Heidi Collins-McCann was just 16 years old the first time she volunteered at the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival in 1982. Fast-forward 35 years and she is still just as dedicated – if not more – as she was on day one.
“I keep people’s spirits up if they’re having a bad day. I try and cheer them up or if there’s something going wrong and they just need to vent to somebody, like we all do, it’s like, ‘OK, let’s go into my office, which is the volunteer patio.'”
The fringe festival board gave Collins-McCann the honourary title of “Den Mother” about six years ago. She started volunteering in the first place to gain extra credit in high school.
“Looking back, we didn’t know what we were doing,” she recalled of the 1982 festival with a smile. “It was Brian Paisley and a core of about 10 volunteers and that’s how we ran the first fringe… We did everything.”
And when she says everything, she isn’t kidding. Collins-McCann recalled a time when the volunteers had to bring hay into the arts barn.
“That first year we had an infestation of mice everywhere so we learned not only how to clean up but how to catch mice.”
From 25 shows in five venues in 1982 to more than 1,600 performances in over 40 venues in 2016, the festival has flourished to become North America’s largest fringe festival. And it wouldn’t be possible without the help of more than 1,200 dedicated volunteers.
“We all get together and we do it for the love of theatre,” Collins-McCann said. “We’re usually here by 8:30 in the morning and we leave by about 1 (a.m.). So we do about a 16-hour day for 11 days and I’ve done that since the first fringe.”
Watch below: ‘This is the craziest Saturday ever’: 35th annual Edmonton fringe festival sees great attendance in first weekend
For Collins-McCann, that amounts to about 6,160 hours – or nearly three years – of full-time work over her 35 years of service. So what keeps her coming back year after year? (after year, after year…).
“It becomes like a big family reunion every year,” she said. “Seeing volunteers come back and say, ‘I had a blast last year.’ Or, ‘thank you for helping me, what you did last year was phenomenal. I was down and having a bad day and you helped me.'”
Plus, the inclusivity and family-friendly atmosphere of the fringe is a huge draw for the Den Mother.
“For me, just sitting back and seeing the smiles on the families’ faces when they’re watching their kids experience something for the first time… It’s nice to step back and watch that.”
The Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival runs in Old Strathcona until Aug. 21.
Watch below: Here’s a look at the 2016 fringe shows Todd James has reviewed so far