Eight Questions About the Toronto Fringe

The Toronto Fringe is in full swing of what is by all accounts a tremendous year for the festival. So while we’re right in the thick of it, let’s start a discussion about things that have come up this year so we can help make an even better festival next year.

1.  Are Ticket Sales Really Up? By how much? What does this translate to for average artist return? What was the average sell-through? Was sell-through more-or-less even across timeslots and venues?

There was concern that the move to 100% advance sales availability would hurt the Fringe, as patrons who didn’t get to see their top show would give up rather than come down to the festival to find out what else to see. I’ve always said that concern was unfounded as other festivals that moved that way actually reported massive sales increases.

Anecdotally, ticket sales and sell-outs at the Toronto Fringe are way up in 2014 compared to 2012-13 (2013 isn’t a fair comparison, because the big flood wiped out a day and a half of sales). On opening day, one staffer mentioned to me that advance tickets were up 40% over that day in 2013 (before the storm hit, of course). Artists are in generally good spirits this year, and it seems that even more shows are getting hot sales/sellouts this year.

The biggest factor seems to be the switch to 100% advance ticket sales, which encourages more early purchases and achieves sellouts earlier, encouraging people to buy tickets to other performances/shows rather than waiting in line all day for a chance at a ticket. (This isn’t scientific, of course, but there’s no other compelling hypothesis.) A way to confirm this hypothesis might be to look at what proportion of total sales were advance/door, and how that’s changed over time.

But there are other factors. One of the popular spaces, Tarragon Extra Space, had its capacity reduced by 29%, which made sellouts happen even faster (a factor that hopefully won’t be present next year). Similarly, the 100-seat Factory Studio was replaced with the 60-seat Tarragon Solo Room last year. And of course, it could just be the small handful of hot shows doing well. Let’s look at the data.

I’m also curious what happened at Theatre Passe Muraille; with Factory Theatre out of commission, Queen/Bathurst really wasn’t the hub it was in the past. Did sales remain steady or tumble at TPM because people weren’t spending a day down there? If they fell at TPM, could that account for a rise of sales up on the Bloor/Bathurst corridor? If so, perhaps this is an argument to focus more shows in a single area.

2.  Who is buying all these tickets? Individuals buying more tickets, or more individuals buying the same number of tickets, or more individuals buying fewer tickets?

The switch to more advance sales ought to yield a treasure trove of additional useful data for the Fringe. If more people were buying tickets in advance, they’d be creating accounts on fringetoronto.com, which require mailing addresses. So we should know, for example, where more Fringe patrons live. This is useful for gauging the success of Fringe marketing and outreach.

Previously, Fringe staff have said that 85% of sales were in the Trinity-Spadina riding (basically, between Ossington and Bay, and from St. Clair south). That’s problematic for a festival that serves a region of 6 million people from Oakville to Oshawa and Barrie (Hamilton has its own Fringe). But advance tickets may be more useful to people who commute in a long distance rather than walk or bike to the festival. Has this change helped reach those more distant audiences? What can be done to reach deeper?

Moreover, more advance tickets can help get a more accurate number of how many individuals are buying tickets, and how many shows each individual is seeing (within limits, of course; some individuals see shows other people bought tickets for and some will buy a mix of advance/door tickets). Has the greater emphasis on advance tickets led to an increase or decrease in number of shows seen per person and number of individuals seeing shows (both increases are possible and desirable)?

For audience development, we obviously want the number of individuals seeing shows to grow more than anything.

3.  What venues will return next year? Will Factory Theatre be available again with both spaces? Will the Tarragon Solo Room be back? Will the Al Green be back – and better utilized? Will the Tarragon Extra Space be back to normal? Does the increase in ticket sales justify the addition of a venue and a few more official slots in the festival? 

Factory Theatre was out this year due to renovations, and was replaced with the Tarragon Solo Room (starting in 2013) and the Al Green Theatre. By next year, it ought to be available again. Will it be desirable to use the new Factory Theatre? If so, will it also be desirable to keep the Solo Room and Al Green, given their proximity to other Fringe venues?

Toronto Fringe is wisely waiting until its ticket sell-through ratio reaches a certain percentage before adding more slots in the festival (there is absolutely artist demand for more spots, but it’s best not to dilute the festival). Fringe wouldn’t say what percentage at the last town hall (except to say that sell-through was 45-50% in 2013) but whatever the target is, has it been reached? Would it be enough to, say, keep the small Solo Room only? (I believe there is actually a value in keeping limited-size venues. Some companies love them).

If the Al Green is kept as a venue, could the Fringe mitigate some of the problems that have arisen from it? The Al Green reportedly removed the front 4-5 rows of seats, creating a 25’ chasm between the stage and the audience. While this was done to ‘crowd’ the audience together to make the house look fuller (and reduce the size of the venue from 280 to 200 per a request from the festival), it actually greatly reduces the intimacy of the venue, and is deathly for comedy. If the venue must have its capacity reduced, couldn’t it just rope off or screen off the back rows of seats?

Or, could other venues get dumped? Perhaps it’s worth considering the value of using St. Vlad’s and the Robert Gill if we’re keeping the number of venues constant.

Speaking of venues, has the Fringe come up with a plan to replace the Festival tent site, which will be lost when Honest Ed’s is redeveloped in 2016?

4.  How much additional revenue did the Fringe pull in from advance sales fees, net of bank charges and system costs? Does this more than offset the anecdotally reported decrease in “Tip The Fringe” donations? How down are those donations anyway? If there were more individuals attending the festival, did this translate to more beer sales at the festival tent?

Anecdotally, volunteers are saying Tip The Fringe donations are down this year, and you can see it in the lineups too. However, if more and more people are paying $2-4/ticket to get advance tickets, that more than offsets the average $0.59 tip the Fringe was receiving per patron in previous years.

5.  Could the Fringe raise advance sales even more by eliminating the “door discount”?

Currently, tickets are $10 at the door, and $12 + order charge online. Would eliminating the discount on advance tickets encourage even more advance sales? This could be done by raising the door price to $12, which would make artists even happier. The door price has been frozen at $10 since around 2005, and inflation is eating at the artist return very heavily.

6.  Are multi-show passes still useful? Could the Fringe develop a pass that works for advance tickets, or some kind of compromise solution (ie, allowing passes to purchase advance tickets at the central box office)? What would be the effect of getting rid of multi-show passes altogether?

Several patrons who bought multi-show passes are complaining that they’ve become useless since the popular shows they want to see are all sold out before they can get door tickets. It’s a shame that this seems to penalize the patrons who are trying to be the most loyal (ie, planning to see the most shows). It does seem to be a bit of a bait-and-switch for these patrons, who likely didn’t foresee the difficulty of using them.

7.  What is the effect of restricted postering/flyering possibilities?

Fringe has gradually reduced the spaces available at venues for companies to display posters and flyers for their shows. Together with the city’s anti-postering by-laws, this has severely reduced the opportunities for companies to display advertisements for their shows. The Fringe still expects you to make posters though – they want one poster from each company for the poster wall at the beer tent – but they just don’t want to give you more than one space to put them. Which is silly, because you can’t just print one poster (unless you’re Jem Rolls, I suppose).

If this were Winnipeg, people would be taking their wedding photos in front of this.

If this were Winnipeg, people would be taking their wedding photos in front of this.

At the town hall, Fringe pushed this as an environmental initiative, which is a little silly. These posters and flyers are recyclable and can be printed on recycled paper, too.  Limiting the postering makes it more difficult for patrons to find out and get excited about shows that aren’t (yet) receiving buzz or reviews.

A related concern is the program, which, I’ve said numerous times, is the ugliest program by far in the circuit. From the grainy black-and-white photos, to the tombstone layouts, to the gulfs of white where more information could fit, it’s a really weak promotional tool for companies. (I’ve offered to redesign the program for them at lower than what they’re currently paying, but they haven’t taken me up on it).

Posters are a rare opportunity for a full-colour ad with updated promotional copy (ie, cast or review information). Could we bring back poster boards at other venues? Many companies are quietly grumbling about the shrinking poster space. Can we start a discussion about opening up some more spaces in an orderly (utterly Torontonian) fashion?

