Can the festival system teach us market solutions to theatre?

Well, my recap on the “End to Arts Funding?” debate is now the second-most-read article in the blog’s history, so I’m going to go ahead and assume market forces are telling me that I should continue to write on the subject.

A big part of the discussion at and after the debate centred around Andrew Coyne’s point that “market forces” – which some artists treat with suspicion or hostility – are in fact an integral part of the artistic process and dialogue with the audience. The audience tells the artist what it would like to see, and by setting the market price for tickets, tells the artist how much their art is really worth.

The apparent conclusion to this line of reasoning is that if the market price is less than the production cost, then the art wasn’t worth producing (or is at least unsustainable to the artist as a livelihood).

But! This ignores an important aspect of the market: The failure of a product to be financially successful doesn’t necessarily mean that the product is without merit. It could just mean that the product has a flawed business plan. Perhaps it’s telling the artist that he or she must reduce costs or seek other revenue streams to support the business.

I’ve written that I think that the focus on the revenue side obfuscates some of the big issues in the debate. Artists in general, and theatre artists in particular, are not trying to avoid our audiences’ judgement. Far from it. Most artists want to get more people into the theatres and have them be engaged with our work. But the realities of how theatre is created make cost-based tickets prohibitively expensive for all but the richest.

Aislinn Rose of Praxis Theatre gave an example of a $100,000 budget show she produced which played for 10 nights in an 100-seat theatre. In order to break even without grants, she would have had to sell every available ticket at $100. Therefore, she puts forward the argument that government grants are the only way to get ticket prices down to reasonable levels. Another way of looking at it is that this is simply an insane and unsustainable business plan.

Holger Syme expands on the argument in his blog, where he argues that performing arts are inherently unsustainable and can’t be compared to other arts disciplines that lend themselves better to the market. We had a bit of a back and forth on Twitter where I suggested that the market solution to this problem might involve rationalizing the expense side of the theatre ledger.

Most small theatre shows have their biggest expenses in two major categories: WAGES (including salaries for actors, designers, and producers) and SPACES (including renting the venue and rehearsal space, plus all fees and technicians associated with them not directly employed by the company).

An interesting thing about these expenses is that while the costs associated with the SPACE are defined largely by the length of the run (how many weeks are you renting the theatre to perform, plus tech days), the costs of the WAGES are largely front-loaded – even if you’re only running for seven performances, you will likely still have a 3-5 week rehearsal period (if you can afford it!), plus your designer fees and wages. The burden of development costs are a lot to shoulder on a short run. (This argument is only true if we’re talking about productions where artists are salaried rather than earning a profit share.)

So why is so much theatre built on that self-defeating model? Well, because it’s a big gamble to book a venue for a long time, and longer runs will also drive up your running wages. And while longer runs help build word-of-mouth and develop an audience, there’s the simultaneous fear that there just isn’t the audience in one city to sustain a long run.

But here’s where the festival producer in me starts thinking: why are we only thinking one city at a time? One of the reasons I love the Fringe circuit is that it’s a viable business model for certain types of theatre. On an eight-city tour, I can put a show onstage more than 50 times. Ten Foot Pole performed BALLS on the festival circuit 58 times, plus we toured it to camps twice before putting it onstage in Toronto. FUCKING STEPHEN HARPER’s been up onstage 72 times at the Fringe, plus a couple of one-off performances in Toronto. All that time in front of an audience helps make the most of my investment in upfront costs.

I’m not suggesting that indie companies limit themselves to the Fringe circuit or commit themselves to expensive continent-crossing theatre adventures, although Praxis Theatre is about to launch on the latter with its new production of You Should Have Stayed At Home. While they’re being produced on their western stops, Praxis is self-producing additional shows in Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal, which will give them the opportunity to maximize the investment they make in developing the show.

But we don’t need to go even that far. Southern Ontario is home to nearly 12 million people, and they’re all within a reasonable drive/GO service of Toronto (which could avoid hotel costs). Why don’t we have a touring/presenting infrastructure within this region? There are, or ought to be, theatre audiences in Hamilton, Kitchener, London, Niagara, Barrie, Kingston – to say nothing of Mississauga, Brampton, Richmond Hill, North York, Etobicoke, and Scarborough. I know, I know, you shrugged when I rhymed off those places that are north of Bloor, west of Dufferin, but if we wouldn’t go there, how the fuck can we expect them to come here? Why aren’t we chasing those audiences down? Why isn’t there an infrastructure to facilitate that?

