When I first met Jana Mackenzie we were both scream-talking to the same person about a similar topic, rah-rah-ing each other in support over several bottles of wine. I knew right then that she would fit nicely into my psyche – a passionate patriarchy smashing kinda chick. She ended up being another illustrious addition to the ever-expanding tribe of mine that would come to be my fair family. A family that spans several provinces and a never ending fountain of love, Jana is a key member in making the fair, “The Fair”. I had the opportunity to meet with her in her home to discuss her position and how it relates to our common togetherness overall.
Over tea we discussed her first fair story where at the young age of 15 she and her friends had to buy tickets from her teacher Chris Chambers who was working the box office even back then. That was her first and only year as strictly an attendee. In the years following she volunteered at the box office, security and gate keeping. One year she was in charge of a walkie talkie while working the back-stage gates which gave her a glance into the inner workings of the festival and she wanted more. The next year she volunteered to come early and help with set up – a week where monumental effort and coordination go into establishing tents, hospitality, the stage and so much more. It was from there that she knew she needed to be more involved. She recalled saying: “I didn’t really have a position, so I just started attending meetings as kind of a hanger on-er”, hoping that her time would be put to good use. And it certainly paid off. In 2008, after a couple years of coordinating Kidz Country, Jana was asked to take on booking acts for the East Stage. Although she was nervous about her ability to put together a successful line-up, at the coordinator meeting following the festival the past East Stage programmer announced that it had been the best East Stage lineup yet. During this time the organization was going through succession planning and Jana was invited by her mentor and the long-time artistic director Maureen Chambers (fair mum #1), to take on the role of booking for the Main Stage. She laughed as she recalled being sent home with five CD racks of submissions and a short lesson on how to get through the listening process, “I kind of felt like the Karate Kid. I wasn’t sure what the end result was suppose to be.” Jana has been the Artistic Director since 2012, a year-round position that she is eager to tackle again and again.
Further into our conversation, I asked her what about the fair inspires her to return even if she didn’t have a volunteer position. She didn’t hesitate, “I always felt free to be myself there. I learned a lot about myself through the fair and meeting new people. It was the one space I was guaranteed that I could be whoever I wanted to be. It’s about coming together as a collective and celebrating being a community, and it’s something that you have to experience for yourself in order to understand it.”
Doing this for so long, she also appreciates the changing landscape of Folk Festivals in general. She mentioned how having more unknown acts, compared to festivals that boast big-name headlining acts, has created a solid core audience that are challenged year after year with new music which inevitably inspires longevity. “There’s a core audience that comes back every year even if they don’t know anyone on the line-up because they come for the experience and it’s a hard one to duplicate.”
Despite all of it’s glory, being the Artistic Director can have it’s challenges as there is so much talent to chose from every year. “In some capacity you feel like you’re not supporting these artists, but the unfortunate reality is that you can’t book everyone, and you have to say no 90% of the time.” However, this is easily offset by the incredible reward that comes after booking a band that no one has heard of that resonates profoundly with the audience, like when she booked Stephanie Nilles, Bend Sinister and The Dead South. “That’s the best part, when you know they’ll be talking about that one act for years.”
I asked her to pick an item that reminds her of the fair before our chat. She picked out this lanyard. “It’s kind of a funny story,” she recalls, “When I first started getting really official with the fair I had a name tag that gained me access to meals and I would always lose it and had a hard time with it around my neck. It was a lot of drama. So Glenna (fair mum #2) gave me her daughters lanyard in the hopes that I wouldn’t lose it. Didn’t work though. One day.”