When Media Turns on the Arts

This past summer, The Toronto Sun published a series of articles damning the Summerworks festival for producing a play that “glorified terrorists”.  They published three articles on the subject (1, 2, 3) without ever having seen the play.  The crux of their anger was that the Summerworks festival received funding from the federal government, and how dare this festival accept funds to produce a play celebrating people who want to destroy our way of life. After the play opened it was revealed that the play was not what they said it was.  The Toronto Star reviewed the play and had to acknowledge the furor in its review, said that the play was “definitely not a play that supports or romanticizes terrorism” but did say that it wasn’t a very good play.

The Sun had apparently been so successful in stirring up outrage about the play, that the Star’s review spent half of its article space debunking the Sun’s claims.  In the end, as the Star’s Richard Ouzounian points out, since the funding for Summerworks isn’t earmarked for specific plays, and really only goes towards the rental of the theatre, the Sun was making a big deal out of what amounted to $850 (The Torontoist blog has a good rundown of the timeline of the whole “controversy” if you’re interested).

Then Summerworks ends, the play is reveals to be not very good, and the Sun is revealed to have some pretty shoddy fact-checking and ethics.  Story over, right?

Apparently not.  Out of nowhere, the Sun has revived its attack on the Summerworks festival, so far with two articles in the last two days (1,2).  Once again, they are going after Summerworks about their Federal funding, and continue to do so based on their having produced Homegrown last year.

I ask myself a couple of questions:

  1. Why now?  Why the renewed attack on this festival of new plays?
  2. The Sun is not a paper that speaks to me.  Their opinions hold little interest.  So why does this enrage me so?

The answer to the first question is likely that Funding deadlines have passed, and the festival’s funding has been renewed.  The fact that Summerworks applied after the deadline and yet still received funding seems to be the thing they are attacking.  So, their renewed attack is merely one of opportunity.

The second question perhaps more complex.  It is true that I do not read the Sun regularly.  And when I do, it is more with the attitude of “Let’s see what the other side thinks”, and more often than not, I am repulsed by what passes for Journalism.  So the paper does not speak to me.  But what makes me angry is the people to whom this paper does speak.  Because they don’t remember that the Sun was wrong about the play, they only recall the stories from before the play opened.  And worse, the people more likely to read the Sun are actually the people that our current federal government most wants to placate.  So when the Sun calls up a Minister and starts asking uncomfortable questions about funding for an arts organization, that Minister doesn’t speak about the importance of the Canada Council for the Arts being an arms length funding agency.  No, they talk about how Summerworks grant will be reviewed.  Which is exactly what the Sun wants.  The Sun, if they support government arts funding at all, want all the dollars allocated to the arts to be accountable to the whims of the Canadian People.  Which on a certain level is admirable. We are a democracy (a Parliamentary Democracy at that), so the will of the people should count for something, right?  But the Arts Council’s job is to fund the arts, to allow exploration and excitement, to fund projects that are new and push boundries.  Of course, artists understand this concept.  But the Sun’s base doesn’t. They probably don’t think about arts funding at all, and when they do, they picture (as Stephen Harper put it) “a bunch of people at, you know, a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough”.

The Sun, as an organization doesn’t believe in funding for the arts, so they take every chance they can to bash it.  But I can’t help but wonder, what do we lose if they are successful.  If the Sun is successful in its campaign against Summerworks, and the funding for the festival is revoked, then there’s no Summerworks this year, and Toronto loses a vibrant part of its arts schedule and a number of new plays will never see the light of day.  But worse, if the Sun is successful now, what happens to the next festival they turn their attention to?  Once they’ve seen that they can shame the government into intervening, will any funding for any arts organization be safe?  Likely not.

And what will happen then?

Boobies, Theatre, and the Audience: collaborative promotion

Recently I was involved with a theatrical production that, in order to help draw an audience, partnered with an organizer that helped to fill up the evening with various forms of entertainment.  For several of these evenings, the partnered event was a burlesque show.  Now, I’ll be honest, I had never been to a burlesque show, so I didn’t entirely know what to expect.  But I did think that the pairing was an unusual one: pairing selected scenes from a new musical with burlesque.  Weren’t the audiences for these things very different?  Sure, the musical was a “horror musical” and more than a bit campy, but would it fit with what the burlesque performers were presenting?

The first night was interesting.  On that night, we followed the burlesque, and I had to say afterwards that the lesson for that night was “never follow boobies”.  I tried to imagine W.C. Fields saying “Never work with children or animals; and never follow boobies”.  At issue, was the fact that the audience really was not there for what we were selling.  They had come to see the ladies perform, and really were not interested in a selection of scenes from musical theatre, regardless or how campy it might be.

