Skip to content

FEATURE ARTICLES

“Start, Stop, Continue” for 2014: A Conversation Starter for the Theatre Arts Community of Toronto

IMG_6717

2013 was an exciting year and 2014 has started with no shortage of encouraging moments for the Toronto theatre/arts community. We saw small venues develop and prosper across the city with national recognition from the Globe and Mail, and we saw the community come together showing support and strength in numbers, whether it was to stand behind Buddies in Bad Times Theatre demanding more questions when their Rhubarb Festival was suddenly denied funding, or by getting down and dirty to help get indie venue The Storefront Theatre back on its feet after a major flood. Amongst these exciting moments, there is no shortage of challenges we are also knocking up against. Be it funding, debating the relevance of theatre on CBC Radio, or the concern that with the growing number of independent theatre companies that we may be spreading ourselves too thin, thus generating the every person for themselves attitude, we believe that there is a lot of discussion to be had about where we stand as a theatre arts community and where we should hope to go next.

I feel like this is an exciting pivotal time in the Toronto theatre arts scene and after having received immense feedback from our first instalment, my hope is to continue to develop this dialogue with another group of theatre artists (from different theatrical backgrounds, emerging to more established etc.) about their thoughts on the state of theatre in Canada, specifically Toronto, right now.

This is a discussion starter in which our participants identify what they think the Toronto theatre scene should Start, Stop and Continue to help theatre in Toronto prosper. This is just the beginning of the conversation. Help us to make this conversation grow to involve as many diverse voices across our community as possible and hopefully this will help us all move forward in 2014 in a supportive and productive way.


Hallie Seline
Co-founder & Editor in Chief

D. Jeremy Smith: Artistic Director & General Manager – Driftwood Theatre

Start: Communicating with each other. Despite the fact that we live in a world where the act of communication has never been easier, artistic leaders in theatre tend to communicate very little. We’re all busy people. We always have been and always will be. But true progress and growth in our community cannot take place without greater communication (yes, certainly among individual artists, but most importantly among our leaders). Whether to discuss opportunities for co-producing or sharing resources, seeing and (constructively) debating each other’s work, or just meeting to share common challenges or best practices, we will only thrive as a community if we come together as one.

Stop: Ignoring our audience. Theatre audiences continue to change, and as a whole we are fighting for the attention of a limited number of ticket buyers among a sea of possibilities for their cultural dollar. I am not suggesting that audiences should dictate the art form, but it would be irresponsible to ignore the impact that the audience has upon our financial health. When creating theatre, we must never leave the audience out of the equation: without an audience, there can be no theatre. Process and artistic integrity are of utmost importance to us as artists, but they can mean very little to an individual who is making a choice between theatre and any number of entertainment alternatives.

Continue: To expand our definition of ‘theatre’. Theatre in Canada is still a young art form. As Canadian artists we have a unique opportunity to be at the forefront of defining the role of theatre locally, regionally, nationally and internationally as we move further into the 21st century. There is an increasing number of emerging brave and bold artists who are working to make their voices heard. This work, in turn, invigorates and stimulates established organizations. The Canadian theatre industry must continue to be flexible, experimental and open to change. This isn’t to say that we should lose a sense of our roots; in fact, it might mean the opposite. But we must continue to communicate and be attentive to the world around us – reacting to it, questioning it, challenging it, accepting it – in order to further define our role within our communities and on the world stage.

Tina Rasmussen: Artistic Director – World Stage

Start: I think we, as a performing arts ecology, need to start solving problems instead of just voicing them. Gather your colleagues, and share; tactics, sensibilities, and solutions. As I always say, have the artist — and the art — solve problems; you’d be surprised how effective (and ingenuous) the results can be.

Stop: I think we, as a performing arts ecology, need to stop thinking in old ways. We need to be inventing new models, new approaches, new dialogues if we’re going to see our craft thrive, not just survive.

Continue: I think we, as a performing arts ecology, should continue being kind, generous, and curious. Lend an ear, ask a question, embrace an uncomfortable situation for the sake of mining insight and change. It’s worth it.

Holger Schott Syme: Chair – Department of English and Drama, University of Toronto Mississauga – Personal Blog – dispositio.net.

Holger’s research focuses on the theatre history of Shakespeare’s time and on international contemporary approaches to staging “classics” – He blogs about theatre at dispositio.net

A quick disclaimer from Holger: “The “we” is a bit fraudulent for me. I talk to a lot of you, as much as I can, but I don’t think I could truthfully claim to be part of the community the same way that the other participants in this conversation are. So that puts me in a slightly awkward position, because I don’t think it’s my place to lecture “you” on what you are to do. What I can and will do is share some of my views about what’s great and not-so-great about the current state of theatre in Toronto as I see it.”

