by Mitchell Marcus
Usually, when we shine a spotlight on changes in the arts, we tend to focus on the work onstage. Our theatre history is catalogued by the emergence of new styles, or influences from different cultures, which transform the way we tell stories to our audiences. But right now in our city, the more interesting contemporary art history is being written behind-the-scenes as arts managers are working tirelessly to redefine the way our businesses run.
The second half of the 20th century in Canadian theatre saw the development of professional theatre companies. A model began to emerge: companies built up an audience of subscribers – a loyal group who would attend all productions in a season, purchasing their subscription in advance. Similarly, to help cultivate a body of original Canadian plays, the government was subsidizing up to 50% of the operating budgets of the theatres.
Our world has changed drastically in the last 50 years.
Recessions and government cuts have led to drastically reduced public funding availability for theatre companies. While our government used to fund 30-50% of a company’s budget, new companies are seeing support in the 10-15% range while older companies, grandfathered in at higher rates, are now starting to see cuts as well. As noted in The Globe and Mail in July, 2013, Canadian Stage and Soulpepper – two similarly sized companies – receive vastly different percentages of their budgets from government funding because of points of entry and frozen public funding figures. The more senior Canadian Stage receives approximately 30% of its revenue from grants while the newer Soulpepper gets closer to 11%. The longer the arts budgets remain frozen the more problematic this becomes with newer companies receiving smaller and smaller shares of the pie.
Simultaneous to a declining government funding climate, audience behaviours are changing. As our culture places more of an emphasis on “on demand” and has less and less disposable time and money, theatre is not in a position to keep up. The traditional “subscriber” would behave in a way that is quite different from contemporary trends, with a desire for advanced planning and firm commitments. As such, a recent “Audience Survey” executed by the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts indicated that audiences have been declining over the last 9 years with subscriptions holding limited interest amongst younger audiences. Anecdotally, someone recently told me about a conversation they heard amongst older theatre patrons who proudly declared their move from “subscriber” to “spotters”; instead of committing to a season of activity in advance with certain companies, they now “spot” excellent shows and attend a variety of different companies based on word of mouth.
While this combination of declining revenues could be very depressing, arts administrators have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to find new ways of doing business. I have had the great privilege of participating in two group “think tank” initiatives over the last 12 months and wanted to share some of the resilience and brilliance that I have had the pleasure to witness.
First off, the Metcalf Foundation is one of the most innovative family foundations in Toronto. A year ago they launched their “Creative Strategies Incubator” program to fund a group of companies to explore a common challenge with a mix of individual experimentation and team learning. We had the good fortune of being one of five organizations accepted into the inaugural Learning Network, and have just completed our first of three years in the program.
The joint topic for our Learning Network surrounds new approaches to, or alternative sources of revenue. Our organization, Art of Time Ensemble, The Toronto Fringe Festival, Tafelmusik and the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts are all working on our own initiatives and approaches to finding new revenue sources, while meeting as a collective several times a year to support and advise each other and share our learnings and new directions.
The work that our colleagues are doing is varied and impressive. From launching a revenue generating crowd-funding site to transforming the online user experience to drive sales in new ways, each initiative is unique. In our case, our strategy surrounds our UnCovered concert. Working with a group sales team, we are implementing a robust program for corporations to host clients at our concert, for charities to use our concert as a fundraising endeavour and for external organizations to consider booking artists from our concert for their entertainment needs. In the case of each organization, the goal is to find ways to generate new revenue, examining and identifying small social enterprise opportunities that can see the sales from a new or modified activity help to fund the core artistic practice. More details on each organization involved in the Creative Strategies Incubator program can be found here with insights from the first year of the initiative.
We have also had the great fortune to be a part of “Theatres Leading Change”, a program run by the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts, facilitated by the American based arts consulting firm, Arts Action Research. In this initiative, 10 developing and mid-tier theatre and dance companies came together to work with the Arts Action Research team, identifying and developing new processes and approaches to creating work in a challenging economic climate. Meeting several times this past season, it has been a real privilege to collaborate with so many likeminded institutions in Toronto and to learn more about their businesses and the challenges they are currently facing. What has blown me away in this process is the number of new approaches and ideas to producing live performing arts that have been tabled. While each new idea requires a significant amount of in depth research and – in some cases – shifts in government and labour policy, there are so many possibilities for how we can work together differently and reinvent the models that people have grown accustomed to (but which are antiquated) when it comes to theatre going.
All in all, I feel like we are on the precipice of one of the most fascinating times in Canadian theatre history. Live storytelling is an ancient practice that will never go away, but as our economics shift and social and cultural behaviour morph with each technological change, the practice of how we consume that live storytelling is in need of refinement with a 50 year old model still in place. Pay close attention – I think in the coming years some pretty exciting and revolutionary approaches and models will reveal themselves to audiences that we are currently seeing being dreamed up behind closed doors by the very sharp minds behind Toronto’s performing arts industry.
by Ari Weinberg
The Syd and Shirley Banks Prize for Emerging Musical Theatre Artists allows two up-and-coming performers the chance to continue to hone their talent while learning more about the theatre industry. Each year, two candidates are chosen from a rigorous audition process and are rewarded with financial assistance, mentorship and exposure throughout Acting Up Stage’s season; it’s a turning point for their careers.
The selected artists get to perform as part of the annual UnCovered concert series and get the chance to shine in their own performance/cabaret. Industry professionals- agents, directors, choreographers and casting agents- along with family and friends are invited to see the Banks Prize Winners showcase their many talents in an intimate setting.
