AIDS Action Now’s new campaign needs a second thought

The other night I checked out AIDS Action Now’s launch event for their new campaign against HIV criminalization, Think Twice. The campaign is basically a web site with 40 one-minute videos in which some people quickly try to convince a viewer that if they have sex with someone who does not disclose that they have HIV, they should not press charges against that person. Unfortunately, the project comes across as another example of otherwise well-meaning progressive activists who refuse to engage with the issues that motivate people who disagree with them.

(There was a talk back at the launch, but I had to sneak out of the event early to make it to another event.)

I haven’t watched all of the videos – I don’t expect the casual viewer will, and there’s no narrative guide for how someone is supposed to choose one or an order of videos to watch. I’ve seen more than half of them and the messaging is largely similar. Many of the participants in the videos are activists of various sorts (legal, health care, political, HIV-specific, queer), or people who are living with HIV. Of the videos that I’ve seen, the overwhelming themes are:

  1. Going to the police won’t prevent you from getting HIV/cure your HIV, so it’s not worth it (you should probably go to a doctor instead).
  2. Going to the police won’t keep anyone safer, so don’t do it.
  3. You can’t trust the police/the police are not your friends/the legal and social consequences of going to the police will be worse for you than whatever you’re going through now.
  4. If you’re upset it’s probably because you chose to have unsafe sex, therefore your situation is your own fault.
  5. It is unreasonable to expect that an HIV-positive person would disclose their sero-status before sex because that puts them at (social) risk and kills the mood, and the right of HIV-positive people to have worry-free sex trumps your right to give informed consent (or, I guess, worry-free sex).

I am trying very hard right now to imagine a situation wherein any of these lines of thinking would be convincing to a person who has just found out that his partner has lied to him (by omission or otherwise) about his sero-status and wants to file a police complaint, and I’m sorry, I just can’t.

One of the reasons I was intrigued by this campaign is because for the past several years I’ve been working on a play that deals with exactly this issue. As I write it, I’ve tried very hard to understand both sides of the question. I’ve spoken to HIV-positive people and HIV-negative people about their perceptions of the disease and sexual ethics around it. I’ve been the guy who’s brought up the “what would you do?” question at parties (I’m really fun, honest). That, and I follow a lot of the court cases that end up in the media about this.

I’ve never once encountered someone who’s suggested that going to the police would retroactively stop them from getting HIV, or who thought going to the police precluded going to a doctor. Most gave me the impression they’d be freaking out and do both in quick succession.

Going to the police isn’t just about restitution, it also serves a few other roles for the complainant:

  • vengeance/justice for a harm done by this person
  • protecting others from the harm that the accused may do to them by removing him from society
  • deterring still others from engaging in the harmful behaviour of the accused.

If you want to convince people not to pursue a police complaint regarding nondisclosure, I think you have to engage these desires, rather than the straw man argument that doing so will just make a complainant feel better.

To their credit, Michael Erickson and Chy Ryan Spain have contributed videos that get slightly more nuanced on the messaging, but largely because their videos stick to the extremes of honest HIV-positive people and malicious HIV-negative people who are using the courts to pursue personal vendettas. Those who would go to the police believe doing so will improve public safety by thwarting a Typhoid Mary’s ability to willfully and capriciously expose others to a disease (by sending him to jail), and by discouraging others who know they are HIV-positive from exposing others without disclosure. They are typically conscious about not wanting to quarantine all HIV-positive people, only the ones who are refusing to play an active part in protecting others.

There is a good argument that engaging the criminal justice system doesn’t keep people safer, and it is that if people know that HIV-positive people can be sent to jail for nondisclosure, then it’s both a massive disincentive to ever get tested for HIV (because once you know, you must disclose to partners or face jail, whereas if you don’t know, you can plead ignorance), and a perverse incentive for those who believe themselves to be negative to engage in risky behaviour because they can supposedly assume that anyone who’s positive would proactively disclose their status (I have never met anyone who actually thinks this, by the way).

But even this is unlikely to convince someone who’s thinking about going to the police. A complainant, after all, has a personal stake in the wider social drama being discussed, and he’s unlikely to think that in this particular case the accused’s nondisclosure kept him any safer.

The idea that we can’t or shouldn’t trust the police is one of the more worrying lines of discussion in this campaign. To be clear, yes, I am aware of the LGBTQ community’s long and difficult relationship with the police. But on the other hand, doesn’t this line of thinking run contrary to the last 25 years’ worth of outreach and bridge building? Haven’t we spent decades urging the community to report homophobic violence, period? To go to the police when involved in domestic violence? And hasn’t the sustained work generated some positive results? On what grounds do we believe that the police would treat a complainant poorly? That certainly doesn’t seem to be the case in the system today.