Start: I think our theatre needs to find a way of integrating much more room for failure into its processes – productively. Actors and directors should be encouraged to take chances, to risk making decisions and choices that may not work, to spend copious rehearsal time exploring different approaches only to discover that many of them are dead ends. Right now, I feel like a lot of what winds up on our stages neither works nor fails – it steers a middle path of good enough, interesting enough, captivating enough. Personally, I’d much rather see an ambitious project that falls short, perhaps even spectacularly, than an un-ambitious middle-of-the-road production that more or less realizes its own limited ambitions. What’s missing is the support structure for much of this work, though: there isn’t enough money (or the money isn’t in the right places) to allow for long, exploratory rehearsal periods; companies aren’t consistently willing or able to encourage, foster, support, and market projects that take big risks; and the public discourse around theatrical performances is depressingly stunted, so that most Toronto critics are as likely to mock, disparage, or ignore adventurous work as they are to see it as a worthwhile effort to advance the art of theatre. And of course taking risks means casting young, unknown, inexperienced but exciting and thrillingly unpredictable actors in a significant number of leading roles.

Oh, and could we please start having cafés and bars in theatre lobbies?

Stop: Worrying so much about relevance. Theatre is relevant and of the moment in its very nature. It’s always present. It’s always right here. If people leave your show wondering “What does that have to do with me?” something is going wrong – but the answer to that isn’t making every show explicitly about this place, now. The form itself, the presence of actors from the 21st century who live in this city, should be enough to connect what they perform to this time and place. If everything else (the plot, the set, the costumes, the language, etc.) is also only about here and now, we’re producing work that’s destined to be obsolete and genuinely irrelevant before very long, and work that can’t really travel very far either. The most exciting theatre is metaphorical: it’s like the present, but it’s also at a remove from it. It brings our time and place and another time and place (past or fictional) into productive tension. If theatre is only about “us” or “you” it becomes a very small kind of art. So stop chasing after immediate relevance. Think bigger.

Continue: A lot of the most exciting theatre I’ve seen in Toronto this year has started to explore different ways of doing things, or to reconnect with this city’s experimental past. I’m really glad this is happening, and I want to see much more of that kind of work: theatre that doesn’t think a new production starts with a new play, but that understands that putting an old text on new feet can be as thrilling and has the potential to be artistically much more liberating. I’m thinking of shows such as Philip McKee’s Lear (at WorldStage), or Fevergraph’s Look Back in Anger (directed by Anita La Selva), or Unspun Theatre’s Tin Drum (directed by Chris Hanratty), to name just three – all pieces that found new forms for older texts, that explored what kind of a specifically theatrical life these words could have now, and ended up producing really inventive, sometimes moving, sometimes entertaining, always thought-provoking work that tackled big thematic and formal questions. I think these sorts of shows are the most important work happening in Toronto right now, and it seems to me that there are more spaces available than in the recent past where these kinds of productions can find a home beyond the various festivals. It’s the work that makes me most hopeful for the future of our theatre scene.

Claire Armstrong: Producer & Core Member – Red One Theatre Collective

Start: developing strong critical thinking skills when attending theatre. Now, I don’t mean the “prove to me that your show is better than mine” attitude. There’s nothing worse than the feeling that people are attending your show with the “okay, impress me” attitude right off the bat. What I mean instead is that we should work hard to hone in on what works or doesn’t work in a production, and why. Being able to articulate this clearly and constructively is an essential skill for every artist. It will make your own work clearer and more purposeful. It will also hopefully reduce over-saturation on social media, and blanket cross-promotion which often lacks the content to support it. If you are recommending to everyone that they go see a show, ask yourself if your main reason for doing so is because someone you know is involved, or perhaps to keep the general “good vibes” about independent theatre swirling around. Be more demanding of each other. The best thing we can do to ensure that the indie theatre market continues to produce its best work, and to therefore continuously expand our audience market beyond the usual suspects, is to zero in on which shows really speak to us, and why – try to keep your personal connections out of it as much as possible.

Stop: being reluctant to reach out to artists in the generations above us. Take advantage of these valuable mentors. When you are thinking of producing a project, ask for help from someone you look up to. If you don’t have the resources to hire them in the capacity that you hope to, or if their schedule doesn’t permit it, ask them to come in as an outside eye even for one day. Even simply asking for their thoughts and insights about an idea you’ve got may help you sharpen your concept and give you some different perspectives to consider. The most detrimental thing we can do as emerging artists is to work exclusively with our own generation, or to be too timid (or proud) to ask for input from someone you admire.