I had the opportunity to work with this year’s recipients, Dana Jean Phoenix and Jordan Till, in their show: Cabaret Sauvignon. Dana and Jordan have already started making names for themselves in the business with credits at Mirvish and the Stratford Festival. However, their year with Acting Up Stage helped them to further define their strengths as artists. Working on their cabaret was an opportunity for them to demonstrate their variety of talents. Dana wanted to make sure she was able to show audiences her extraordinary vocal range (a Streisand-esque belt and an operatic soprano), her penchant for comedy (she did a plethora of celebrity impersonations) and her songwriting abilities (she just released her second CD!). Jordan wanted to share his versatility as a vocalist by making sure he covered all types of genres from Broadway to operetta to standards to R’n’B.
The two artists collaborated with musical director Chris Tsujiuchi to put together a dynamic set list that reflected their varied talents and then we all worked together to help make the evening personal and fun with the addition of staging and storytelling. The industry professionals in attendance were wowed by their talents. As a result of their stellar performances, Dana and Jordan have been contacted to audition for several upcoming projects.
These two artists possess a driven work ethic and a great passion for musical theatre; there is no doubt they are going to continue to do remarkable things throughout their careers. Acting Up Stage and the Banks Prize have helped them on their way to further success and will continue to do so for more young artists.
The Daniels Residence is ready for Acting Up Stage’s Virtuoso fundraising event
by Nathaniel Bryan and Louis Charpentier
In light of our recent Virtuoso fundraising event, held a little over a week ago in which individuals renewed or pledged three-year monetary commitments to Acting Up Stage, we decided to interview one of our inaugural Virtuosos. Louis Charpentier, who has been a Virtuoso since 2011, didn’t know of Acting Up Stage before a friend introduced him to our work, but he’s been hooked ever since! Nathaniel Bryan sat down with Louis to discuss the importance of Acting Up to him.
NB: How did you first hear about Acting Up Stage? What was the first production you attended?
LC: Bob and I first learned about Acting Up Stage through our friend — and yours — [Acting Up Stage board member] Richard Sniderman, who persuaded us to attend a musical about which we knew nothing and that was being offered by a company about which we also knew nothing. That magical experience was Light in the Piazza. We were smitten!
NB: What do you think makes Acting Up Stage a truly unique company in the crowded Toronto landscape?
LC: It offers “pure” theatre: consistently intelligent plays on timeless (and often difficult) themes; simple, elegantly-imagined staging; unquestionably superb musicianship; and, of course, excellent actors whose passion for their craft is palpable. Acting Up celebrates text, music and stagecraft and no one element is ever sacrificed for the others. And, Acting Up’s essential educational mission reflects a commitment to the future, to ensuring that quality and talent will continue to be fostered and that thought-provoking, challenging work will continue to offered.
NB: If you could choose one show for Acting Up Stage to produce, what would it be and why?
LC: Cyrano — we have a recording with Brent Carver and Patricia O’Callaghan from 2003 that is profoundly moving with some truly breathtaking music. I have no idea if this is a realistic suggestion but if anyone could re-create the intellectual and emotional layers of Rostand’s imagination, Acting Up could!
NB: Please describe Acting Up Stage in exactly 4 words.
LC: Brilliantly pure musical theatre.
NB: What Acting Up Stage production has had the most lasting affect on you and why?
LC: Each play has had its own impact, always leaving lingering melodies and scenes that are replayed over and over in our minds for days after the play. However, Light in the Piazza has probably had the most lasting effect — perhaps because it was our first experience with Acting Up; perhaps because it was a surprise to see and hear so much highly-developed talent; perhaps because it was a discovery or re-discovery of uniquely-conceived theatre in a time and place of formulaic and over-the-top productions. Or, perhaps because the play touches so well and so courageously on so much of what makes us human, vulnerable and strong.
Virtuosos enjoy the performance offered at the event.
To find out more about our Virtuoso program, please click here.
See Acting Up Stage Associate Artist Jeff Lillico and Elegies star Eliza-Jane Scott in Theatre 20’s production of Company! This show, said by many to have launched the age of the modern musical, centres on Robert, a single man unable to commit to a steady relationship, the married couples who are his best friends, and his three on-again off-again girlfriends. Set in upper-middle-class Manhattan and told through a series of vignettes in no particular chronological order, each character and scene is linked by the celebration of Bobby’s 35th birthday.
June 21 – July 13 – Berkeley Theatre, Toronto – theatre20.com or 416-368-3110
Man of La Mancha
Robert McQueen, director of Caroline, or Change and Falsettos brings his most recent show to life with Man of La Mancha. Awaiting trial by the Inquisition, poet and playwright Miguel de Cervantes is assailed by his fellow prisoners, who try to seize the manuscript of his masterpiece, Don Quixote. His inspired response: a challenge to join him in staging his stirring tale of Quixote’s obsessive quest to attain an impossible dream.
Now on stage until October 11 – Avon Theatre, Stratford Festival– stratfordfestival.ca or 1-800-567-1600
See Caroline, or Change star Deborah Hay and Light in the Piazza star Juan Chioran in Cabaret at the Shaw Festival. Welcome to the Kit Kat Klub, the hottest nightclub in Berlin. American Cliff Bradshaw has just arrived in town. When he meets nightclub singer Sally Bowles, his life is turned upside down – just as the world is about to turn upside down, with Hitler on the rise in Weimar Germany. Another couple – Fraulein Schneider, Cliff’s landlady, and Herr Schultz, a Jewish grocer – must face the music, while the Emcee invites Cliff and Sally to forget the world around them. Hailed as a rare musical that both challenges and entertains, it premiered on Broadway in 1966 and ran for over 1100 performances, winning numerous Tony Awards including Best Musical.
Now on stage until October 26 – Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival – shawfest.com or 1-800-511-SHAW