RE: Toronto Star’s “Too white, too old, too well-to-do: why Toronto theatre companies need to appeal to broader audiences”

As the host and producer of the Canadian theatre podcast, Stageworthy, I have thought a lot about theatre and its future. In addition to regular interviews, I’ve had round table discussions about the question of disappearing audiences, neurodiversity and mental health, how we don’t talk about emotional bleed in the theatre, and how that affects our lives outside the industry, and more. And in countless conversations I’ve talked about issues like this with artists from across Canada.

Recently, The Toronto Star published an article entitled Too white, too old, too well-to-do: why Toronto theatre companies need to appeal to broader audiences, and I entirely missed it until my friend Adrianna pointed it out to me. I’m not the only one. The article doesn’t even seem to have made it into the newspaper’s Twitter feed, but if you care about Canadian theatre, you should give it a read.

The article talks about the declining audience, how audiences are getting older, subscriptions are declining, and how attempts to grow audiences are meeting with varying levels of success. Another topic the article examines is attempts to diversify the audience and bring in younger audience members with discounted tickets.

Discounted tickets are a great idea, but it presupposes that the primary factor that is keeping younger audience members away from the theatre is the price. And while that may be partially true, it isn’t the whole story. Let’s face it. The younger potential audience is happy to spend money on specific experiences; whether it’s going to a concert, or one of the many immersive experiences (from Van Gogh to Disney), there’s a willingness to pay. But they have to get something out of it. One of the things they get from concerts, immersive experiences or other events, is the opportunity to get a photo that says “I was here”, and I think that’s important, but even more important is the experience itself.

Audiences want experiences. They are willing to pay for experiences. And theatre offers great experiences, so why aren’t new or younger audiences coming? Could it be that we haven’t done a great job of advertising the experience? Those of us who go to the theatre regularly already know how amazing the experience of theatre can be, but those who aren’t regular theatregoers, how can they possibly know if we don’t tell them?

Additionally, for the average person, the only theatre they know is those big-budget shows that come from Broadway or London’s West End, whether imported by a private producer like Mirvish or as part of a touring production at another large theatre. To them, they think of theatre as an expensive prospect, costing over $50 a ticket, possibly more, which adds up when you’re probably taking at least one other person. BUT REMEMBER: We know people are willing to spend at least $50 for a ticket to an immersive experience, a concert or some other event. So what is the difference? A lot of theatre experiences outside of those big-budget imports cost significantly less. So what is missing? What is the difference?

Start with the least important: What opportunities does the audience have to say “I was here?” Is there a good spot for a photo op? A selfie spot? Something interesting before the show starts for someone to share on Instagram? It’s such a little thing, but would the Yayoi Kusama Infinity Rooms exhibition at Toronto’s AGO have been such a blockbuster without people sharing their experiences in the rooms on social media? It might have done well, but those social posts certainly pushed it into one of the most successful special exhibitions at the AGO since (perhaps) the King Tut exhibit in 2009. The social posts from Infinity Rooms made people who wouldn’t normally spend time at the AGO make visiting a priority, just so they could experience what was shown in the social posts. Armed with that information, as a theatre producer, I would certainly be asking what I could give to my audience that they might want to photograph and share online. What could they share that would make others need to experience what their friends are experiencing?

The next most important thing is changing how we talk about theatre. A lot of times when theatre creators talk about the plays being produced, they are gearing their message to an audience that is already predisposed to go to the theatre. The primary information provided is the title of the show, the playwright, and perhaps a little blurb about the show, which is fine for an audience that is already likely to see the show: the audience that already goes to the theatre on the regular. But for those potential audience members who aren’t regular theatregoers, what does that tell them? Very little. It certainly doesn’t give them an idea as to whether they will like the play or the experience, and that’s an important oversight. Why would someone spend money on something when they don’t have any idea if they are going to like it? Those immersive events, use photos and videos to entice people to spend money. Hollywood movies use trailers to give the feel of the film and what it might be like to see it. Most people wouldn’t go to a movie without having some idea of what it’s about and if they might enjoy it. Why do we expect them to do that with theatre? Theatres need to borrow from movies, in this way. If a theatre is going to bring in new audience members, it needs to change how it advertises and how it talks about the plays it produces. There’s no need to be precious about it, we need to tell our potential audience more about what they are going to experience.