To this we add a somewhat shocking testimonial from my friend (and former boss) Marcus McCann, who points out that despite publication bans on your identity, the LGBT community is small enough that you will likely be “outed” as the complainant if you go to the police. The implication appears to be that the personal consequences of disclosure will include a backlash against your complaint, or your outing as someone who participates in unsafe sex, or outing any other details of your sex life during the course of a trial. And, the implication seems to go, you’ll have brought this further harm upon yourself.

But don’t forget that even the initial “harm” is your fault, too! After all you chose to wear that short skirt not to wear a condom. Well, this actually is tactic I can see working on someone who’s just found out he’s been exposed to HIV. After all, it’s worked on female rape victims for centuries. But I don’t think it’s very savoury, and I think this line of reasoning is likely to turn off most people who aren’t yet in the position of finding themselves on the wrong end of a nondisclosure encounter.

In fact, all of the arguments discussed above read like “Mirror, Mirror” versions of the messaging that’s been put out to standard, heterosexual sexual assault victims for the last several decades. “No point going to the police; that won’t un-rape you, so just move on,” or “Details of your personal life will come out if you complain about your rapist/abusive boyfriend,” or “Putting rapists behind bars will only encourage women to engage in risky behaviours like getting drunk at parties or jogging alone at night.” I hate to be glib, but the comparison to sexual assault is already there – it’s the charge for nondisclosure. For someone who believes himself to be a victim of sexual assault, these are unlikely to be comforting lines of reasoning.

Kirk_and_Spock_(mirror)Not only that, but isn’t it fucking bizarre to see AIDS activists essentially tell people that if they get HIV, it’s their own damn fault? How bizarre is it that the logical corollary of this line of reasoning is that only HIV-negative people are responsible for having safe sex, and HIV-positive people have no responsibility to have safe sex? That HIV-negative people must be concerned about the welfare of their HIV-positive sex partners, but that no such reciprocal obligation exists?

The campaign even includes a completely bananas video where within thirty seconds Sky Gilbert goes from saying the problem with criminalization is that people won’t get tested, to actually telling people not to go to the doctor and get tested, which is so incredibly irresponsible I can only hope this is meant to be some kind of ironic performance piece:

One of the arguments I find hardest to accept – and I know that many who find themselves on the other side of the criminalization debate feel similarly – is the idea that it’s unreasonable to demand that HIV-positive people disclose their sero-status to a sex partner. True, the LGBTQ movement has to a large extent been focused on the right to engage in consensual sex however we want to have sex. But, much of the moral argument around decriminalization of gay sex was structured around the fact that it didn’t actually harm anyone. HIV non-disclosure is not a clear parallel, because one partner is exposed to harm. Moreover, there is the issue of informed consent – when the partners have asymmetrical knowledge of their sero-statuses, or where one partner actively lies about his sero-status, the HIV-negative partner can hardly be accused of having given informed consent to the sex act. (These days, we don’t even accept ‘no means no’ for straight women; the standard is generally active consent at every stage of a sexual encounter.)

But in his video, Tim McCaskell says lying about one’s sero-status is akin to lying about how much money you make or whether or not you love your partner. “I know it can feel shitty when somebody you really like doesn’t tell you something that you think is important,” he says. “But if they didn’t tell you they were married, or had a boyfriend, or lied about their age, or didn’t really love you, you might be pissed off, but you wouldn’t go to the police.”

Um, no. But when someone lies to you about being married, it’s not likely to be detrimental to your health. How on earth are these situations comparable? In these situations, it isn’t just the betrayal that makes you feel “shitty,” it’s the actual harm, or risk of harm, to which you were not able to give your informed consent. (McCaskell’s defence of liars goes a little further than most people I know who’d defend a non-discloser, but that seems to be the main view of the group.)

I won’t even get into how this argument likely wouldn’t fly in the straight world, where spur-of-the-moment sex with strangers is much, much less common, and where both partners have always had to deal with the lifelong consequences of their sexual actions (because babies).

I’ve written before about how it seems like the progressive movement is losing because it’s refusing to listen to those on the other side, and I think this is an example of this outside the world of electoral politics. These are a bunch of arguments that people who already believe in the cause would subscribe to and pat each other on the back for repeating, but anyone even a little skeptical will ignore or tear apart in a few minutes. To be clear, I don’t at all doubt the sincerity of the people behind the videos, and I believe there are some very valid arguments against using the weight of the criminal justice system to regulate these sexual encounters in every situation.

What I think is a missed opportunity is that the project doesn’t actually give its audience an alternative solution to the problem. Only a few mention the importance of having safe sex every time if they want to stay safe, and testing regularly so that you know your sero-status and can get on treatment early. I haven’t come across a video that suggests having an open discussion with your partner about HIV before sex – possibly because the group is also defending lying about one’s sero-status, which defeats this as a protection strategy. Few are talking about actually reducing the stigma around HIV so that people would feel more comfortable disclosing in the first place.