Continue: to write new stories, and to encourage our storytellers to keep writing. There are a number of exciting and talented playwrights in this country, both established and emerging. Produce something Canadian. Collaborate with others on the creation of a new work.

To second what was said last year: share resources. Assisting another theatre company with something allows you to forge a mutually beneficial bond, and ultimately any success helps to raise the bar for the entire community. If you have learned something valuable, share it; if you have something that someone else could use in a production that you want to support, share it. Production Resources on facebook is a great thing, let’s keep it going and then some.

Nina Kaye: Artistic Director – Unspoken Theatre

Start: I think we, as a theatre/arts community, need to start collaborating with our elders. The boomers have dominated the theatre scene for a long time. We, as an indie emerging theatre community, need to respect their experience and their legacy. The schism between established/emerging, professional/amateur, union/non-union is so often a generational division. It’s time for each community to share the storytelling. We need to invite the boomers into our work – write parts for older people, ask boomers to look at your script, come to your shows, and have a beer at your fundraiser. We’ve been waiting for the boomers to invite us in. So let’s lead by example.

Stop: I think we, as a theatre/arts community, need to stop working from a default hierarchical model. There are alternatives, which we need to explore and develop. Many of the most successful indie theatre companies out there right now are collectives. Collectives are one well-established alternative, but not the only one. Theatre is a collaborative medium – when will we acknowledge this through our organizing structures?

A quick example: I hate auditions. Many people do, yet we continue with them. Why? Because our default is the top down approach. Operating out of fear, we select and reject as a means of asserting control over our work. We forget that working with others is a relationship where both sides have a right to choose.

Recently, I advertised on social media for actors to get involved in a show. As I heard from people, I sent out excerpts from the script for review. A self-selection process occurred whereby only people who were interested, available, and committed, moved forward with the project. I ended up meeting new talented and driven actors who were passionate about the work because they had chosen me, the project, and their roles.

The ‘non-audition’ may not appeal to everyone. But it was a new form that I am tinkering with because I want my operating structure to reflect the collaborative approach I employ in my work. Granted, the ‘non-audition’ might not always generate positive results. But neither do auditions.

Continue: I think we, as a theatre/arts community, should continue connecting with each other online. Blogs and social media have provided a great forum for us to learn from each other and share opportunities. Dialogues like this one allow us to connect with each other, to share our thoughts and reflections in a way that can further a communal cause. It’s reassuring to know others share your feelings and experiences, when sometimes you feel isolated as an artist. It’s also important and useful to hear diverging voices – this might prompt us to shift our perceptions, or to better defend our positions.

Additionally, the indie theatre community should continue to open and run small, affordable venues. The last two years has seen the opening of over a dozen new small venues. As an indie emerging artist community we are, quite literally, making a space for ourselves. It’s great to see us coming into our own.

Finally, I encourage indie theatre artists to continue with low risk ventures such as one offs, readings, and fundraisers. Low budget projects with a limited run are a great way for us to move forward, develop work, make contacts, take risks, and experiment. Despite the frustrations of micro-theatre, operating on a small scale offers a great deal of freedom.

Drew O’Hara (Artistic Director) & Jade Douris (Artistic Producer) – Everybody to the Theatre Company

Start:

JD – Start coming together. It can be overwhelming how much amazing work is going on in the city. So if we can find ways to collaborate and bring artists together there’s no limit to what we can accomplish with focus and hard work.

Stop:

DOH – Stop making excuses and start collaborating to make solutions. There are so many reasons not to do what you really want to do. So many. The hardest part of making theatre is just doing it. And we all have the resources to help each other if we could just connect. Every indie theatre company doesn’t need to own their own doorway.

Continue:

JD – Seeing each other’s work. This community is amazing in the way they support independent productions. When I look around in the audience and see faces I recognize from other shows – I think that’s a really beautiful thing.

DOH– Continue supporting each other and pushing the boundaries.

 

If you are interested in contributing to the conversation contact us at inthegreenroom.ca@gmail.com
Please respond in the form of a “Start, Stop, Continue” using this template to guide you:

Start: “I think we, as a theatre/arts community, need to start… (Your answer. Something you believe the community should start to actively put into place, or an outlook/attitude to be considered, etc.)

Stop: “I think we, as a theatre/arts community, need to stop… (Your answer. Something you think is perhaps not working as effectively, is destructive, etc.)

