If CanStage’s season is “rightsizing,” maybe it’s funding should, too

Last weekend, The Globe’s Kelly Nestruck published a fascinating article looking at what appears to be the new normal at Canadian Stage Company: shorter runs of shows, shows moving from the 876-seat Bluma Appel main stage to the 240-seat Berkeley Theatre, all in response to – and perhaps accelerating – another downward trend in attendance and ticket sales.

Nestruck relays that the Canadian Stage is thinking of this trend as “rightsizing” – making sure that shows are put into theatrical spaces and run lengths that the company can more reasonably expect to fill than the Bluma.  Aside from providing a better audience experience than watching a play in what feels like a big empty cavern, it allows the company to better match the resources it spends on a production with what it can reasonably hope to earn from ticket and concession sales.

It appears that Nestruck doesn’t wholly buy this corporate speak for downsizing, but he does present as good news the fact that the strategy appears to have helped move the Canadian Stage Company into the black in recent years despite sharply declining ticket sales – a trend that began before controversial artistic director Matthew Jocelyn began his term but appears to have accelerated since (annual sales have declined from 98,000 to 71,000).

But is this really a case of the company finding efficiencies, or is it just the company under-delivering?

Canadian Stage Company is the largest of the non-profit theatre companies in Toronto, it’s blessed with access to the city-owned St. Lawrence Centre’s Bluma Appel Theatre, and it receives by far the largest sum of operating grant money from the city of any theatre company, totalling $837,000 in 2011, according to its returns with the Canada Revenue Agency. The next biggest recipients, Lorraine Kimsa and Tarragon receive $301,000 and $190,000 respectively, according to the Toronto Arts Council’s list of 2011 grant recipients.

(For some reason, Canadian Stage doesn’t appear on the TAC list. In fact, doing a search of operating grants for TAC going back to 2006 and Ontario Arts Council going back as far as 2010 didn’t turn up any reported money going to Canadian Stage Company, despite the fact that the company lists both as government sponsors and their tax returns indicate they’ve received millions over this time. If anyone can clear this up, I’d love to find out why.)

The total funding for Canadian Stage from the three levels of government in 2011 was $2,585,379. That number’s been slowly rising over the past several years – The city share has been near constant for the last several years, the provincial share is growing remarkably (from $550,000 in 2007 to over $1 million in 2011) while the federal share has shrunk somewhat from $870,000 in 2007 to around $600,000 in 2011).

All told, the government contribution to Canadian Stage accounts for 34 percent of its total revenue (including other donations and ticket sales). Earned revenue is another third and donations another third. For most of the other venued non-profits, government grants make up between 30-50 percent of their revenue. But the total amount Canadian Stage receives is enormous compared to the other groups.

By comparison, Tarragon Theatre received around $900,000 from all levels of government in 2011. Factory received $638,000. Soulpepper got $818,000, compared to total revenue of just over $7 million – making the government share of its budget just 12 percent.

(Fun Fact! As charities, these companies are all required to report the salary ranges of the ten highest-paid people in their organization. Guess which theatre company is paying someone more than a quarter-million dollars in compensation? In fact, the three highest-paid people at Canadian Stage earn nearly all of the money the company gets from the federal government. Only Soulpepper has someone earning close to that amount.)

So I guess the question becomes, if Canadian Stage is going to be delivering less for the foreseeable future, what justifies the relative generosity of government grants compared to all the other theatre companies in Toronto? And while most arts orgs are loathe to publicly criticize the decisions of government granting bodies – especially to accuse them of being too generous – privately, I’ve heard people at a few theatre companies complain about the largesse shown to Canadian Stage and how it crowds out their funding requests.

Don’t get me wrong, Canadian Stage is still far larger than most companies even with the downsizing. It’s got a much larger season than most of the other companies, albeit that many of the shows are running for short one-or-two week runs (except for the annual Dream in High Park, which to be fair, is a much larger venture than any other company puts on). But it certainly seems to be under-delivering, given what it was able to deliver with these same resources just a few years ago.

I mean, just look at the schedule for the St. Lawrence Centre. The Bluma Appel is dark from Dec 9 to Apr 7!  What a waste of a civic resource.

Could other theatre companies better use that venue, and the government money that’s been pouring into Canadian Stage now that the company’s operating costs and audience goals seem to have shrunk?

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4 thoughts on “If CanStage’s season is “rightsizing,” maybe it’s funding should, too

  1. A few thoughts – First, nobody is “blessed” to be at the Bluma. It’s big, unwieldily, and deadly – both artistically and in terms of staffing costs. While I’m glad the city isn’t selling it on the the open market, I would be thrilled to see Canstage do a massive reno – one that would involve wrecking balls – and make a better room / theatre experience. Some of that might be lowering the total numbers of seats.

    But on the larger questions – I think the turn Jocelyn is making is, in part, about keeping, if not expanding, the national and international ambition of the company while reducing the reliance on box office revenue, since, at that scale, in Canada, the unfamiliar and box office revenue rarely go hand in hand at first.

    We are also post-2008 – foundation and individual giving is down. Soulpepper is very good at raising individual money, but it helps that it’s mandate is to produce classics.

    I will take shorter runs of interesting things* to long runs of vanilla productions of yesterdays hits any day. State funding for the arts is in place to allow for change and leadership, as well as subsidize the publics access to the arts – not to reward same ol’ same ol’.

    In that regard, CS is not first in line to the cutting block.

    *For the record, I don’t love all Jocelyn’s choices. There are aesthetic differences. That doesn’t mean I’m not glad he’s making them.

  2. Hi Jacob, thanks for your response. I’m new to WordPress and hadn’t realised you’d left it and that it was pending my approval.

    What could be done to the Bluma to make it more theatre-friendly? I think that’s a conversation that needs to be had. It’s shameful that we scramble for funds while a massive piece of public property sits their gobbling up resources while underdelivering art.

    I think there’s more to the declining revenues than just releasing the company’s reliance on box office. Declining attendance means less people are being exposed to the art that Jocelyn is making pains to bring us. And if less people are being exposed to it, then it’s unclear why more public money should go into the organization (it’s delivering less public benefit on the non-artistic scales). I could understand the declining revenue if it was because Canstage was giving tickets away for free to boost attendance, but the revenue loss is simply people staying home.

    Someone has to recognise it as part of their duty — whether they’re mounting Shirley Valentine or Fernando Krapp — to fill those seats.

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