I’m sure AIDS Action Now is planning to push this campaign further. I hope in phase two, they think twice about the message they’re sending and the audience who’ll hear it.

Advertisements

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.

 

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.

To all film students casting actors on Mandy.com

In an effort to beef up my film demo reel, I’ve been submitting to lots of film projects casting on Mandy.com, a web site where indie filmmakers post casting breakdowns and crew opportunities. A lot of student filmmakers use the site to cast their film projects. While a lot of student film is bad, a good project can be a great showcase of your abilities.

Since indie creators rarely hire actual casting directors, they often write their own casting breakdowns, and they’re often poorly written. Spelling mistakes, unclear project description, unclear character breakdown. I’ve been collecting some of my favourite bad casting calls on Twitter with the hashtag #MandyAuditions. Like:

“Must be nondescript ethnicity. Preferably South Asian or Mediterranean.” (uh, what?)

“There may not be pay, but there are food scenes included, I will cover expenses.” (I’d bloody hope you’re not expecting me to pay for your props!)

Sometimes the stupidity doesn’t come up until you get the confirmation e-mail from the director offering you an audition:

“Your audition’s tomorrow. BTW, we forget to mention in the casting notice that this is a musical. Bring a song.” (Wait, why would you not mention in the casting breakdown that you’re looking for musical performers?)

Normally, when this happens, I just ignore the offer and move on. But yesterday, I got an e-mail from a director that needed a response.

Hello, 

thank you for applying, just a heads up, the role has no lines, so all we need is a head shot, or some kind of picture with you in a tank top. We’re going for more sex appeal than acting performance for this character.
 
76b85b90
PS. please bring a head shot.
That was the entirety of the e-mail. I haven’t just deleted the details so as not to embarrass the director. There was no project name, no director. But don’t worry, there was a follow up a minute later with the date and location, but still no project name. It turned out that this was a Centennial College production — had this been mentioned in the breakdown, I wouldn’t have bothered because past experience has shown me that Centennial College’s film program is essentially a high-school level class with students that lack basic competences in anything involving film, and instructors that are more or less absent from the process (this could be the subject of a much longer story, but it involves a director telling me to run around a park in East York waving a gun around with no permit or police presence). A minute after that came a second followup asking me to contact her if I had any concerns.
Did I have concerns? You bet I did. I also had another writing project I was working on, so I was eager for the distraction. This is what I sent her back:

Sorry, but I won’t be coming to your audition. I’ve had some bad experiences with Centennial Films, and no longer work with students from there. But good luck with your production.
 
So that this isn’t completely fruitless, please accept the following advice in the spirit of good will in which it’s given:
 
– In future, when responding to a casting submission, make it clear what project you’re working on. Actors might submit to 5-10 productions daily on Mandy.com and might not remember what project you’re offering an audition to. I can’t find your project there right now.
 
– It’s also best to offer as many salient details as you can on your casting call, if only to get the best submissions. Had I known this was a silent role with no lines, and that it was at Centennial, I probably wouldn’t have wasted both our time with my submission. The only reason actors do student films is to get decent material to throw on a reel. A silent role doesn’t help me with that, but you may have gotten the aspiring model you were looking for, since that plays to their strengths and needs.
 
– Telling an actor that, “We’re going for more sex appeal than acting performance for this character,” is actually kind of rude. “None of your skills and training matter as long as you can hold up this tank top!” If you want a model, say that on your casting call, and you’ll get those submissions. Moreover, it makes you sound like you don’t care about your own production, since you don’t care about performance (yes, I know film schools generally suck at teaching how to get good performances from actors — I went to film school too — so take this as a teachable moment). And if you don’t care about the quality of the finished product, then you’re leading me to believe that the finished film isn’t going to be good enough to want to put on a reel. Since the finished video is my only payment for doing a student film, why would I work for someone who doesn’t want to make a good one?
 
I assume you want the people coming in to audition for you to be excited about working with you. Trust me, take these steps in the future and you’ll get much higher quality submissions.
 
Cheers,
Rob

The director eventually sent an apology and clarified that the project is not affiliated with Centennial, only doing its casting there (why, because Pape and Mortimer is so convenient?).

Casting breakdowns aren’t difficult to write, especially if you’ve got a decent product. Actors want to work on great films. They want every casting breakdown they read to be an exciting project that would be perfect for them. You’re shooting fish in a barrel. So just tell actors what’s great about your project and what’s great about each role.

Tell actors what exactly you’re looking for in each role — even if you’re not entirely sure! The character’s age, gender, and race may not be salient. But there’s got to be something else important when you see the character. Maybe they’re the sensitive type. Or the artsy snarker. Or they need to be able to communicate to the lead that they’re in love with him with a single nonsequitor line. Give actors an idea if the character plays to their strengths or gives them a challenge.