Continue: “I think we, as a theatre/arts community, should continue (Your answer. Something positive you see the community already doing that you think should be encouraged to continue.)

 

“Start, Stop, Continue” for 2013: A Conversation Starter for the Theatre Arts Community of Toronto

Start Stop Continue Jan. 2013The past year in Toronto theatre has been a tumultuous one to say the least. From the firing of Ken Gass from the Factory Theatre, to the open letter to younger theatre artists by David Ferry on the Praxis website and the debate that ensued. From government funding, a desire for a new union model, the plethora of new independent theatre companies, and where emerging and veteran artists alike fit into the Toronto theater world, there is a lot of discussion to be had about where we stand as a community and where we should hope to go next. As we begin the new year I think this is a perfect time to reflect on what we have done as an arts community in 2012, where we currently stand and most importantly how we hope to move forward in 2013.

My hope for this feature is to put together a dialogue from a variety of theatre artists (from different theatrical backgrounds, emerging to more established, etc.) about their thoughts on the state of theatre in Canada, specifically Toronto, right now and what our goals as a theatre community should be moving forward. I want to do this in the form of a “Start, Stop, Continue”. This is a discussion starter in which our participants identify what they think the Toronto theatre scene should Start, Stop and Continue to help theatre in Toronto prosper. This is just the beginning of the conversation. Help us to make this conversation grow to involve as many diverse voices across our community as possible and hopefully this will help us all move forward in 2013 in a supportive and productive way.

Hallie Seline
Co-founder & Editor in Chief

Rob Kempson: Associate Artistic Producer – Theatre Passe Muraille, Artistic Producer – The Paprika Festival

Start: I think we, as a theatre/arts community, need to start building community more broadly. Emerging arts programs must actually support emerging artists in an authentic way. Community engagement programs must engage in an authentic way. Youth arts programs need to develop youth audiences/artists in an authentic way. Too often, we tend to build programs hastily in order to get grants. That only creates a mass of programming that is unconnected to the arts community for the long-term, unsustainable for the participants, and ultimately useless as the goals of developing these communities is never reached. If we spent more time developing ancillary programming that actually responded to the needs of our institutions and the people they were trying to reach, we’d end up with fewer programs, but better programs–ones that continue to attract audiences to the theatre, and ones that don’t replicate from place to place. I think that would be an exciting community to be a part of, but that means dedicated funding, long-term responsibility, and institutional commitments that put young people and audiences at their core.

Stop: I think we, as a theatre/arts community, need to stop competing so much. If we could actually work together (and stop hiring only our friends), then we’d have a richer, fuller community of strong arts organizations and well-supported artists. We tend to build fences around ourselves and our work, protecting the tiny piece of pie that we’ve managed to scrap away from the rest. We hire ourselves, our friends, our colleagues and those who have done us favours, because it is only then that those closest to us find opportunities. But these sorts of divisions only further entrench patterns of selfish behaviour. These divisions also create thousands of tiny independent theatre companies who have little or no vision, replacing vision instead with a longing to find space for their own work to meet an audience. I think rigor is important and work is important. Competition makes sense in business, but not in the arts. Sometimes our theatres need to behave more like library branches and less like big banks.

Continue: I think we, as a theatre/arts community, should continue seeing the work of others. I see upwards of 150 plays each year. Some years I see much more than that and some years I see a little less. But either way, seeing work is an important part of my life. It enriches my own work and develops my perspective around issues in my community, my country, and my imagination. Going to see shows makes me think and I like that. However, I also consider it my responsibility to see this amount of work. If I want to count myself as a member of the arts community, I need to support the arts in my community–as an audience member, as a social media user, and yes, as a donor. It is often said that in the theatre community, we’re all passing around the same $10 bill, but I tend to think that’s not a bad thing. Why is passing around that bill a problem if it’s rotation is keeping the community afloat?

Stacey Norton: General Manager – Theatre Smash

Start: Co-producing. I have had the amazing opportunity to work with many organizations, as well as engage in in-depth conversations about the stresses surrounding fundraising and budget realities.   This may be easier said than done. Through the practice of it, it may appear that someone or some organization has to concede to another, yet through co-producing with equally artistically driven people or organizations, we can pool our resources (human capital, networks, tools and technologies etc) to create work.

Stop: Comp’ing Opening Nights. I believe we should stop comp’ing out the entire theatre for opening night performances.  I absolutely agree with comp’ing tickets to the people that love and support the artists working on the production. They deserve complimentary tickets!