Theatre Brouhaha has been making its first steps into this territory, with its successful tour of Help Yourself to Kingston and Kitchener last year, and its planned tour of Delicacy to Kitchener at some point in the future. It’s a smart tactic to make the most of their investment (and their ties to both cities).

Yes, this has other implications on the “art” side of the project, aside from the business: If you follow this model, your show has to be tourable, meaning the design has to be flexible to various spaces. It may impose limitations on the size and weight of your set. And of course, the whole idea is predicated on the running costs of the show being less than the projected revenues – so it may limit cast/crew sizes and running props. But artists have always made concessions to the material conditions of the theatres they work in, and some of these would be relatively simple for a lot of productions. Besides, there already exists a lot of work that meets these criteria and building an infrastructure to support them would indirectly benefit the shows that can’t tour by building an audience and revenue stream.

But I think the Festival model also points to another possible way of reducing costs. During the festivals, venues churn through audiences at a rapid clip, often hosting six or more performances a day, buildings with multiple venues can double the number of shows and patrons. Their concession stands become popular hangouts due to the volume of people passing through.

Compare this to the typical theatre venue in Toronto, which hosts one show (sometimes two if it’s rented out a studio space) per night, if it’s hosting anything at all. The venue’s got to keep the lights and heat on, pay a technician, box office, concession operator, usher, for just a 3-4-hour period when patrons are actually in the building. It seems incredibly wasteful. And if you’re a renting company, you’ve got to shoulder all these costs in your rental fee.

But could the theatres boost productivitiy and spread these costs around more productions by adopting the festival model? I’m not suggesting that we have noon and 2pm shows year-round (there likely isn’t the audience outside of festival season), but why not program a show at 7pm and another at 9pm? And perhaps a children’s show (or one targeting retirees) in the afternoon? And stand-up comedy and live music in a late-night slot?

I know there are logistical hurdles in what I’m proposing. Shows with large, elaborate sets will be difficult to transition during a 30-minute turnaround between shows – and that’s before considering that many Toronto venues wouldn’t even have adequate storage space for multiple sets and green room space for performers. All true. But these are all problems that companies have solved with various tactics on the festival circuit.

This weekend I saw Soulpepper’s production of Angels in America. It’s a huge-budget show with a large, elaborate set (it’s also fantastic; go see it!). But strip away the bed, chairs, and desks, and the set is just a large grey room with eight doors in it. You can do almost anything in a large grey room with eight doors in it. Actually, I saw Suburban Beast’s Late Company at SummerWorks last week, too. The set was just a dinner table. They could have put the dinner table in that big grey room with eight doors in it and only barely compromised the design. (For example, I mean. Angels is particularly unsuitable to playing in rep due to its length, and Soulpepper evidently doesn’t need any help breaking it even.) I’ve seen shows at Factory and Tarragon that barely had any set at all.

Your set or flats are too precious to let other actors wander around in? Fine. Drop the curtain in front of it. My friend Chase Padgett has a wonderful 90-minute show called 6 Guitars which he performed entirely in the two feet in front of the curtain at the Edmonton Library theatre last year. Artists will be masters of invention given the opportunity and the necessity.


Look at the cinemas. Almost all of the cinemas in Toronto are multiplexes. They’re diffused throughout the GTA, not just downtown. And their showtimes are all over the map. It’s actually rare to find shows starting at 8; most start at 7 or 9 or 10 — proving that audiences are not married to the 8pm start time. The former AMC at Yonge-Dundas goes even further, and rents out its theatres as lecture halls to Ryerson during the mornings when they’d be empty.

There’s a virtuous circle that ought to happen here. More shows in your spaces leads to more patrons, who purchase more concessions and maybe even treat your venue like a night time hangout (if your venue is so equipped or designed). New audiences attracted by the added shows ought to also crossover into more return patrons. More patrons ought to also entice more donors and sponsors. Longer hours in the space ought to lead to better pay for technicians and other staff who would otherwise only be called for 4-hour shifts. Meanwhile, your costs per show drop, and more theatre can be produced.