Here’s a pro-tip: Film schools are notoriously bad at training directors to think about anything other than the technical and compositional aspects of filmmaking. But your biggest responsibility as a director is to get great performances out of your actors. In order to do that, you should work to understand the craft of acting. It’s actually worth taking an acting course or two to round out your knowledge, but if you don’t have the cash, pick up any of the many books on acting you can find at TheatreBooks. You’ll get a good sense of how actors think and you’ll get better at communicating your choices to them. And ultimately, you’ll make better films.

Finally, if we’re working for you for free, be grateful and treat us with respect. You’re getting your final grade on this project and making your calling card movie. We’re being asked to give you several days work, plus audition time, headshots, travel costs, etc. Don’t waste our time. Know what you’re looking for, understand the craft of acting, and give actors their due. (Oh, and remember to send your actors a copy of the finished film when it’s done. This is our payment for our work and a part of your contract with us.)

POSTSCRIPT: Not all student filmmakers or film schools are bad, by the way. I had a great experience at Sheridan a few years back. And Ryerson typically impresses me with the scripts I read. But yeah, definitely stay away from Centennial.

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.

Daily Xtra: November 2013

Despite taking a couple weeks off last month, I had a pretty busy month in my freelance gig at DailyXtra.com.

In bittersweet news, Toronto Police announced that they had finally arrested someone in the 4-year-old Chris Skinner murder. Shortly after I filed that report, I went on vacation, and Justin Ling filed the follow up when police announced they’d arrested another three connected to the murder.

Also on the police beat, the Ontario Chiefs of Police released a document of best practices in LGBT policing issues, which is being used as a training resource province-wide, and inspiring chiefs across the county and abroad to reflect on their own practices. It’s also, apparently, drawn the ire of the usual anti-gay groups.

On the arts news front, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre belatedly announced that they’d lost a Canadian Heritage grant for the annual Rhubarb Festival this year. While they’d known about the lost grant since the beginning of October, they waited until late November to go public. Apparently, they wanted to give Heritage ample time to respond to their questions, but this seems like a huge missed opportunity. This could have been a huge, Summerworks-2011-style story, but instead they waited until the holiday season, well after a local federal by-election, the closing week of a show, to make an announcement via social media, bypassing the traditional outlets.

If they really wanted to make a splash, they could have released it to media a week before Gay Heritage Project opened in the middle of the Toronto Centre byelection. That would have instantly gotten the Liberals and the NDP into a (probably very shrill and off-putting) shouting match about who loves Buddies in Bad Times more, which could have landed the story on the covers of newspapers and on TV panels nationwide. The issue would have had real legs and might have actually moved the government (Summerworks got its grant back the following year, after all), and drawn a bunch of attention to the theatre right as it was opening a fairly risky show that deserved attention. Instead, it seems Xtra and NOW are the only papers that even noticed, and although Peggy Nash asked a question about it in the Commons, Parliament has now closed up for six weeks for the holiday. *Sigh*

Meanwhile, the city of Toronto’s proposed 2014 budget reneges on committed funding increases for the arts in the 2014-16 budget years. Funding still goes up, but not by as much as was promised, and certainly not enough to keep pace with other cities in Canada.

Obviously, I’m in favour of public spending on the arts. But it’s a little bizarre that we’d compare our per-capita spending with other, smaller cities. You’d think that we would have certain efficiencies of scale in a big city, much like you do with many other aspects of government spending (Ontario, for example, spends far less per capita than all other provinces). After all, despite Vancouver spending more than three times per capita what Toronto spends, I don’t see many people complaining that Vancouver’s got a better arts scene. If a city only needs one symphony or opera house, wouldn’t it be cheaper on a per capita basis in a city with more capitas? And as the metropole, doesn’t Toronto also benefit from disproportionate arts spending by both the province and feds? And doesn’t the private sector actually serve Toronto fairly well as well, since it’s such a big market? (And that’s before you get to other, more existential questions, like “what counts as Vancouver or Montreal in determining population and spending, since they have wildly different forms of government?”).

All of which is to say, I don’t think it’s smart policy to simply say “We should spend what City X, Y, and Z spend!” What we should be doing is assessing what we NEED and what we WANT from the arts in the city of Toronto, figure out what that’ll cost and if we can afford it, and spend that amount.

On the lighter side, I met Canada’s reigning lifestyle TV gay gurus, Steven & Chris, and chatted with them about 15 years in television. They were quite lovely and it was actually quite interesting to hear about their journey into television and being a famous out couple.

And I also chatted with the CEO of yet another queer dating app, VGL, which aims to make online cruising just a little more superficial sexy. VGL is another amusing toy for your phone, but at present it remains a little sparsely populated in Toronto.

There remain a couple of inventoried stories that may pop up over the holiday break. Merry X-Mas everyone!

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.

photo

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.