I also believe that if you have a room full of your biggest supporters and loved ones (and critics), perhaps they would also understand that throwing a bill or two into a Pay-What-You-Can pot at the door can help reduce the cost the organization eats for having a revenue-less performance. I believe that PWYC fees and donations do not have to be a specific amount, but rather a personal, meaningful amount that is different for every person.

If this change does not happen from within the organization, it can begin with the audience member. For example, every complimentary opening night I attend, I donate to the organization. It might not be much, but it is a meaningful amount that I am able to afford.

Continue: Supporting the community resources available and fellow artists that love theatre as much as you do. See above. And Thank you TAPA for being a fantastic resource for us all.

Kelly Straughan: Executive Director – The Toronto Fringe Festival, Artistic Director – Seventh Stage Theatre

Start: I think we, as a theatre/arts community, need to start seeing itself as a community and ask ourselves what we can contribute to our village.

Stop: I think we, as a theatre/arts community, need to stop only thinking about our individual careers and shows.

Continue: I think we, as a theatre/arts community, should continue reaching out to each other and share our resources.

Eric Double: Artistic Director – Theatre Caravel

Start: Last year’s Tennessee Project (now the Playwright Project) was a great example of something that has started to happen more in Toronto theatre recently: Theatre brought to communities in non-traditional performance spaces. Site-specific theatre is not new in Toronto, but it has certainly started to come into its own.  Projects like this one and plays like Litmus Theatre’s Matchbox Macbeth show a great creative drive in young theatre creators to make plays happen in unique venues.  Often times these projects have sprung up out of the simple lack of affordable performance space, and other times this is coupled with the intention to change how we view theatre.  Instead of using the same well-worn spaces, projects like the Tennessee Project brought incredibly adaptable and vibrant work to neighbourhoods that would otherwise not see theatre (or only see specific types of theatre).  It’s bold projects like these that have already started to expand what it means to produce theatre in Toronto.

Stop: As an emerging theatre artist I’ve often heard groans from other artists, both emerging and established, which either lament or caution relationships with unions.  It’s commonly heard, “Don’t join Equity until you have to”. This ominous warning was fed to us straight out of theatre school and it makes sense.  That particular union status seems to guard the bridge between emerging and “professional” as if to say that there is no going back.  Not that there should be.  Joining a union is wonderful.  I am very much in favour of all the rights and benefits associated with it, as long as they are fair and serve the needs of the members. This brings stability in an unstable business. But it is time to change what “going back” means. Equity members should be able to work on small-scale theatre without having to duck or dodge union rules. Aislinn Rose of Praxis Theatre has it right when she says the equity Co-Op must go. According to the 2011 Independent Theatre Review, two thirds of Equity members are dissatisfied with Equity’s Indie Policy.  We must stand up for Equity members’ desire to engage in meaningful small-scale creative endeavors. The Festival Policy is a great example of how this can work well.  Starting to respect the needs of artists will create a more fluid channel for new works, riskier projects, and a healthier creative exchange between the abundance of talent in this city.

Continue: Now more than ever I think that the Toronto theatre scene needs to focus on innovative new models for the ways in which plays are developed, artists nurtured, audiences cultivated and organizations run.  Much of what is going on at the Canadian Stage right now is quite inspiring.  Despite having an overall decrease in subscriptions there is an increase in new subscribers, which means that Matthew Jocelyn’s evocative and challenging programming is exciting a new audience base. Theatre Passe Muraille is also taking a bold turn this season by telling Toronto’s stories – which to me almost seems like a nod to its Farm Show roots. Andy McKim and Jocelyn are both trying to stimulate the community through innovative programming, the kind that makes you rethink your relationship to that particular theatre. It has yet to be seen if both plans will pay off in the long run, but I am inspired by their tenacity.  In a challenging economy, one that sees commercial companies such as Dancap, and others like the Vancouver Playhouse closing, we must continue to adapt.

If you are interested in contributing to the conversation contact us at inthegreenroom.ca@gmail.com
Please respond in the form of a “Start, Stop, Continue” using this template to guide you:

Start: “I think we, as a theatre/arts community, need to start… (Your answer. Something you believe the community should start to actively put into place, or an outlook/attitude to be considered, etc.)

Stop: “I think we, as a theatre/arts community, need to stop… (Your answer. Something you think is perhaps not working as effectively, is destructive, etc.)

Continue: “I think we, as a theatre/arts community, should continue (Your answer. Something positive you see the community already doing that you think should be encouraged to continue.)

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 45 other followers

%d bloggers like this: