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?