“Start, Stop, Continue” for 2013: A Conversation Starter for the Theatre Arts Community of Toronto
By: Hallie Seline – Co-Founder & Editor
The 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.)