But more than just how we talk about it, the programming needs to change too. If new audiences aren’t coming to the theatre, despite changes to the way we talk about it, then perhaps we need to change the plays that are programmed. Because if a theatre is still programming plays for their existing subscribers only, then I don’t know if that theatre has a future. The article which started this whole train of thought notes that the audiences that are going to the theatre now, are old, white and rich. But to be a little crass, that’s an audience that won’t last forever. What will we do when no new subscribers or regular theatregoers have taken their place? The only way forward, the only way to survive, is to program for the future.

But I understand that’s a risk theatres don’t want to alienate the audience they already have in favour of one that hasn’t shown up yet. With that as a concern, it’s understandable why some theatres would rather play it safe and stick with what they (and their audience) know. After all, some of the existing audience may be vocal about the change. They may complain. They might be in a minority, but it will be hard to know since they may make a lot of noise. One only has to look at one of the top comments on the article to see this:

Theatre companies that want to stay solvent need backsides in seats. White, old and well-to-do should be a target audience. As I fall into all three categories, should my patronage be unwelcome I’m quite content to spend my money elsewhere and watch them go broke.

Comment on the article

This commenter doesn’t want the theatre to change. They want – no – they demand to be catered to. And should their favourite theatre try to bring in a newer audience, they take that as a sign that they are unwelcome. They’d rather the theatre go away than have it cater to someone other than them. If this commenter is indicative of the current audience, then the theatre they frequent will certainly face growing pains with any attempt to change.

With the potential of an outcry like this, is it any wonder that a lot of theatres feel that they need to cater to the audience they have, at the expense of the audience they could have?

There is no question that there will be pushback. Both with a change to the programming to appeal to new audience members, but also to change the way theatre is advertised. The above commenter is just one example. There will be those who dislike any change to the theatres they frequent and may look sideways at new audience members. They are likely in the minority, but they will make a lot of noise, and their noise will be hard to ignore. But those of us who love the theatre want it to thrive, we want new audience members because, without them, there’s no future for the medium outside of the big-budget musicals and plays produced by the large producers.

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What’s (still) wrong with crowdfunding for indie theatre?

Years ago I wrote a blog post a pet peeve I had where crowdfunding campaigns for theatre projects are concerned, and how a lot of theatre crowdfunding campaigns entirely miss the mark when it comes to creating successful campaigns. Sadly very little has changed.

The issue is this: most crowdfunding campaigns for theatre do a terrible job at generating excitement. A crowdfunding campaign is a way to generate buzz for your project, but one of the most important tools a successful campaign had in actually raising funds are clever and well planned perks for backers. Perks are incentives for people to back the project, and as such should be attractive to a potential backer. When I have backed campaigns in the past, it has been primarily because I wanted one of the perks on offer. It was the perk, that drew me to the project, and encouraged me to back it. And I am not alone.

And yet, most theatre crowdfunding campaigns have a perk structure that goes something like this:

$10: Social Media shout out
$40: Thanks on our website
$75: Thanks in our program
$100: A letter of thanks, signed by the cast.
$125: A ticket to the show.

I see this pretty frequently. Even after eight years. So why is this ineffective?

Well, looking at the perks above, which of these do you feel you really want? My answer, is none. None of these makes me want them, there’s nothing here to want. And the problem with this is that without perks that someone would want, is that the only people who are going to back your campaign are people in your network. With these perks you will never be able to get your campaign to people outside of your personal network. You are essentially just asking your friends for money. And if you are doing this, why are you even bothering to run a crowdfunding campaign?

A successful crowdfunding campaign needs perks that are smart and relate to the show in some way. Offering thanks for any perks isn’t much of a perk, but if you need to do it, then put all the “thanks” into one perk. Don’t spread them over several perks, because none of those is a draw. A better way to go would be to thank all of your backers anyway. Better perks would be some custom merch, perhaps something exclusive to the campaigns. Stickers, buttons, t-shirts. Maybe there’s a prop that is iconic in the show? Have a replica available for higher levels. There are so many things that could be done that are better than the ones above. It just takes a bit of imagination.

So why do so many theatre crowdfunding campaigns do this? I think it happens because not enough consideration is given to these campaigns, and don’t seem to see that to have a successful campaign takes at least as much planning as their show itself. This leads to half assed campaign perks, and while it may be possible to meet your goal with this, since you are essentially getting funding from your friends and family, you will be limited in any future attempts at crowdfunding.

Theatre artists are creative people. It should be possible to have campaigns that are better than the usual. And we should not be seeing these same lazy campaigns after all this time.