This isn’t entirely without precedent. Bread & Circus in Kensington tried this for a few years, with 7:30pm theatre shows and 10pm live music. But the venue was poorly equipped for both theatre and live music and eventually closed.

Down in New York, some interesting venues have popped up using a version of this model, like Theatre Row and Pershing Square/Signature Theatre. Both of these act like theatre multiplexes, with up to five shows on stage at any time, and large concession/lounge areas for patrons to hang out.

Could Toronto venues develop a culture like this? If so, how? Should new venues be constructed or renovated to meet the demands of such a model? Is this worth pursuing?


6 thoughts on “Can the festival system teach us market solutions to theatre?

  1. Thanks for this post. I actually agree with 95% of it, but as is the way with the internet, I will now quibble with the 5% i don’t.

    It is not a positive opportunity that Praxis is self-producing our 3 final stops on our tour. In all honesty, we wish we weren’t – for the exact reasons described in this post. As a “company” with no office and no operating funding, we have the ability and resources to produce You Should Have Stayed Home at the Festival level. Now that it is viable – ideally it would be paid professional fees by presenters wherever it goes.

    We don’t even have a printer!

    If we’re not going to throw away all of our infrastructure, this is how the ecology should work, and why I give a big high-five to The Yukon Arts Centre and Firehall Arts Centre for their participation in this endeavour.

  2. An interesting post Rob, but it’s worth noting that festivals have infrastructure behind them that is also funded by public money to make the festivals financially viable. The staff working within that infrastructure can spend up to a year and a half planning and building toward each festival, and as many festival participants can tell you (and as you’ve likely experienced yourself), most of the artists walk away with pennies per hour that they spent on their individual shows.

    I would agree that market forces still come into play though, within the ecology that Michael mentions above, in that it’s generally the most financially successful shows (as well as critically acclaimed) that get picked up and presented by institutions with the money to spend on presentations.

    Our tour wouldn’t be possible without public money either. Presenter fees cover the costs of our artistic team, but federal and provincial grants fund our travel and per diems.

    With regard to the art of festivals, my concern would be that – yes, we can be super creative with limitations around size of space, using the set pieces of others, etc. – we would be stuck in a rut of always having to think this way: always having to think small. And because we’re already thinking small and creating small, it means we’re often left out of larger festivals who are looking for artists who can create works on a larger scale. We need more opportunities to test ourselves on this scale, not less. Opportunities to try and fail and eventually succeed, so we can be seen more regularly on the platforms that Luminato and World Stage have to offer, leading to potential international work and collaboration.

    I love Toronto’s festivals. They’re an incredibly important part of the ecology, and I love especially to see them as laboratories for test and creation that eventually feed into the larger institutions. We just don’t want to get swallowed up.

  3. Hey guys, I fully agree, and completely support government support for the arts — especially where it delivers the most bang for the buck, which in my opinion is in the festival world.

    And my set of proposals above isn’t meant to be a trap, but instead, a set of opportunities. How much theatre can you create if every time you need to raise $100,000 to make it feasible? What if your costs were only a quarter of that when you were developing a show and building an audience? What if a show proved itself by playing the 7pm slot on a tour of the 905/519/705 before opening on the mainstage of a major theatre where it could sell 100 tickets per night at $60-100?

    Even within my proposed model, there would still be government support for major companies and works, tax deductions for donors, and capital projects where needed. And in fact, I think the presenter model is an important way for my proposals to work (someone’s going to need to coordinate all those artists sharing that space, and program works that are complimentary).

    Nothing in my proposals would reduce the opportunity to present larger works. What I’m proposing instead is the next step from the festival circuit, where artists are given a real home (although shared) in a real equipped theatre space, a set time slot (although not necessarily 8pm), and a healthy run. I’m for opening up more opportunities for theatre to be presented in the city, and the most important way to do that is to reduce the cost barrier to production.

  4. Hi Rob,

    I think these are interesting ideas, and I wouldn’t reject many of them out of hand. Of course any means of extending a run, getting more people to see your work, reaching wider audiences, are a good thing.

