The centre of things
Profile by Jane Ledwell
“There’s a real opportunity to be in the centre of things in PEI,” says Fraser McCallum from a perch in the Confederation Centre of the Arts, where he is communications manager. He may not intend the double-meaning of “centre/Centre,” but the musician, actor, and sometimes-stand-up and emcee talks a lot about making a career in the place where he says the “Venn diagram” of communications and music and performance “merges.”
“You have to be open-minded, take different kinds of work, and roll with that… be ready to dive in,” he says seriously. “You can create something tomorrow if you want to.”
Hybrid careers are not news for artists in PEI. “I didn’t know if would stay in Charlottetown,” which he describes as “unlikely” in its mix of arts, culture, and heritage. “I was very excited when I realized I could make a living in Charlottetown, if I was willing to shake the trees and be patient,” he says. “Living here is a constant existential question,” Fraser says, but seven years after returning, he says “it’s becoming more and more doable.”
Fraser reflects, “I’ve just finished the busiest three to four months of my life, as publicist for Evangeline, with a new album to tour with Racoon Bandit, and a role in A Christmas Carol at the Watermark.” He admits, “I do my best work when I have a few irons in the fire… It’s like I have three things on the mantel – and they come to all look like one thing: not hobbies, but a career.
"I’m planning the next cycle and enjoying reflecting on all those pieces,” he says.
Winter is a time of introspection – but not a lot of time – says Fraser. “People often imagine this place (Confederation Centre) is sleepy in January, but it’s really alive every day, every week...
"Summer is really incredible here. It’s all hands on deck,” he says, but “what a fountain of ideas and inspiration. You grow up here and think you have Confederation Centre all figured out,” he gestures to the concourse around him. Fraser’s student summer job was as a roving Victorian Confederation Player, a program that became a Centre program the same year Fraser joined the communications staff. He says it’s amazing “getting inside, seeing what it takes to mount that kind of program.”
He is grateful for a workplace that supports creative endeavours. His band, Racoon Bandit, he says, “is one of the most important things in my life in the past five years.” Their recent album Close Your Eyes “has exceeded our expectations,” he says, launching a successful tour and ending up on a lot of “Best of 2015” lists. The band will showcase at East Coast Music and Music PEI events in 2016 and is already in the studio preparing new songs.
“Our group is always trying to please ourselves and meet our own expectations,” says Fraser. “We’re making gains in web series, TV, and film, and we still love to get a stellar review, but you have to take the small wins in such a swirling industry. The goal is not so much ‘making it big’ as making it sustainable, seeing growth with it, so the songs are getting better, the sound is getting better, the relationships in the band are getting better.”
Fraser says, “Our best stuff has always been the most collaborative,” and collaboration on creative work is what excites him most. “What I think results best at work, too, is when three of us develop something together.”
He muses, “I did stand-up, which is a solo mission—creation, performance, and aftermath are all done alone,” other than the audience. “I commend stand-ups and singer-songwriters who do that. To develop a voice is a lifelong pursuit.”
But Fraser sees collaboration as a necessary avenue to learning and growth. “It’s tricky to learn and to improve outside formal settings,” he says, but working with others “excites me more than saying, ‘Here’s my take on something.’” At the same time he admits, “I’ve probably got a solo album in me somewhere down the road.”
His favourite new collaboration is acting in community theatre, including a leading role in Our Town last year, a role he described as “more like myself—an earnest young chap,” less “big and bombastic” than the personae stand-up comedy expects.
“I learned an incredible amount,” Fraser says. The difference between community theatre and professional theatre he says is “training and intensity, and the technical side and scale,” but, he says, “Even the most last-minute community theatre production is still trying to show truth, to show audiences something they relate to.” He says, “There’s amazing depth of talent and resources in community theatre in PEI. I think this proves how intrinsic theatre and performance are to PEI.”
On the verge of turning thirty, Fraser says, “I thought I would get to this age and find that’s just how things are, you’re as good a writer as you will ever be–but what I find is I’m refining. What I’ve learned is to refine, refine, refine. I feel like I’ll be transitioning forever.”
Refining, for Fraser, means defining the centre of his unlikely, intersecting circles. “The marriage of all those things is what keeps me here,” he says, adding, “It’s what makes this a singular place.” And by “this” he means not only Confederation Centre, but Charlottetown, and PEI—centres within centres.