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Where is the “popcorn” theatre?

There are a basically two kinds of movies: there’s serious film, and there’s the popcorn movie. Serious films get critical acclaim, film festival attention, award nominations, and are beloved by film buffs. People who aren’t film buffs tend to think that they should see those movies, but don’t as often as they think they should. Popcorn movies don’t get the same kind of attention; the don’t become critical darlings, they are rarely featured at film festivals, and when awards season rolls around, they might be a special effects nomination, but they are seldom up for consideration in any of the “serious categories.” And while they are often disdained by film buffs, the general public is more likely to see these types of movies, and happily pay the ticket price to see the movie, sometimes more than once.

In Canadian theatre we have something similar: we have serious plays; important plays that are produced by most of the mid to large theatre companies (Theatre Passe Muraille, Factory Theatre, Tarragon Theatre, etc). These are plays that have important things to say, and people who go to see those plays are people who describe themselves as theatre goers. These are plays that people who aren’t regular theatre goers might feel like they should go to see, but they don’t for a lot of reasons: maybe they are afraid they are going to be preached at, or its too heavy, or just too expensive to risk going to something they aren’t even sure that they will like. So they just don’t.

What we don’t have at that level is popcorn theatre. Something fun, something in a particular genre, that doesn’t wear its message on its sleeve and doesn’t scream this is important theatre. The kind of thing that draws in those audiences that aren’t regular theatre goers, and gives them a good night out. It might make them think, but it won’t hit them over the head. They came to the theatre to be entertained, and they were.

In Toronto, Mirvish Productions fills that role, presenting musicals and plays that appeal to the masses. But those are expensive tickets, and a lot of people can only afford to go to the one show that really appeals to them, and even then maybe only once every couple of years (perhaps the fact that those are the plays that the mass audience is most likely to see gives rise to the opinion that theatre is an expensive prospect, but that’s a thought for another time).

There are some smaller theatre companies that do this kind of work: present shows that appeal to a mass audience, but they don’t have the budget that those mid to large theatre’s do to be able to advertise and get noticed by a larger audience. 

Once could also argue that there’s plenty of popcorn theatre available at fringe festivals, where the lottery system allows voices that might not be heard at one of the established theatres to be seen.

But outside of Mirvish (and perhaps you could say that the Stratford Festival offers some popcorn theatre in its season as well), there aren’t a lot of opportunities for an audience to see these kinds of plays. 

In the UK and the US, there’s more variety in the types of theatre that’s on offer. The Broadway and the West End scenes offer the kind of popcorn theatre I’m talking about, as well as more serious fare. There’s high art, and low art, and everything in between.

I think there are a few reasons why the more “frivolous” popcorn plays are rare in the Canadian theatre scene:

  • The number of stages. In the US and the UK there are more stages, allowing for more types of plays on those stages. In Canada, there are a comparatively limited number of stages on which to present plays.
  • Grant centric funding. In the UK and the US there is a combination of not-for-profit, grant funded theatres, as well as for-profit theatres. In Canada, there are very few theatres that surivive without grants, and a grant funded theatre tends to produce theatre to fit within what the granting bodies (or at least the adjudicators) want to see. 
  • There may also be a certain amount of preciousness in the theatre. Oh sure, that’s fine for movies, but the theatre is above all that.

I’m not saying that we need to get rid of theatre that says something in favour of empty tripe. Just that we should have more of a balance. We can’t keep complaining that our audiences are disappearing, and yet keep producing plays that the masses don’t want to see. There should be room for serious plays, and raucous comedies, and weird genre plays in a season.

So how do we get there? We can’t magically increase the number of stages that we have. Unless some new form of funding magically opens up that allows more theatre companies to open theatre spaces, the number of stages isn’t going to greatly increase any time soon. Which means that a change needs to happen some place else. It means that companies would need to seek out plays that might seem more frivolous. If granting bodies discourage popcorn theatre, then IMO that needs to change.

Ultimately, for a healthy theatrical future we need theatre that appeals to different audiences: the frivolous and the serious.

I started thinking about this in the midst of the SAG-AFTRA/WGA strikes, when my girlfriend Melanie asked me if I thought that if AI started being used to crank out empty scripts, and doing so caused a dwindling of the attention movies and TV receive, would theatre see a resurgence? And I have been thinking of that since. I think the answer is yes, but not in its current form. Not until theatre gives audiences both the popcorn and the serious. Both, just like the movies.