8. Can we revisit or refine the latecomer policy?

Well, it happened to me finally – the door was slammed in my face as I arrived, ticket in hand, just in time for my show (the FOH actually flashed his phone to indicate “It’s 1:45, sorry”).

There are good reasons to have a no latecomer policy, but it has to be tempered with common sense. FOH should never slam the door on a ticketholder. Late should be 1:46, not 1:45. Companies should be given the option of allowing in latecomers if they want (with the choice flagged in the program) – ie, a latecomer is less disruptive to a stand-up/sketch comedy than an Ibsen. Some other festivals do this – including Fringe’s own Next Stage Festival.

It’s not as big an inconvenience for me – I actually got the ticket for free and I’m a theatre person who should know better. But Fringe is unique in that it’s a gateway to theatre for lots of people who don’t know, and may have come across town with their ticket only to get stuck in traffic/TTC. Getting stopped at the door this way may discourage these people from ever coming back to the theatre.

Everyone who’s ever done the Fringe in Toronto has heard a story from friends or relatives who came only to have FOH slam the door in their face (I’ve had at least one of these stories every year of the four I’ve done it). Those people always tell me they’ll never come to theatre again after that. You have to ease people into theatre culture – people who don’t go to theatre are used to more casual entertainment options, like movies or comedy. Heck, even at professional theatres, you can usually be escorted in by an usher during a scene change. It may be time to revisit this policy.

So what do you think? Post your comments below.

 

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Fringe Picks 2014!

It’s Fringe time again in Toronto! I’m late getting to my recommendations list this year – blame an incredibly packed schedule reporting on WorldPride and various elections for Xtra. But I picked up my Fringe program today, thumbed through it for my picks, and even saw my first show already. Heck, I’ve even dug up my first minor controversies already! So read on.

Also, this is the first year that the Fringe is committing to 100% advance ticket sales. This is a very good thing, which has led to vastly increased ticket sales in other festivals that moved to this type of system. My only quibble remains that advance tickets are still up to 40% more expensive than door tickets, which is absolutely the wrong way to do it. (If you’re going to order advance tickets, you’re best to put all your orders together in one order, so you only pay the $2 ordering fee once). Regardless, one Fringe staffer I spoke to today tells me ticket sales are already up 40% over this time last year. While the final number is unlikely to remain that high, let’s hope the trend line keeps it up (and that there’s no flash flooding this year). For patrons, this means that popular shows are bound to sell-out fast, so make sure you order your tickets early and be prepared to see other shows when your top picks sell out (and you see how this generates a virtuous circle for the artists and the festival?).

Just a note on my recommendations: I’m focusing on shows that don’t get tonnes of attention already, especially shows by touring artists, who often go overlooked by the regular coverage of the festival (understandably; there are a lot of local acts to cover). I’ve also thrown in a few locals who I think have interesting blurbs in the program. If I’ve left you off, it doesn’t mean I don’t love you.

Tarragon Mainspace

Elvis and I – I don’t know anyone involved, but the premise of a jukebox musical about Elvis Presley meeting Richard Nixon sounds ripe for a good time.

Everything is Fine… – Sketch comedy by a bunch of recent Second City grads. It’s directed by the hilarious Ken Hall (2-Man No Show), although the only cast member I recognize is Marshall Lorenzo, whose stand-up and character work is always funny.

Potosi – The New Play Contest winner sounds like a compelling drama, but then, I thought last year’s new play contest winner turned out to be middlebrow nonsense. Cautious recommend.

Tarragon Extra Space

Weird bit of theatre news, here. The Extra Space has been reduced from a 95-seat capacity to a 71-seat capacity, apparently on order of the fire marshal. I’m pretty sure the Tarragon recently renovated the Extra Space to add a few seats, which may have triggered a new inspection (I have recently donated all my old programs, so I can’t look up the information on their capital campaign. Drat.) Or perhaps it’s the Fringe who has tried a new seating plan in the space — the Tarragon still lists it as a 100-seat venue on its web site. The reduction makes it the smallest venue that doesn’t get extra shows, which really sucks for the artists. Put in perspective: They’ve lost 25 x 7 x $10 = $1750 box office potential. Tickets will sell out that much faster here, so be sure to get them early.

52 Pick-Up – I saw this TJ Dawe show performed years ago by Gemma Wilcox in Vancouver. It’s a brilliant script with a fun premise: 52 scenes from a relationship presented in random order generated by the shuffling and scattering of a deck of cards. In this version, it’s being performed by four different couples on different nights, none of whom I know. It has the potential to be great, but without the right chemistry, it could be a disaster. So, you’ll have to roll the dice on this one.

Jem Rolls – Jem Rolls is back with another performance poetry show. Apparently this one did really well for him in Montreal, which is a tough market for the Fringe. He’s always entertaining.

Parallel Play – Elvira Kurt doing sketch comedy? I’m in.

Roller Derby Saved My Soul – I’ve known Nancy Kenny for years, and saw this show in 2011 when it was still being developed at the Ottawa Fringe. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from the title, and it’s fun to see Nancy performing the show in roller blades. I understand that the show has grown a lot since 2011, and I’m curious where it’s at now. Also, Nancy is the subject of a documentary about touring the Fringe circuit which is filming this year. Maybe you’ll end up on the big screen if they catch footage of you in line!

Tarragon Solo Room 

Spilling Family Secrets – I met Vancouver storyteller Susan Freedman way back in 2008, when she was touring her autobiographical show Sixty-Four and No More Lies. This sounds like a similar sort of show. Freedman’s a very engaging performer and her honesty builds an instant rapport with audiences.

Randolph Theatre 

Fantastic Extravagance – This play was developed in the Steady State Playwright Unit that I was a part of last year, so I’ve seen chunks of the script already. There’s some great humour and the fun premise of a writer being stalked by the protagonist she killed off at the end of her best-selling novel.

Hugh and I – A new musical about the life of Hugh Hefner told through the women who loved (?) him. How could that not be worth your 90 mins?

Peter n’ Chris and the Kinda OK Corral – This is the show I saw today, and it’s a highly recommend from me. The masters of sketch comedy, mime, and cartoon violence are back for another great show. Go give them all your money.

rsz_peter_n_chris_kinda_ok_corral-2

Annex Theatre

Salvador – I know nothing about the people involved, but I feel like if I’m going to see just one drag performance at the Fringe, it should be a verbatim piece about a guy who goes to El Salvador to investigate the state of gay rights there. On the other hand, the show description bemusingly includes “We would like to acknowledge funding support from the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the government of Ontario,” which suggests a company that is not familiar with how these things work.

Slut – Dahlia Katz directed the fantastic Dying Hard, which toured the circuit and had a brief run in Toronto a few years ago. Now she’s back directing Erin Thompson in a one-woman show about wanting more than one Mr. Right.

SLUT Poster

Sperm Wars – My friend (and former publicity client) Jeff Leard is back with a new production of his first solo show, which was originally performed under the name Gametes & Gonads. Neither name really does the show justice (although the current one earned him a mention in Kelly Nestruck’s Fringe preview, under “shows with terrible titles”). It’s actually a bracingly funny and incredibly kinetic solo comedy, where Leard reveals that sperm and ova are in locked in a never-ending battle of cosmic proportions, which bears something of a resemblance to George Lucas’ famous original trilogy.

George Ignatieff

Punch Up – As if I need to tell you to go see a Kat Sandler play.

Sex T-Rex – See above.

St Vladimir’s

Myth of the Ostrich – Parents confront each other over their teenagers’ love affair in a play directed by Steve Gallagher (Stealing Sam) and starring Astrid van Wieren (The Way Back to Thursday).

Helen Gardinder

Kitt & Jane: An Interactive Survival Guide to the Near-Post-Apocalyptic Future – From the company that brought the hit show Little Orange Man (which I admit I never saw), comes this show, which my friends are already raving about from earlier stops on the tour.

Komunka – A slice of life piece set in Moscow, examining homophobia and gay life in the wake of Sochi, Putin, and Ukraine. Written by Yury Ruzhyev (best know for his incredible drag revue, Viva Cabaret) and directed by Sky Gilbert.

