Profile: Don Quarles
by Jane Ledwell
Two years ago, Don Quarles was working with the Summerside Lobster Festival when invited to an Atlantic Presenters’ Association showcase at St. Mary’s Church in Indian River. He recalls driving from Summerside on a sunny Island day and across the field, seeing a beautiful church steeple rising into the blue sky. He remembers reaching his destination and experiencing “incredible music and great food, great wine and beer.” He smiles, “The only thing I missed that day was cows in the field. And I wondered, where did this come from? Who put this here?”
Today, Don Quarles is in his first season as Executive Director of the Indian River Festival at that magical, scenic church. He says fervently of his first Indian River experience, “Everyone should see it that way.” His intent, he says, “is to invite people who have never felt invited into the space… to see, hear, taste, and smell everything we have to offer.”
Looking at this season’s program, “I’m proud that we’ve created something wonderful,” Don says, “for those who are here (on PEI) for a few days and those who are here all summer to have a really positive experience.” The Festival’s artistic director, Robert Kortgaard, he says, “has selected artists we know are going to show off the space… artists who are extremely well-known in the music community and, frankly, around the world.”
The program, the performances: those are the “first experience” audiences come for. What Don wants to add to is what he calls the “second experience,” which includes everything from the parking lot to the interactions among the artist, the audience and the space, from pre-show chat to food and hospitality. “For every show, I want people to come five minutes earlier or stay five minutes longer—or maybe stay an extra day,” enjoying other venues on the Island.
Don’s background was in composing music and working on festivals and events—including managing the “second experience” for audiences at the Hummingbird Centre (now Sony Centre) in Toronto (which he likens to “the Confederation Centre mainstage on steroids”). He moved here a few years ago after falling in love with Crystal Stevens, of Redrocks Pottery. “I literally took what would fit in a U-Haul trailer, and my Honda Civic at the time, and moved from Ontario where I raised my kids.”
He admits, “To be blunt, I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got here.” He very quickly found ways to continue his passion for connecting people and music. Don remains on a number of local and national boards, including the board of the Coalition for Music Education, which puts on Music Monday events nationwide on first Monday of May, including here in PEI.
Participation in music is a basic lifeskill for young people, Don says: “I used to create a lot of songwriting clubs in schools, helping young people learn about music creation—and not just in band. I learned the importance of this early on, especially through my own kids. There’s so much kids learn in the process of songwriting…” not only self-expression, but also, Don insists, “It helps students be better citizens in the long run.”
Don perhaps speaks most proudly of his three children’s engagement with music. “One piece of advice I was given long ago—make sure whatever instruments you have at home, make sure they’re never in the case. If you have a piano, make sure it’s always open.”
As he plans a June 9 open house to launch the Indian River Festival, openness is on his mind. Don says, “There are three things I’d love to see happen (at the Indian River Festival this summer), three groups of people I really hope are happy,” Don says. “First, I’d like us to expose the audience members who already know the space really well to new artists. Second, I’d like us to introduce the space to new audiences—I’d like to challenge people to come and experience the space. Third, the artists who perform here, I know will tell their peers about the space.” He wants every memorable first experience to lead to a second experience that is second to none.