I struggled to call myself an artist for a long time, and even now I still have to work at it

Identity is a strange thing. For many years in my life, although I was a writer in my spare time and a performer whenever I could find a project, whenever someone would ask what I did, I would describe my day job. Because I felt that since I didn’t wrote or perform full time, that I could not use those titles to describe myself. That I wasn’t enough of an artist to describe myself as one. I no longer feel that way, but getting here was a long journey.

I still feel like an imposter, though. While I write and perform as much as I can, I don’t perform as often as I would like. I have been at the mercy of Fringe lotteries for a long time, which does limit how often I can perform, since those lotteries have seldom been in my favour. So while I have plays that have been written, it’s rare that they get performed. There are grants that I can apply for, but there are certain grants that I feel guilty applying for because I feel like those grants should go to people who need them for subsistence. Writing grants especially. But I do feel like grants are necessary to be taken seriously. But I come back to feeling guilty about taking a grant.

So I wonder if it is possible to be taken seriously as a theatre artist in Canada while working a day job. Is it possible to be taken seriously as a theatre artist without grants?

I guess the real issue is that I am coming to a point when I want to be creating more. It’s an unreliable way to perform, and I am getting too old to wait for the opportunity to put my work out. As the saying goes, I don’t want to leave my music unsung, my stories untold.

I need to find ways to make it happen, to put my work on stage. And I need to find ways to make that happen as much as often as I can. And I need to find ways to do that. I need to figure out if my assumptions about grants have been wrong. Or are there other ways to fund the art?

And I need to figure it out. I have so much to share.

Macbeth: the pro wrestling pay per view match

Quite a few years ago, I went through a phase where I was really into pro wrestling. I was fascinated by the audience manipulation, the spectacle, the way a show seemed like random matches, but somehow managed to culminate in something that tied it all together. And let’s face it, while wrestling had long since given up  pretending it was real,  you had to admit that there was some real athleticism there! I wasn’t obsessed, but for a while I watched a lot of it. 

At the around the same time, I was working on a production of Macbeth, and it was maybe my 3rd time doing that particular Shakespeare play, and that gave me a lot of familiarity with the text, and it was in the after one performance, that I suddenly made a connection. What if you staged Macbeth as a wrestling pay-per-view?

And the more I thought about it, the more it worked.

Because in a wrestling event, you have this format, where someone gets up and monologues, and then someone else comes in and they might say something in response, and then they fight. And surprisingly, that works really well with the text of Macbeth.

I mean, you have this section near the end:

They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly,
But, bear-like, I must fight the course. What’s he
That was not born of woman? Such a one
Am I to fear, or none.


What is thy name?

Thou’lt be afraid to hear it.

No; though thou call’st thyself a hotter name
Than any is in hell.

My name’s Macbeth.

The devil himself could not pronounce a title
More hateful to mine ear.

No, nor more fearful.

Thou liest, abhorred tyrant; with my sword
I’ll prove the lie thou speak’st.

Now take whatever image you have of a Shakespeare staging that you have in your mind and toss it away. And replace it with a wrestling ring, lights, pyrotechnics, and guitar driven music, and two guys with microphones. Macbeth is in the ring. The audience is booing him. Young Siward enters (with theme music and pyrotechnics) but he stays near the entrance, at the top of the ramp down to the ring. They have their back and forth, and at the end with his with my sword I’ll prove the lie thou speak’st he runs down the ramp, launches himself into the ring and fights with Macbeth, who defeats him handily, and awaits the next match.

This was the first moment where the wrestling idea occurred to me. But it worked with many other moments, both later (like the final face off between Macbeth and Macduff) or earlier (the Lady Macduff/Murderers scene). And in true wrestling pay-per-view traditon, some scenes would take place backstage, projected onto the jumbotron, with the crowd cheering or booing. It wasn’t hight art, and it was kinda dumb, but it was fun to consider this strange staging.

I was reminded of this old idea hearing about the Pro Wrestlng Rock Musical The Last Match. It turned out, I wasn’t the only one who had considered the merging of theatre and wrestling.

Of course, my idea couldn’t be done. Not really. Its too expensive, with the lights and pyro, and music and ring and arena. And while it is a fun “thought production” its not one that I am really jazzed about  pursuing. But I was really thrilled by the idea of taking Shakespeare out of the theatre, and making it an immersive experience. 

The real immersive Shakespeare experience that I have been mulling over for a few years? I’ll keep that one to myself for now, because that one I really want to make happen.