No Chance in Hell – I know nothing of these people, but it has possibly the best hook in a program blurb this year: “When John arrives at the Pearly Gates, he is informed that his file is missing and he won’t be getting access to Heaven. He is sent to hell, where he meets the love of his afterlife. Then John is told his file has been found…”

Pardon Me Cow – I have a soft spot for the gay-themed shows (obviously). This is a one-man comedy about growing up gay on a farm.

Amusement/Redheaded Stepchild – Nobody’s Business is doing these two shows in rep in their Fringe slot. I saw Redheaded Stepchild years ago and recommend it if you haven’t. I’ll be trying to squeeze in Amusement.

Robert Gill

Ancient History – I usually avoid published plays at the Fringe, but when else do you get to see a David Ives play that’s not Venus in Fur in Toronto? You can also catch All In The Timing at St. Vlad’s.

Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace

The Assassination of Robert Ford: Dirty Little Coward – This is not, in fact, about our current mayor. It’s a play about the historical Robert Ford who murdered Jesse James and then went on to be the star of a vaudeville act about the murder until he himself was murdered. It was also developed in the Steady State Playwright Unit, so I’ve seen the show develop over time, and think it could be a powerful examination of the public’s need to alternately praise and scorn its heroes.

The Emergency Monologues – This played at Summerworks in 2008 where it got great reviews (but I missed it because I was in Edmonton). Oddly, the program doesn’t list any of them.

Who Killed Gertrude Grump – Monster Theatre (The Shakespeare Show) from Vancouver can do no wrong in my books – Ryan Gladstone is a sharp and savvy writer and Tara Travis is a gifted comic performer. I don’t need to know anything else.

TPM Backspace

Great Battles in History – Mark Shyzer is back, after the incredible Fringe success he had with his show Fishbowl in 2012. Somehow, Shyzer is portraying entire armies all by himself as he traces human history in 60 minutes. If anyone can do it, he can.

Al Green Theatre

The Al Green was hastily added as an official venue after the Fringe learned in January that the Factory would be unavailable due to renovations. While it’s ideally situated, the venue has reportedly had difficult technical/administrative issues that kept it out of consideration in previous years. I’m told (but haven’t been inside to check) that in an effort to reduce the total seating in the enormous theatre, techs were told to rope off 50 seats, and decided to rope off the front several rows of seats instead of the back. This is the worst possible thing you can do to performers who are trying to build a connection with the audience — can anyone confirm that this is what’s going on at the venue or give a sense of what that does to your enjoyment of a show as an audience member?

Another thing I’m hearing is the Al Green techs are also joining the UofT techs in demanding that all companies provide a stage manager, even when one isn’t strictly necessary for the show (because you’ve been touring for years and it seems to work fine without one everywhere else). This is, I understand, beyond the Fringe’s control, and is common in some of the other venues, but the festival is not very good about communicating the requirement to artists, who arrive at tech without one, and then spend the first hour of their three-hour tech time arguing with the technician about it. It happened to me in 2012 with RAW, and was the first of a series of unpleasant interactions with my tech that year.

Unfortunately, due to various difficulties of the space’s layout which were not understood when coming to Toronto and the difficulty of finding an SM on short notice, one show has dropped out. Chase Padgett and Stacey Hallal decided to pack it in after their tech rather than try to fit their sketch comedy Joyride into the odd space. I’m not sure there’s anything the festival could have done to fix the problems, but it’s a darn shame. I’d only just met Stacey, but Chase is the performance genius behind 6 Guitars, which I’ve written about in this space previously. I was really looking forward to his new show, and to Toronto getting its first look at him. (BTW, Chase has not asked me to write any of the above; I’m drawing on my own experiences dealing with inflexible tech personnel and poor communication. He has generally been very positive on the Toronto Fringe when explaining why he decided to drop out.)

I hope that the Fringe can make the Al Green work as a venue, because it really is a great space in an ideal location. Hopefully other artists are not having trouble, and any kinks can be worked out quickly over the course of the festival. In the long run, the Fringe can come up with a better way to communicate with the artists about the technical capabilities and requirements of all of its venues in the future.

The only other show at the Al Green I’m giving a recommend to is The Dark Fantastic by New York based performer Martin Dockery, who Torontonians probably recall best from his hits Wanderlust and The Bike Trip.

The Al Green is also hosting Happy Foods, which all else aside contains the warning “Insufficient Nudity,” which, uh….

Site-Specific

Centre of the Universe – David James Brock is back with a new show. He’s best known in Toronto as the writer of Toasting the Snow Bride and WET, but has been touring the world writing plays and operas. This one deals with four people stuck in a bar in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack on Toronto, and takes place at the Labyrinth Lounge.

That’s my list! Say hi if you see me at the Fringe tent, and be sure to share the shows you loved in the comments below or on Twitter with the hashtag #FringeTO.

Fringe Tour Nostaligia — Some Surprise Suspects in the Case of the Disappearing Acts

Over on Charlebois Post, Fringe God TJ Dawe has written an essay about the apparent death of the Fringe Tour that’s gotten a fair bit of circulation among Fringers. In it, he waxes nostalgic about the good ol’ days of Fringe touring while apparently casting blame – if you want to call it that, and I do – on the glut of new generation theatre creators who’ve made it very difficult to build a national Fringe tour, by clogging up the lotteries. While he winds up challenging the mainstream theatres to accept more of these self-creating artists – a laudable goal – I respectfully disagree with almost everything else he writes. Here’s why:

Misplaced Nostalgia?

While TJ’s experience and success on the Fringe circuit is virtually unparalleled, I find a lot of his claims hard to swallow. He talks about how in his early days of touring – 1994-2008, approximately – it was common for artists to book eight- or nine-city tours, over which the artists could refine and perfect their shows until they were well-oiled machines.

My Fringe life only barely overlaps that period – 2007-2012 – but in that time I’ve managed three fairly large-scale tours (and some smaller ones) and shows that have toured to multiple cities over the years (unlike TJ, I’ve been lucky enough to win the touring lottery twice). Over that time, even in the early years, it seemed obvious that artists on big, continent-spanning tours were by far the minority. The largest cohort in every festival are the local and regional artists. A lot of touring artists could only ever afford to do one or two cities. The big eight-city tours always seemed relegated to the handful of artists who win the touring lottery and the smaller cohort of ‘lifers’ on the circuit (TJ, Keir Cutler, Jem Rolls, Jayson McDonald, and a few others).

And to be honest, while I can attest to the fact that shows evolve for the better over long runs – Balls, Fucking Stephen Harper, and Big In Germany all became stronger after long tours as I got more comfortable with the material and cut what didn’t work – it’s kind of a strange value proposition: “Hey Montrealers! Enjoy this train wreck of a show I haven’t quite finished working on! It’ll be great by Victoria. I swear!”

Plus, the track record of the Fringe for making huge successes this way isn’t really that great. Nancy Kenney, CharPo and I recently tried to count up the list of runaway successes from the Fringe that have broken into the mainstream and we stopped at: Drowsy Chaperone, Da Kink In My Hair, Kim’s Convenience, and TJ’s play Toothpaste and Cigars, which became the major motion picture The F Word. TJ’s toured, but the other three began and ended their Fringe life in Toronto. To be certain, we’ve missed smaller shows and the Fringe plays that achieved a degree of success but stayed on the circuit, but if the point is to have a polished show only after performing it 60 times on the circuit, certainly you’d want it to have a life afterward, no?

[EDIT: As TJ, Derrick Chua and others have noted in the comments below, this is clearly an inexhaustive list and lots of other shows have gone on to varying degrees of success after the Fringe. While I was being deliberately provocative above, I think my main point stands, that the number of Fringe-launched successes is quite small, and that the majority of those that do succeed did so without touring.]

Bigger Factors

TJ points out that the big cohort of new theatre creators being churned out of theatre schools at a clip that would rival a WWII munitions factory is a big reason why the Fringe lotteries have become more competitive over the years – all those kids are being foisted upon a jobs market that doesn’t have room for them, and they’re at the peak age for being able to take on the financial risk of a Fringe show and a multi-city tour. (And also the peak age for being willing to sleep on a makeshift bed in several strangers’ houses for a couple of months).

It’s an easy scapegoat, but in my experience, it’s not the biggest reason for the death of the tour. I’m hearing more and more artists simply point out that the value of performing in certain festivals is no longer worth it. The entire east-side of the tour (Montreal, London, Ottawa, and Toronto) can be deadly for producers. The first three are a huge gamble for performers as the audience really just isn’t there  (somewhat paradoxically, since the Windsor-Montreal corridor is the most densely populated in Canada). Though a few lucky performers can attract a crowd, many don’t even make their application fees back.

In my first year of touring, one of the veterans told me that if you make about $1000 in Montreal and Ottawa, you should celebrate. That barely covers the cost of going there for a solo show (if you don’t eat). That number hasn’t moved in six years, and indeed, my last time there, I grossed $1100 and the artist liaison told me I should celebrate as I did better than average.

Toronto is a lovely festival with a huge audience, but it is incredibly difficult for touring artists because the city is so local-heavy. I used to commiserate with my touring friends over this, until I spent a few years in the city and realized that quickly I could count thirty shows in the Toronto Fringe with friends in them before I even looked at the touring artists. Touring artists struggle for both media coverage and audiences here.

Still, you might be able to justify the added month or two of touring in Ontario and Quebec as an investment in workshopping and developing your show. Except that in recent years, reporters from Winnipeg started turning up in Montreal and Toronto to advance review your shows. If your show wasn’t ready yet in Montreal, you could get a poisonous (or worse, neutral) review in Winnipeg before you even open there. (It happened to me with Balls in 2008). Many artists just decided the first four cities on the tour weren’t worth it – why not spend those two months at home, saving money, while you continue to develop your show?

Ditto for many other cities on the circuit. Why spend up to $1000 or more to perform in Calgary or Saskatoon, when you could probably fly home and back from Winnipeg and to Edmonton for that? Victoria and Vancouver have also expanded the number of shows well beyond their audience capacity to fill seats too, and it’s easy to justify chopping these off the end of a tour.

Conversely, for artists in central Canada (by which I possibly only mean Toronto), there’s long been an ambivalence – or worse – toward touring the circuit. The evidence seems to support the notion that the only important Fringe for career development is Toronto, so why spend a summer – the months when you should be out auditioning for film and TV, or playing summer stock, or putting on a show at SummerWorks – in Alberta and Manitoba? In my experience, other artists here look down their nose even at successful shows out of the city, and everyone forgets who you are while you’re away performing. And as TJ points out, “Fringes aren’t crawling with agents and producers and talent scouts and artistic directors,” so you’re unlikely to get spotted while performing at Acacia Hall in Edmonton.

Add on the fact that while Festivals across the circuit were responding to artist demand by expanding the number of shows accepted (with Toronto and Calgary being notable and noble exceptions), thus increasing competition for audiences, they were sharply raising admission fees and holding ticket prices (ie, artist return) relatively flat. Oh, and at the same time, the price of everything else was going up (especially gas, rent, heat, etc…). Well, everything except credit, which stupid young theatre creators are often all too happy to take on in order to finance these increasingly risky tours.

Finally, it’s pretty clear the lotteries aren’t holding back artists who want to tour.  The lifers especially have found ways to circumvent the lotteries by arranging Bring Your Own Venues at festivals where they think it’s worth it. TJ knows this, because I’ve seen him sell out a run at the Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg at least twice in my touring life (Which, really? PTE didn’t want him back this year? Crazy. [EDIT: TJ explains this below.]). What’s changed is that artists are recognizing that the financial reward for booking BYOV’s all across the country is evaporating.

Why the Young Ones?

I have to point out as well that I object to what I perceive as the subtext of Dawe’s article, which is that this new cohort of young artists is crowding out the older generation of Fringe stars who used to own the circuit.

I think a more pressing point is: why are Fringe stars still touring the circuit ten, fifteen years on, instead of moving up the artworld hierarchy and making room for the new generation of artists?

It’s a problem I’ve been wrestling with for the last few years, and was a big part of my decision to leave the Fringe circuit after the 2012 tour (although, admittedly, financial concerns were a big part too, and I continue to enter the Toronto lottery because the Toronto Fringe has always been a different animal). I think one of the biggest problems in our theatre ecology is the refusal of artists to leave the “emerging” category and give up the perks and supports that come with it. Doors are being closed on new, young voices while artists that by any measure ought to be considered “established” take up room that should be reserved for them. It does long-term damage to the scene, and infantilizes artists that should be standing on their own.

For all the success it’s had in recent years, SummerWorks has largely become the thing it was created not to be: a prestige showcase of Toronto’s established companies and artists (with a smattering of work by anointed youngsters). NextStage programs playwrights, actors and directors whose work wins Governor-General and Dora Awards and is regularly seen in the seasons of mainstream companies.

After touring the Fringe, I mounted Balls independently in a financially disastrous run that taught me more about entrepreneurship than I could hope to learn on the Fringe circuit.

After touring the Fringe, I mounted Balls independently in a financially disastrous run that taught me more about entrepreneurship than I could hope to learn on the Fringe circuit.

TJ praises the entrepreneurial spirit of all of the self-creating/self-producing theatre creators that are clogging up the Fringe lotteries. But the Fringe is only borderline entrepreneurship. While performers must create their own budgets and handle tour logistics and design posters, the festivals themselves do the work of venue logistics, staff, marketing, etc. Fringe is a great school or lab for theatre entrepreneurs, but eventually, you have to graduate from it and do it on your own.

Put another way, TJ can sell 3000 tickets in a visit to Winnipeg (and understandably — he’s a great performer, and Fringe audiences have come to think of his shows as major events). Surely it’s worth it to some producer to book him for a few nights at PTE in the off season, no?

So let’s not gobble up the Fringe’s resources. Let’s let as many new, ‘fringey’ voices rise up into the circuit as possible. No more Fringe stars. The concept of a Fringe star is contrary to the whole spirit of the Fringe. If you get success on the Fringe, work to parlay that into success outside the festival. Don’t hog the Fringe – demand your well-deserved spot in the centre.

Fringe Town Hall

Last night was the Toronto Fringe Festival’s first annual town hall, which was an opportunity for some dialogue between producers, volunteers, and staff. Although I’m retired from Fringe this year, I was curious where the festival is going and happy to share some of my ideas and experiences with staff.

It was a pretty small turnout for the meeting – it was a Friday evening in December, long before a lot of producers are even thinking about the festival after all – but that did give us the opportunity to have a more intimate and in-depth discussion of the issues.

The set-up was organised around four big issues that the Festival is thinking of – box office/web site, participation fees, marketing/publicity/reviews, and the Fringe Club – with staff moderating, posing questions to the audience, and allowing us to ask questions of them. There was also an opportunity to ask questions not directly related to the four big issues.

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On the first point, Fringe executive director Kelly Straughan began by explaining that last year’s box office web site monstrosity was the result of a major server crash that happened very shortly before the festival. The festival has received an Ontario Trillium Grant to overhaul the box office web site so that it’s easier to navigate. One of the things I neglected to suggest at this point that I think is important is that it’s really important for producers that we have a direct link to a distinct page to purchase tickets for our own show to point our networks to.

Instead, we moved pretty quickly to a discussion on ticket availability and ticket prices. I repeated my argument (which you may have read on this blog in the summer) that making 100 percent of tickets available in advance leads to increased ticket sales (the current “advance sold out” warning is confusing and discouraging to patrons, it’s insurance for producers against bad weather, and it encourages patrons to move on from the hot shows that sell out quicker). Fringe staff seemed to already be leaning pretty hard in this direction and looking for confirmation from stakeholders.

It wasn’t unanimous, however. One producer lamented that the process of lining up for 3 hours for a sold out show was an integral part of the Fringe experience and a good opportunity for the spread of word of mouth. I tried to explain how everyone had the same concerns when Edmonton moved that way, but it turned out to work out even better for them, but this producer was unmoved. (Also, very, very few shows in Toronto generate these kinds of lineups anyway).

A volunteer lamented that discount passes can’t be used for advance tickets, and worried that she wouldn’t be able to see the most popular shows because she can’t afford full price tickets, and they’d be sold out before door tickets became available. My gut was to say “too bad” but I think this actually points to a solution: Create a pass that can be used for advance tickets, ie, with a discount code. Under the current box office set-up, you wouldn’t be able to use this at the door, unfortunately. But it would be another way to incentivize purchasing more tickets.

Fringe staff were concerned about the discount that producers suffer from on advance tickets (door tickets are currently $10, advance are $9 + $2 service charge + $2 online order charge). I pointed out that the bigger problem is that advance tickets are more expensive for patrons than door tickets are, so many patrons prefer not to order in advance. As a producer, I want to sell as many advance tickets as possible, even at a discount (because advance tickets are guaranteed money in my pocket while door tickets are a risk for me). (I also pointed out that even after moving to 100% advance availability, very few shows are going to sell more than 50% of tickets.)

I made multiple suggestions to the Fringe to equalize or discount advance tickets, such as leveling a service charge on all tickets including door tickets (while reducing the service charge on advance tickets), but the room was pretty skeptical. Staff were concerned that producers would think the Fringe is gouging them if all our tickets had service charges. I pointed out that given Fringe’s own stats that a large segment of the audience only sees one show (ie, the show they know someone in), then when those people buy an advance ticket, they’re dinged with 45% combined service charges on a $9 ticket. Some volunteers worried that ticket prices would rise too much and discourage sales (more on this below).

Some producers and staff said that patrons should welcome the opportunity to pay more for advance tickets because a) this is how ticket sales work for all theatres and b) because at least they’re guaranteed tickets. On the first point, I say “phooey” – the other theatres are both doing this wrong, and since they’re not working in a festival model where people buy multiple tickets in a single day and are not shopping on a whim, the service charges are less impactful. Regular theatre tickets are also generally much more expensive than Fringe tickets, ie, a $2 charge is much less impactful on a $100 ticket than on a $10 ticket. Also, other Fringe Festivals are moving away from an advance ticket penalty with great success – a point Kelly was quick to shut down because Toronto can’t be easily compared with Calgary because of the scale (I can’t understand why though… the market force should be the same).

Someone finally spoke up about ticket prices, which have been frozen at $10 since at least 2007. Multiple producers pointed out how this has been eaten away by inflation, with the result that artists are ultimately subsidizing their shows through declining incomes. I’m not entirely sold by the ‘subsidy’ argument, but it seemed that producers overwhelmingly agreed that the ticket prices needed to go up. The producer of Puppetmongers (sorry I missed her name) pointed out that inflation has gone up 28% since 2000, but then she multiplied it twice to arrive at a ticket price that ought to be ~$15. She agreed that such a huge rise would be problematic, but the problem was the decade-long freeze. The room seemed to settle around $12-13 tickets (I pointed out that $13 is the current price for a single advance online purchase already). Comparisons were made to other event prices, like movie tickets or other theatre/comedy shows. This was not unanimous. A volunteer/patron said this would discourage her from buying more tickets.

I suggested again that this could be the solution I’d proposed: raise door tickets to $12, keep advance tickets at $10, plus a $2 service charge. (Also, I should have mentioned, drop the $2 per order additional charge, since the festival would sell more advance tickets and thus earn more service charges, which should balance out the lost revenue). I don’t think I made much headway on this point.

Staff seemed unconvinced of the need to raise ticket prices. Some worried about the additional problem of providing more change and doing more math at the box offices. Some are (understandably) much more concerned with simply selling more tickets and worried about the affect of a price hike on that goal. I argued that the additional fee would not be enough to scare off most people, that a huge portion of the audience is people with a direct connection to the performers (for whom the demand should be pretty inelastic). In any event, the number of tickets sold would have to fall 20% to hurt the producers, which I find unlikely.

It was decided to move onto the less controversial topic of participation fees. I opened the discussion by praising the Fringe (yes, I can be positive sometimes) for keeping the festival small despite the obvious artist demand to get bigger. I asked if they had a target ticket sales ratio before they expand the festival. Kelly responded that the festival absolutely is watching the sales ratio. She says that the Toronto Fringe overall sell-through ratio is between 45-50%, which is pretty anemic, all told, and should really put the lie to the fear that 100% advance availability will make the festival inaccessible. She also pointed out – to no surprise to anyone following it – that Kids Fringe is enormously popular, with a sell-through ratio closer to 75%. I believe she said the Festival is considering expanding the number of spots for Kids Fringe for this reason, but I can’t find it in my notes from the night.

Another producer praised the Culturally Diverse Artists Program, which I’ve previously criticized in this blog. He noted that the program is leading to more interesting shows and bringing in new audiences. I’ve come around a bit on the program, but asked staff what they’re doing to reach out to more “culturally diverse” applicants, and if they’ve considered adding a promise of “culturally diverse” (btw, this term seemed to make everyone in the room squirm) content in the shows, given that the first CDAP entry ended up being a show with eight white people in the cast. Staff pointed out that they’re getting better at reaching out, and spoke of working with CSI Regent Park, culturally diverse theatre companies (such as Fu-Gen, Native Earth, etc), and the Neighbourhood Arts Network to spread the word through their networks. They say they’ve noticed a sharp rise in applications from culturally diverse groups in years. They didn’t say anything about a content guideline, but they did say that the evidence of the type of applications they’re receiving makes it less likely that the sort of ‘black producer, white show’ entry will win in the future. They said that show was “an exception to most applications.”

For the marketing/reviews discussion, we seemed to simply lament the fact that the mainstream media is ignoring the festival now and move onto how we can take advantage of more patron feedback to spread word of mouth. I think it’s unfortunate the festival is simply letting the big media ignore it, but I’ll confess I’m not sure what else they can do.

Suggestions ranged from creating a “patron recommendations” forum on the website, or adding like buttons on show pages, while being clear that negative feedback is not encouraged. I added that the festival should not add comment pages on individual show pages, because that can be problematic for producers.

The staff added that next year the festival will be launching an app for mobile devices. There wasn’t much detail given, but if it’s anything like the Edmonton App, it should allow patron schedule building and show reminders, maps, and show browsing. It may also be a sales portal. Some suggested this could be a way for patrons to learn about more shows (ie, if you liked this show, you’ll like this one too!).

It was suggested that official hashtags be created for the Fringe (So there’s no #TOfringe/#FringeTO confusion) and for individual shows.

I also suggested as politely as I can that the program guide needs a makeover. Staff were quite reluctant on this, saying they’ve tried but it always becomes too big a project. They also noted that the program can’t be easily compared with Edmonton/Winnipeg’s (they charge for the program there, which we all agreed was a bad idea for Toronto), or London/Ottawa’s (they’re much smaller fests so fewer are printed and they have less pages). I think even the black & white Toronto Fringe program can be made easier to read at little cost – or even reduced cost. If anyone at Fringe is reading this, I would like to volunteer my services for free to make this document prettier and cheaper to produce.

We didn’t really get to discussing the Fringe Club, other than to say that the Fringe is aware that by 2017 they’ll need a new location for it as it will be subsumed in the new development Mirvish wants to put on the Honest Ed’s/Mirvish Village site. Kelly has asked me to come up with a solution for this (with, I assume, tongue planted in cheek). I immediately suggested Christie Pits (too far) and the UofT quad (the university has said no). We’ll keep looking.

We did talk about the poster sprint, at least insofar as the Fringe is aware that the dynamic of the event has become a problem and has decided not to run it in the future. I asked why poster boards and handbill racks have disappeared from venues. Staff say that the venues themselves have asked to get rid of them – I find that hard to believe and quite problematic. The venues ought to be working with the festival to help promote the events they’re hosting. At the very least, each venue should have a prominent spot to advertise the shows in the venue. I also made a suggestion that the festival provide a space in the Fringe club where each show can post a single poster, perhaps arranged by venue, in the manner that Edmonton does. Staff seemed pretty receptive to this point. There was also talk of creating projected posters.

In general, staff say they’re trying to move the festival to be as green/paper free as possible. They’re trying to discourage companies from printing too many posters and handbills. I disagree with this goal. (Staff confirmed that they have no plan to eliminate print programs, though).