At that point, I assumed that all our performances would be like that.  The audience not watching, but talking amongst themselves, perhaps throwing a couple of heckles our way.  I was not looking forward to the rest of the run.  Who wants to perform for people who are uninterested in what you are doing?  Not that I entirely blamed them.  I mean, how can you follow someone like Red Herring?  Not easily that’s for sure.  And certainly not with a relatively tame (by comparison) musical.

Things changed the next night.  Again we followed the boobies (how I really did wish that W.C. Fields had warned me about that), but this time, the audience was different.  They weren’t rudely talking over us, they weren’t heckling.  I wondered what the difference was.  Many of the burlesque performers that preceded us were the same, so it wasn’t them.  Were we better?  Probably, but I don’t think we were so amazing that we were able to re-focus the attention of people who’d spent the last hour or so looking at beautiful half-clothed women.  So what was different?

I couldn’t figure it out exactly at first.  I had a few days to mull it over before we were back at it, and I still hadn’t figured out the difference between the two nights.  For our final show, we again followed the burlesque performances, and the audience was somewhere in the middle of the two.  So what was different?

Here’s what I thought: On night one, the scenes from the play were not mentioned at all during the show.  It appeared that the audience was drawn by the burlesque, and not by the play. Since the play wasn’t mentioned during the burlesque, the audience was a little shocked when we got up to do scenes from a musical.  Second night, the play was mentioned throughout, so that when we got up, it was no surprise and almost anticipated.  On the last night, it was mentioned once or twice during the burlesque, but almost in passing.

So what do I learn from this?

First off, let me say that I think that the Arts need to mix more. That collaborations need to happen.  Dancers need to mix with actors need to mix with singers need to mix with painters.  Its better for the art, and its better for the audience.  When these collaborations happen, however, the promotion needs to also be collaborative, both before and during (and hell, why not?  after) the performance.  If I’m collaborating with a dance troupe, I need to talk them up and they need to do the same.  We all need to treat the entire evening like our own.  There can’t be me over here and the dancers over there. (at the risk of sounding like the cast of Rent) There can only be us.  If we separate our promotional efforts and I only talk about my part and you only talk about their part, we’re actually dividing our audience, which helps no one.  Your audience comes for you and my audience comes for me.  My audience pays attention to me and not you, and yours pays attention to you and not me.

If, however, we both promote each other; If I say to my audience “you really need to see this great dancer (or singer or painter )” and you say to your audience “you really need to see this great play” we both win.  We’ve won over our respective audiences to both performances so that they are looking forward to each.  They’re less likely to fade out when the performance they aren’t there fore gets on stage, because it was built up for them as something they should be interested in.

Lessons learned for next time.

And yes, there should be a next time.  Perhaps not with the show I just did, but with something else. There are too many artists out there (of varying disciplines) that I want to share with you.

Toronto Sun Continues to Blast Play No One Has Seen

In Yesterday’s Toronto Sun, an article entitled PMO Frowns on Terror Play, the paper continued its campaign against the Summerworks Festival for daring to produce a play about one of the Toronto 18.  The article quotes a representative from the Prime Minister’s Office as saying “”We are extremely disappointed that public money is being used to fund plays that glorify terrorism”.  Of course, no one, not even the star or the representative, know if the play “glorifies terrorism” since they haven’t seen the play.  This is just bad journalism. This is like a movie reviewer posting a review about a movie they haven’t seen.  Of course, The Sun doesn’t care about journalistic ethics here, all they care about is restarting their old campaign against using public funds for art.  The article also tries to make it sound like people in the arts community are afraid (due to the comment from the PMO) that arts funding will be cut as a result.

The reaction from the PMO has some in the arts community nervous that Frid’s play will become an excuse for more cuts to arts groups by the Conservative government, “I would hate to see them use this play as an excuse to pull funding for anyone,” said a Toronto theatre worker who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisal by the Conservatives.

A Toronto theatre worker who asked for anonymity because of possible Conservative reprisal? Quite frankly, I doubt this person exists.  No name given.  A quote that is actually in line with what The Sun wants:  a cut in funding as a result of this?  The only reprisal that an artist might fear is having an arts grant application declined as a result of their comment.  But since the Canada Council for the Arts is an arms length agency, which means that the PM (or any other government official) does not directly influence its decisions, there is no real reprisal an individual “theatre worker” might fear.  Again: bad journalism.

The real hero of the piece?  TD Bank, who refused to consider pulling their sponsorship, saying:

“The intention of our sponsorship of Summerworks is to encourage and support young artists,” said Matthew Cram, a TD spokesman. TD Bank is kicking in $5,000 to help cover Summerworks’ bills. The Royal Bank, whose corporate headquarters is also across the street from one of Adbdelhaleem’s targets, is also helping fund the festival.