    I do have two major concerns, though. One is aesthetic. Like Aislinn, I’m deeply skeptical about the “think small” attitude that this model seems to require. There’s a reason the fringe is called that, and I’m not in a hurry, much as I love fringe theatre, to see the fringe model take over as the mainstream for independent productions. You write as if cost were an arbitrary factor that can be avoided by resourceful artists. But surely it isn’t. Building an exciting set takes time, material, and money. Exploring that set in rehearsal takes time and money. Rehearsal — proper rehearsal, searching, exploratory, rehearsal, takes time and money. Having a cast of more than four people — how I long for casts of more than four people! — takes time and money. Tech takes time and money. And the more ambitious, the more tech-heavy, the bigger a show, the more difficult a time it will have sharing space the way you propose — not just the stage, but especially the back stage areas. All of these are, as far as I can see, unavoidable costs. If they are connected to artistic merit at all, they are so only in the sense that more intensively rehearsed work is likely to be deeper, richer, more interesting than undercooked theatrical fare. Nor does a company who wants to work this way have a “flawed business plan” — their focus is not on business at all, it’s on art. To say that production X has a “flawed business plan” is saying precisely nothing about the value of the theatre they’re making. They might be in the process of staging the most enchanting show ever seen in Toronto. _That_ should be the primary goal of any theatre company.

    Now, I know of course that few companies are in a position to aim for that goal (and those who are often don’t). I also think it’s eminently praiseworthy that you’re not just throwing your hands up in despair, but are thinking of possible alternative business models. But while I recognize the ambitious quality of that approach, I fear its ambition — to come up with a commercially viable theatre system — comes at far too great a cost of artistic ambition. Yes, I too have seen marvellous one-person shows and wonderful two-handers. I don’t want those formats to disappear. But I’m also tired of the predominance of those types of shows in our theatre, just as I’m tired of small stages, boring sets, and performances created under conditions that clearly curtailed the director’s and the actors’ scope of vision. To be perfectly honest, I would much prefer a scenario where instead of ten new plays with two characters each, we’d have two stagings of older or new-ish with sizeable (10+) casts, long-ish runs, and extended rehearsal periods. I know that’s not popular, and I know it would reduce variety; but I’m not convinced that variety is self-evidently inherently valuable. Put differently, I see nothing in your model that would encourage change; it seems to me designed (whether intentionally or not) to perpetuate and foster a further focus on the kind of small-scale, small-cast, portable, cheaply produced theatre of which we already have quite enough. You’re right, of course, about necessity being the mother of invention, and it’s not unreasonable to try and figure out a way of making some money while coping with necessities. But I do not think this is a recipe for making better, more exciting, more interesting theatre: it’s a recipe for making do.

  5. You know, I think the difference is, I don’t believe my proposal is necessarily about making companies “think small” — although I can see how it might be interpreted that way, or lead to that outcome.

    Instead, I’d just like to point out that *a lot* of theatre in this city is produced on a much smaller scale and under much worse conditions for the performers and creators. We’re a scene where artists are compromising their performances so they can fit into the back of a bar, a dilapidated storefront, the basement of a bakery, a cabaret space, a lecture hall, a garage, an apartment living room, etc, etc. And these are often the artists who can’t get grants, and are bankrupting themselves to work under these conditions.

    In addition, there are a huge number of creators who are using the festival format to create great work that simply can’t get remounted anywhere else because it’s not ‘big’ enough, or ‘long’ enough, or — perhaps more to the point — the ticket price it can fetch won’t cover the rent on the Factory (for example).

    Let artists dream big! Let them creat huge, sweeping, mechanical sets and twenty-person choruses in multiple period costumes! If we can get the rental costs lowered, that only frees up more capital to dream bigger, rehearse more, etc. If cheaper shows can cross-subsidize more expensive shows, that’s a good thing ultimately.

    Perhaps my proposals above — especially as they relate to touring and guesting in other theatres — are more relevent to the indie scale of production, but we’d need the larger theatres on board to make it happen.

  6. Pingback: How To Save the Canadian Theatre in a Few Not-So-Easy Steps | Daniel Karasik

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