Other interesting facts that came up were that Fringe’s demographic is overwhelmingly 18-34, which is completely opposite to all other companies. I pointed out that this is largely because unlike those other companies, we put on shows young people want to see (including comedy) and (more importantly) Fringe shows are often created by/starring people in that demo who bring their friends.

Another astonishing figure is that more than 80% of attendance at the festival is considered “local.” In this case, Kelly says local is defined as “Trinity—Spadina.” That is astounding. Trinity—Spadina is the area south of about Dupont between Ossington and University, population about 130,000. Only 15% of the audience comes from up to an hour’s drive away.  That to me speaks to both a fantastic local connection and an astounding failure to reach out to the other 6 million people in the GTA. Fringe has attempted wider outreach and received a grant to expand advertising last year – you may have noticed the TTC ads. Sales were well ahead of projections last year until the flash flood which led to the first sales downturn in several years.  

We spoke briefly about Best of Fringe at the Toronto Centre for the Arts in North York – that fest typically attracts its audience from North York and York region. There was talk of reviving Best of Fringe downtown – it requires a producer to choose to organise it. I pointed out that if Fringe were ever to expand, a solid “Fringe East” could be built around Alumnae Theatre, Berkeley Theatre, and the various spaces in the Distillery.

Finally, discussion ended with talk about The 100, Fringe’s youth outreach group. Staff said they were looking to improve the experience by reducing the number of participants so they can devote more time to the individuals involved.

Overall, I was pretty happy with this town hall, and hope Fringe continues this tradition. It looks like the festival is in for a good year in 2014.

Why Doesn’t Crowdfunding Work for Toronto Theatre?

With Toronto Fringe just recently wrapped up and SummerWorks just around the corner, it seems like I’ve been deluged with small theatre project fundraising campaigns, most employing the online IndieGogo/Kickstarter model that has become so popular in the last few years.

But a review of Toronto Indiegogo campaigns shows that most theatre campaigns are not as successful as one might suspect. A recent Torontoist article asked the question Why Isn’t Crowdfunding Working for Toronto’s Food Industry? – so why not ask the same question about out theatre scene?

Is this healthy for the Toronto Theatre community, or for theatre in general? Theatre has always depended on patrons, but are our appeals becoming too ubiquitous, desperate, or downright obnoxious? What implications lurk for artists when these appeals become so common?

The Backlash Has Begun

Much has been written about the backlash against Kickstarter – beyond BlogTO’s article linked above. The Kickstarter backlash gained steam with the successful Veronica Mars campaign – which raised $5 million so upstart film company Warner Brothers could make a movie about a little-known TV show that aired for three seasons. And it was kicked in high-gear when Zach Braff announced his own campaign to raise $2 million to shoot a “tonal sequel” to his successful directorial debut. Many pundits asked, why are rich people with access to their own capital and investors begging the fans to finance a for-profit enterprise that they’ll then have no stake in?

And then there’s the ridicule: The Onion has Brendan Fraser applying for one Kickstarter. And Jon Lajoie created this:

But it’s not just successful Hollywood artists who are feeling the sting of the crowdfunding backlash. In fact, those artists are usually successful. As many pixels have been spent criticizing indie musicians who are crowd-funding for all sorts of projects, including tour support and recording albums.

Has the crowdfunding backlash hit the Toronto theatre scene?

Does crowdfunding exhaust the audience?

Fundraising itself is not going to disappear from the theatre world. It is, unfortunately, a reality that much theatrical production is not directly sustainable from the box office – particularly if one wants to make tickets available at competitive prices, or accessible to the less well-heeled. Moreover, even when applying for government/private sector grants, it’s often a requirement that the producer demonstrate that it has fundraised a certain percentage of the budget.

As a producer, I’ve always been skeptical about throwing fundraising events. They command a lot of time and resources to do well, and are often as financially risky as creating the show itself. Moreover, I suspect they contribute to an audience fatigue as we ask our fans and supporters to come out and spend time and money at another one of our events.

Kickstarter mitigates some of this by taking the risk of losses out of the fundraising equation (although it does cost 9% of your total raised in commissions and fees). They’re also much simpler to set up and launch than a major event (although the most successful campaigns typically have a fair amount of thought and work put into their design, video components, and social media advertizing). But it still contributes to the fatigue of asking your fans and supporters for more money. This is amplified when you notice that within the small indie theatre fan community, the same people are being hit up multiple times for lots of different campaigns.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I’ve run two “Chip In” campaigns for my shows in the past. The first was to help my company travel to Ireland, where we’d been invited to perform at a festival where it was known that we wouldn’t earn enough money to cover our expenses. The second was a more modest campaign to help finance some expensive elements of a show I was putting on at the Toronto Fringe. While they didn’t meet their full goals, they did help finance those shows and I’m very grateful for the contributions. But my experience also showed me some important limitations of this model, particularly on the repeat attempt.

Are we making a compelling case for donations?

I think one of the problems with the ubiquity of these crowdfunding campaigns is that it throws into stark relief those artists who simply don’t make a compelling case for donations. In a perfect world, I’d hope that audiences simply decide to give to other projects, but I suspect that instead a large number of them walk away with a negative impression of fundraising campaigns and artists in general.

I’m probably going to ruffle some feathers by discussing specific campaigns in this section, but I think the illustration is necessary. Please understand, I fully implicate myself with my company’s previous campaigns as well, but I think pointing to a wider trend is important.

Consider the case of Ecce Homo Theatre. A year later, I still can’t understand the logic of their campaign to raise $6000 for its production of Of A Monstrous Child: A Gaga Musical as part of Buddies’ 2012-13 season. In the campaign, they note that the company has already secured $100,000 in government grants, but they just needed a little bit more to make the show. I have no idea what the financial arrangement was with Buddies in Bad Times Theatre for their co-pro/presentation, but I imagine that the company was also given its performance/rehearsal space, and some cut (or all?) of the ticket sales, which wouldn’t have been insignificant – Ecce Homo claims the run was sold out.

Hitting up fans for a little bit more cash when you’re also flaunting how successful you’ve been at getting the kind of support most artists only dream of… well, it certainly rubbed me the wrong way. I can only imagine what the general audience thought. Moreover, it was clear that this project was going ahead whether Ecce Homo raised the money or not, so this looked a bit like gravy on the budget. Perhaps that explains why the company – which has more than a few fans – was only able to raise $1875 of its goal. (Not that that’s anything to sneeze at! Again, many artists would be grateful to raise that much on Indiegogo campaign. Heck, I’ve produced shows – including my first multicity tour – on less than $1875!)

Or maybe I’m just ignorant. Richard Ouzounian referred to Ecce Homo’s technical budget as “a shoestring” in his review of the show. It just seems that if you’re going to say $100,000+ isn’t enough to produce your show, you should probably try to justify that to the people you’re asking from. I imagine most people would think $100,000 is already a lot of money.

During Pride, whenever you visited Buddiesinbadtimes.com, you were confronted with this pop-up campaign ask:

buddiescharity

The campaign is an implicit ask for $50,000 for… well, it’s not at all clear what they need $50,000 for. We’re asked to “imagine” what Buddies could do with $50,000. But I haven’t the foggiest idea what they would do with it. They could launch an after-school program for queer youth, it could be for some unspecified capital project, or they could give Artistic Director Brendan Healy a $50,000 raise so that he’s making almost half what Matthew Jocelyn makes at CanStage.

For the record, I know Buddies does many, many great things, that it operates on a miniscule budget relative to what it does, and has many oustanding capital needs. But in particular, as this campaign is directed at people who are not really familiar with Buddies – those who really only go for the Pride events – wouldn’t it have been smart to suggest what the money is needed for? Instead, it simply says that your gift makes you “part of something special” [what?] and “make[s] a statement” [to whom?].

Moreover, this ask popped up just when a visitor is going to buddiesinbadtimes.com – presumably with the intention of browsing Pride events and purchasing tickets. Why would you put your ask for money in the way of someone who is already trying to give you money for the main service you’re providing? (A better place to put the ask might have been after the tickets have been selected but before the transaction is completed – ie, when my wallet’s already out).

