton in 2012, Calnan worked in Toronto as a professional performer, playwright, producer, director and educator. She still misses being in the thick of that theatre-making community, but is excited by the growing cultural scene in Hamilton. “When I first got here, people did not want to go downtown,” said Calnan, “Now, gentrification is beginning to parallel that of 1980s Toronto, with all the amazing and troubling repercussions that move alongside it. There is something about the time that we’re in and the changing nature of
the city. There is definitely more of an audience for art now.”
A month after buying a house in Hamilton, Calnan saw a posting for the position of Executive Director of the Hamilton Fringe Festival. She felt confident going in that her combination of artistic and producing skills would win her the role. Besides, the job would give her “a reason to connect, be professionally proactive and, theatre being a community art form, be part of a new community.”
Four years on, Calnan says that she is energized by the growth of the Hamilton Fringe Festival and that “there is something very exciting about the young [artistic] community here.” She has a strong desire to make things happen and with the Fringe she feels poised to help keep young people in Hamilton. Calnan has ensured that one slot in the annual festival is kept open for the graduating class of McMaster’s theatre program. She also initiated the winter mini-festival, Frost Bites, which presents non-traditional, site-specific works in mid-February. To support and enhance Frost Bites, the company devised the ALERT (Artistic Leadership and Entrepreneurial Training) program, an arts education initiative aimed at emerging artistic leaders interested in the producing and administrative side of theatre.
This year will be the biggest summer festival yet. Between July 20-30th, 50 performance companies from the local and national scene and from as far away as Brazil and New Zealand will present nearly 400 performances in 10 venues across the downtown core.
The woman who nurtured the AMY Project to adulthood and has, with a small team and supportive board, overseen the extraordinary growth of the Hamilton Fringe is also a single mother of a 15-month-old child. Calnan says it takes a lot of imagination to create and maintain a non-traditional family. She keeps a split focus on the here and now and on the future. Her plans for the Fringe, among other projects, are ambitious and include creating opportunities for people to make good work in Hamilton and ensure that the festival is ever more vital and exciting.
Her efforts have not gone un-noticed. In the past few months, Calnan has received the prestigious K.M. Hunter Award for theatre, and in June was awarded the Hamilton Arts Award for Innovation.
The City of Hamilton has, apparently, accepted Claire Calnan as one of its own and that shift will go a long way toward building the kind of creative community that Calnan, and others to come, can live and thrive in.