Continued Musings on Social Networks

I’ve been continuing my musings on a social network for entertainment industry professionals. The more I think about it, the more I am seeing that the current social networks do not serve the entertainment industry well. Sites like LinkedIn are work well for people in traditional industries, but for people like actors, dancers, and other entertainment industry professions, LinkedIn fails.

Social Networks like Linkedin or Facebook become too cluttered with other information and applications and don’t provide ways for people in the industry to properly connect. I guess the real problem is that they are not focused on what people in the industry might want or need. And why should they? Sites like Linkedin and Facebook aren’t really for us. They are for other people. People who have “normal” careers.

So, what would a social network for people in the entertainment industry be? What features should it have? A few that I can think of off the top of my head:

  • Discussion groups
  • Easily updated resumes
  • Photo gallery
  • Twitter/Google Buzz/Status.net integration
  • Email notifications (and the ability to turn them on or off)
  • Simple way of connecting with others
  • Such a network should also be simple to navigate and use. Ideally, anyone who was familiar with Facebook or Myspace would have no trouble in using it.
  • Should be focused on network rather than the social.

What other features should a social network for people in the entertainment industry have?

The Sun and the Arts Funding “Debate”

Sometimes I read the Toronto Sun.  Not because I like the paper, but because I really hate it.  I think its important to know what the “other side” is saying, and to understand that there are people who actually believe what that newspaper prints.  Case in point: this article from the online version of the paper, which references an article in yesterday’s print edition.  The article outlines a complaint from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation complaining about going to the Summerworks Festival, specifically due to funds going to a play called “Homegrown”.

Homegrown is a play about one of the members of the Toronto 18, calling the play sympathetic to terrorists.  The article uses this play as a springboard for the Sun’s familiar complaint about funding for the arts, and how the funding plays is destroying the fabric of our society – ok, this article doesn’t say specifically that, but its clear that the Sun is revving up their readers to be outraged about this “abuse of public funds”.  Some choice quotes from the article:

The [Summerworks] festival receives more than $90,000 from all three levels of government including $35,000 from Heritage Canada. Homegrown received $6,000 from the city funded Toronto Arts Council for a workshop.  The play’s writer, Catherine Frid, stressed Friday that the play isn’t condoning terrorism but is a “sympathetic portrait” of one of the men caught up in the terror bust.

[snip]

But Kevin Gaudet, of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said tax dollars shouldn’t be going towards a “terrorist love-in”. “You want to put on a play? Fine. Hang up your shingle and ask people to pay for it … and if it has to do with sympathetic portraits of terrorists who want to destroy my country, I won’t go,” Gaudet said.

It is of course, important to note that the CTF:

objects to funding for all festivals from Pride Toronto to the Calgary Stampede, he said.“We advocate against all this type of funding in that context,” Gaudet said.

CTF is a conservative group that objects to most public funding of events. Of course, without the kind of funding they object to, there would be no Fringe Festival, no jazz festival, no TIFF, no Stratford or Shaw festivals, or really any cultural events whatsoever.  The play that CTF is “objecting to” is an excuse for the old saw about the bugaboo of the evils of public funding for the arts.

Arts funding organizations from all levels of government need to fund shows based on their merit or their relevance, rather than on their political ramifications.  This means that sometimes there will be controversial plays that are funded by the government.  But this is not a bad thing.  The arts should challenge political correctness, they should be controversial, they should spark debate.  If nothing controversial can ever receive funding because the sensitive right-wingers at the CTF (which will always be offended because public funds are involved) or the Sun might be offended, then all funded art will be safe and boring.

The article itself may be familiar territory for the Sun, the most important part of the article are the online comments.  Many of the comments are from people who are just as outraged as the Sun (and the CTF) wanted them to be.  These are the people who believe that the arts are not worth funding.  These are the people who think that artists are swimming in money, people who think like Stephen Harper does when he talked about funding cuts back in the last Federal election (“I think when ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV and see a gala of a bunch of people at, you know, a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough, when they know those subsidies have actually gone up – I’m not sure that’s something that resonates with ordinary people,”*).  In my mind, the comments say the most.  These are the people and attitudes that artists are up “against” when election time comes, when people want to be outraged about “wasted government spending”, and how the arts are for the rich and not for “regular people” so why should we fund them?  I’d consider the comments a “must read”, at the very least, to know what those people who disagree with arts funding believe, so that those of us who recognize the importance of funding can plan our response.

*Quoted from the Toronto Star, Sept. 24, 2008