Kickstarter on the Fringe Part 1: Our asks are too big

Scoping out the Indiegogo page for Canada, I found at least fifteen groups raising money for Toronto Fringe Festival and SummerWorks shows. Most are asking for between $1000-2000. Not all give a breakdown of what expenses they’re hoping to cover, but most say they need to cover rehearsal spaces, sets and costumes, and advertising. Some appeals directly ask fans to cover all of the advance costs so that the companies don’t put anything at risk and can keep all the ticket revenue to divide among themselves.

But there are a few bizarre campaigns in the mix as well. The new play contest winner, The Oak Room, sought $1500 to cover “set and costumes, publicity, rehearsal space, and props.” It baffles me that the group needs this money considering that the new play contest winners tend to sell out their entire Fringe runs well in advance (which The Oak Room did end up doing – and at $10/ticket, 200 seats and 8 shows, that’s a very comfortably Fringe budget). It’s also a pretty sure bet for a Best of Fringe remount if history’s a good indicator. Ticket sales alone should more than cover the raw costs of producing the show, with more than enough for salaries or honorariums. This is on top of the fact that the company got a free spot in the festival, $1500 toward the production, free ad space in the program and free publicity services for winning the contest. That’s a hefty advantage over most Fringe companies and it’s unclear to me based on this campaign why more was needed (rather than, say, wanted).

(Still, they almost doubled their campaign ask with total donations at $2750, so good on them.)

LemonTree Theatre (a company that does some fine work, and that I’ve worked for in the past) sought a whopping $6000 that they said is to cover pre-production costs for their new dance piece MSM, including set construction and rehearsal space. This campaign is a little bizarre to me – lemonTree runs its own studio space, so rehearsal space shouldn’t be an issue (ok, foregone revenue, but still, isn’t this the purpose for you having a studio space?). $6000 was the total production budget of my last independent show, including theatre rental. I honestly cannot imagine how you’d spend that much money on a Toronto Fringe show. Perhaps there is a perfectly decent explanation for it, but the only explanation is that the production costs include “Fringe Festival Fee, Set Construction, Hazer Rental, Rehearsal Space, Marketing Costs.” If there was a particularly elaborate set and costume build, they’re not giving me any clue as to what it is.

LemonTree ultimately raised $1645 – well below their target, but still a hefty amount of money. Heck, I’d be tap-dancing with glee if I raised that much to put on a non-touring Fringe show (it’s more than either of my previous campaigns raised actually). But if $6000 was what the company needed, would a more compelling campaign have come closer to that goal?

Or are our asks too small?

There’s a great episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where the guys need $800 right away and Dee scolds them, saying “how is it three men in their mid-30s don’t have $800 between them?” It’s a knock on a standard sitcom trope but it’s a line I kept thinking of everytime I saw a campaign for $1000 for a Fringe show.

At the Fringe, the stakes are incredibly low. Productions can usually be put together for very little money. The upfront costs are modest. Granted, so are the revenues, but that’s why a rational artist-entrepreneur seeks to reduce expenses, looks at alternative revenue streams (touring), or considers the Fringe an investment in either future production or in building an artistic reputation.

Ultimately, $1000 won’t turn an amateur show into a professional one – certainly not under the Fringe’s conditions. And if it’s an investment in your career development, then why should someone else pay for it? Are we soon going to soon see actors crowd-funding for their headshots, Casting Workbook memberships, and acting classes?

If all you need is $1000 to put on your show, why can’t a company of a few professionals or semi-professionals just put it in themselves? If you’re just looking to supplement your income from a show you’re going to do anyway, well then, this isn’t really fundraising. It’s a tip jar.

There’s nothing wrong with a tip jar. But I’d be much more likely to throw a few bucks at someone honestly presenting me with a tip jar option after I’ve seen a great show than into a “fundraiser” for a show that I may or may not enjoy, and that will go on with or without my help.

Will the show go on anyway?

Perhaps I’ve simply inherited a sour tack on donations from my father, the investment banker, who used to ridicule my early attempts at fundraising. “Why should I give you money? What am I getting out of it? Oh, it’s just a donation? Will it cure cancer? Will it feed the homeless? Or am I just paying your rent?”

(TRUE FACT DIGRESSION: Ten Foot Pole Theatre has raised more money for charities than we have raised for our own productions.)

I’ve had friends offer to “invest” in my shows. I’ve always turned them down because I know the odds of a positive return on investment are very small and I didn’t want that to cause bad blood between friends. Besides, at the scale I produce theatre, it never really made sense to me to seek serious capital.

One of the crucial components that’s missing with all of these cases is that these shows wouldn’t happen without the support of the requested donations. Part of what was great about Kickstarter and Indiegogo was that a successful campaign doubled as great marketing and great market research – if you could raise $100,000 to make your documentary from thousands of people who gave $10 or more each, then you could plausibly demonstrate that there was a market of people who wanted to have your finished product. If you couldn’t raise it, you moved onto your next idea (and everyone got their money back! A crucial component that removes the risk from the donor!). Consequently, the most successful campaigns really worked for the donations, by presenting compelling cases for why *this* project needed to be made, and why *this much money* was needed.

If you’re only looking for ten people to help you raise $1000, well, why do you need a big public campaign? If your project is going ahead without my donation, why should I give you any money, even if I am interested in the show?

Over on the other side of the country, Electric Company put on a campaign to raise $100,000 for its remount of the hit show All The Way Home via Indiegogo – but it’s actually an inverse of the fundraising model. Essentially, they said that they can only mount the production if they sell it out six months in advance, and they were selling tickets through Indiegogo. If they didn’t sell the ~1900 tickets by July 1, they won’t get any of the money, and presumably the show won’t happen. That seems to me a very transparent campaign. (It also helps that they clearly explain why the show costs $100,000 to mount. Heck, it seems a comparative bargain compared to OAMC!)

It’s not entirely clear what happened with the campaign. The Indiegogo campaign currently indicates that only $8920 was raised. I could’ve sworn I read it reached its goal somewhere, and indeed a (now deleted, but Google cached) blog post on the company’s web site from July 8 says that the show is definitely going ahead. Eleven days later, the company posted the news that the show wasn’t going forward because of the loss of its BC Gaming Grant. Still, I think this was a smart idea for a fundraising drive.

Here in Toronto, Theatre Brouhaha used the same model to gauge whether it was worth putting up an extra night of its hit Fringe show We Are The Bombthe campaign worked and the bonus show went ahead. Brouhaha actually raised more than double its campaign ask.

For comparison’s sake, earlier this year when Brouhaha tried to raise $2000 toward its production of Rock, it came up short (although it still raised slightly more dollars than the We Are The Bomb campaign). The Rock campaign offered meagre benefits and didn’t really explain at all what the money was for — just that they’re putting on a show and would like money please. Still, given that WATB raised almost the same amount of money in a matter of days points to the clear advantage of its fundraising model.

An aspect of both the We Are The Bomb/All The Way Home campaigns that can’t be overlooked is that they’re not really asking for donations at all. They’re selling a product at what they’ve determined is their floor price. They’re not asking you to take any more of a risk than you would be by purchasing a ticket in any other manner. And perhaps, by making your enjoyment of the show contingent on them selling a certain number of these tickets, they’ll get you to convince your friends to buy tickets as well. It’s actually a very capitalist, and very shrewd, marketing campaign.

The way forward?

So, I’ve poured out a bunch of pixels about what I think is wrong with how some companies are crowdsourcing. I don’t think the Electric Company/Brouhaha model is perfect or appropriate for all situations. But I think some lessons from the case studies above point to a broad theory of crowdsourcing:

If you want to ask people for their money for your art project, you have to make a very compelling case for it.

Perhaps your show tells a really unique story – share a bit of that with us. Perhaps your show will have astounding special effects – maybe you can show us some preliminary drawings. That’ll get me interested.

Now why do you need my cash to make it happen? For the small producer this can be a daunting question – and the answer probably shouldn’t be “because I’m a very special artist and I deserve it” or even “so I can pay my rent while I take a month off work to create my passion project.” Will the show happen without your donation – why not, or how will it be different without it?

Finally, what guarantee will I have that my money will be well spent and deliver the experience you’ve told me it will achieve? When you’ve made a case for $6000 so you can buy Object X that will be in your show, but you only raise $1200, what are you going to do with that $1200? Do you have some other revenue source that can cover the remainder – if so, why can’t it cover the full cost? This series of questions is why campaigns that have a minimum goal may feel more convincing.

I don’t think this long column is the final word on crowdsourcing in theatre. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Winnipeg Fringe Responds to My Open Letter — Sort Of

I’m quoted in a Winnipeg Free Press article previewing this year’s Winnipeg Fringe that saw print the other day.

Kevin Prokosh reports that the Fringe has shrunk by a couple of shows this year, partially in response to the open letter I sent the Winnipeg and Edmonton Fringe signed by about a dozen other artists. As I said back then, the rapid expansion at many Fringe Festivals over the last couple of years has come at the expense of artists, who are seeing audiences spread more thinly across all the additional shows.

While I’m happy that the Fringe has responded, I do wish the fests had responded to the letter last year. I probably wouldn’t have chosen to tour this year anyway, but I’m glad to know it’s an option again in the future.

So, happy Winnipeg Fringe, all. And if you’re reading this in Winnipeg, please check out Jeff Leard’s show “The Show Must Go On” — it’s a hilarious solo show about the year Jeff spent touring in a children’s theatre company. It’s been picking up awards in every city it’s been in — most recently NOW picked Jeff’s as one of the festival’s Outstanding Performances — and heck, I’m even credited as the dramaturge.

Finessing the Fringe — Ticketing

So the Fringe is well underway, and according to several sources, opening weekend was beating all records for sales despite some rather lousy weather. It remains to be seen if #StormTO is going to seriously impact sales through the rest of the week, but let’s hope for everyone that it doesn’t. In the meantime, the inclement weather is a good lead-in for a discussion about something that’s always bothered me about the Toronto Fringe: the ticket sales mechanisms and pricing.

You can currently buy tickets three ways: cash at the door, online, and by phone. Toronto Fringe was rather late at building up an online ticketing capacity, and when it did, it seems to have rushed the delivery and not developed it over the years since it was introduced. This is unfortunate, because increasingly, people are moving to online and credit purchases. In fact, it’s been the experience of several festivals that introducing online sales led to a great increase in overall sales.

When you want to make an online purchase, you go the Fringetoronto.com web site, where you’re directed to a single page that lists every single performance happening during the entire festival and asks you to select all the tickets you want. This is not ideal for several reasons:

  • It forces patrons to scroll through the entire series of plays before finding the show they want
  • The above makes it even more difficult to use on a mobile device
  • The page itself is graphically ugly; lime green background, no pictures
  • Show producers can’t give fans a direct link to ticket purchases for their own shows
  • It doesn’t update in real time, striking off performances as they pass

One other facet of the advance purchase system is that only 50% of the tickets are available for advance purchase. The original reason behind this was to encourage people who couldn’t get advance tickets to come down to the Fringe to buy them in person – under the belief that those who were disappointed when the show sold out would decide to see something else since they’d already come down to the festival.

All of these facets of the current design make it a little more difficult for a patron to negotiate a ticket purchase online. But for me, the single biggest problem with the site is a long-standing practice of charging service fees that make advance tickets more expensive than door tickets.

Door tickets are generally an artist-set maximum of $10; Advance tickets are technically $9, but the Fringe adds a service fee of $2 per ticket – hidden from patrons – for a total of $11. In addition, there’s a per-order fee of $2, that can bring the cost of a single ticket to $13 – that’s a 30% premium vs. door tickets. (From the artist perspective, the Fringe charges 22-44% on top of the ticket price for an advance ticket).

Fringeticket

There are a couple of reasons for this – the Fringe has to cover its credit card charges and pay for the advance ticketing system somehow (although why the ticketing system comes off of ticket sales instead of other revenues, I don’t understand). In addition, there’s an old rule set by the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals requires there to be a no-fee ticket purchase option, in order to prevent festivals from having a financial interest in ticket sales. While this is a noble goal (because it avoids the perception that the Fringe programs the festival to maximize sales), it’s one that almost every other festival has done away with in one form or another. Besides, beyond direct revenue, everyone already knows the Fringe has other, indirect motivations to increase ticket sales anyway (to maximize prestige, sponsors, grant revenue).

As a producer, I can’t think of any good reason why I’d want advance tickets to be more expensive than door tickets. If anything, I want them cheaper, to encourage early bookings and full houses. Tying it back to the #StormTO theme, another reason is so that a prospective patron doesn’t change his/her mind about seeing the show just because it’s started raining out, or because they’re just not in the mood that day – they’ve already spent the money, so they’ll just suck it up and go. Or they’ll stay home, but hey, we’ve already got their cash. This is one of the reasons why several big theatres run discount offers online. So, a financial penalty for early bookings is not a good strategy.

One of the nice things about having dozens of Fringes around North America, is they all experiment with solutions to these problems (this is one of the reasons why federalism is so great!). The lessons aren’t always transferable, but sometimes they find things that really ought to be shared. The upstart Calgary Fringe – only seven years old and in the shadow of the big daddy in Edmonton – has found some great strategies to increase and simplify ticket sales in its young life.

Calgary’s ED, Michele Gallant, correctly rationed that the key was making online sales the same price as door sales, so as not to discourage early purchases. The way it works is that the Fringe estimated what the total cost of credit card charges would be, then divided it among their estimate for the total ticket sales – so the advance purchase costs were not covered by their own fees, but the difference was recovered by charging fees on cash purchases as well. So, in practice, Calgary’s top ticket price is $13.50, there’s a universal $1.50 service charge, meaning that advance and door tickets are both $15. Edmonton now does the same thing with its tickets.

Edmonton was the first (as far as I know) to experiment with making 100% of tickets available in advance. They correctly reasoned that people who were waiting 2-3 hours in line to purchase tickets for “hot” shows (yes, this used to happen in Edmonton) were not spending those 2-3 hours watching other shows. By selling 100% of tickets in advance, patrons could better plan their show viewing schedules, and pick alternatives for shows that had sold out. In fact, the experiment led to a massive increase in ticket sales – and with few exceptions, artists found the system to be hugely helpful in moving their own tickets and planning their marketing strategies.

(Edmonton also has a crazy awesome ticketing system that allows artists to track their own ticket sales through the festival in real time, so we know if a show is selling well or needs more of a push).

Could these changes work in Toronto? I think so. And I would pair it with a slight rise in total door ticket prices, which is long overdue given that the door price has been $10 at least since my first Toronto Fringe in 2008. Ultimately, I’d make door and advance tickets $11 or $12, ditch the $2-per-order charge, with a $1-1.50 charge on all tickets (the remainder going to artists). After all, we already know lots of people are willing to pay $11-13/ticket for the convenience even when there’s a disincentive to do so – how many more would do so when the disincentive disappears?

I also think it would be especially wise to make 100% of tickets available in advance in Toronto’s context. Toronto is unlike Edmonton or Winnipeg in that its venues are typically quite far apart. When I arrive to a hot show at St. Vlad’s that’s sold out, I can’t very quickly get to the Factory to see my second choice show. Moreover, despite the new success of the Fringe Club at Honest Ed’s, there still isn’t a real daytime hub for the festival were disappointed patrons will gather and quickly move on to the next show.

Moreover, it’s well known how certain shows in Toronto sell out very fast – the new play contest winner, whatever is the NOW cover story, whatever shows get 5 N’s, shows in the tiny venues. Clearing these away from the sales board quicker might make room for other shows to start generating buzz (people might move on to the 4-N and 3-N shows more quickly, or check out more random things). It seems like a win-win for everyone.

In any event, it’s something that I think would be worth experimenting with and assessing the results after a single year. I’d really like to see the 2014 Toronto Fringe revamp its sales web site – perhaps taking a look at some of the designs other Fringes have used.

It would also be great if the Toronto Fringe could create a mobile app like Calgary and Edmonton have done (last year they shared an app, this year it appears Edmonton has gone it alone). Edmonton’s app lets you browse the program, plan a schedule, purchase your tickets, sends you show reminders, warns you of conflicts. It’s everything you’d want in an app, really.

Here’s hoping next year’s festival can continue to build on the success of the last 25 years.