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.

Canadian Star System

This essay first appeared on the March 1 episode of Stageworthy Podcast.

Have you noticed that we don’t have stars in Canada? Now I don’t mean those people that we all know the names of who’ve gone to the U S or to England to become famous, but we still claim them as our own. No, I mean, we don’t have any home grown and fostered theater stars. By that. I mean, we don’t have names that are a draw. We don’t have actors whose names can go on a poster. And just by being there become a draw in other countries, like in the U S and in the UK, an actor’s name can work as a draw, but in Canada, That’s such a rare thing. And sometimes we don’t even see any actors names on a poster.

Now, a cynical person would think that maybe this is a tactical decision on the part of the producers, because weighing the value of a star. They have to think that perhaps it’s better to pay actors less than to have actors whose name have recognition because a star can make demands. A star has power.

So perhaps the wisdom is to ensure that we have no stars, no names that can be a draw so that we keep everyone just thankful to be working so that no one questions how much they’re paid. And that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. We’ve seen the death of theater, journalism, and arts journalism as a whole, as the media landscape shrinks.

And it becomes harder for theater companies to get media attention, then promoting the actors in the show and pushing them to any media that still pays attention to the theater would not only be a way to keep audiences coming, but an investment in the future because an actor with name recognition is a draw a way to sell tickets.

But of course you can’t do that if you have no recognizable actors and I’m not talking about actors whose names are recognizable within the theater community, we have lots of those. Those names might be well-respected, but they don’t necessarily sell tickets. I’m talking about names that can be recognizable to the general public.

But we can’t have that. If an actor is largely unnamed from show to show, I can’t think of a Canadian theater actor who could star in a play whose name would make the general public want to purchase tickets. Occasionally in the past, there have been productions of shows that have brought in an actor who was legitimately famous.

For example, there was the famous – or was it infamous – production of Hamlet that started Keanu Reeves. And it’s obvious that this was stunt casting and attempt to bring in a movie star to sell tickets. But why does something like that happened with a movie star who I’m sure was paid a lot of money, but there’s no chance of that with a Canadian theater actor who isn’t already a movie star.

The movie star is allowed to be an above the title draw but what other Canadian actor can boast the same? Is the problem the lack of entertainment coverage in Canada? As a member of the media, I am regularly sent press releases for shows, and those press releases always list both the cast and creative team.

Now I’m a weekly podcast with a modest reach, and I try to interview as many people as possible, but I can only get to so many, but with a daily paper, with a large reach, you would get so many more press releases than I do. And often the ones that stand out are the ones with a PR person that the reporter knows.

And in those cases, the PR or public relations person is going to try and get some kind of write-up for the production. And maybe this might’ve been easier years ago when there was more coverage, but there are so few publications doing regular theater coverage. It seems nearly impossible now. So maybe the death of arts coverage is part of the problem, but that isn’t all of it because the problem has existed for longer than the recent deterioration of the media landscape, because we haven’t ever really had theater stars in Canada.

And I know that while there might be good things about a star system, there’s also plenty of bad. Isn’t it? Nice to think that all the actors get this same, that there’s an egalitarianism to being a working actor in Canada, but that’s not quite true because if I have the lead in a show, I do get paid a little more, but I’m not a star. Not really not like in other places.

Of course, anyone who’s spent any time paying attention to the entertainment industry in Canada knows that we don’t have stars. And we don’t really consider anyone a star until they’ve had success elsewhere. And for a while, I thought that was just a part of being Canadian, but on reflection, I don’t think it is.

Maybe it’s more about the entertainment media that we do have spending more time talking about American artists than it does our own home grown talent. Maybe that combined with producers who want actors to just be thankful to be working, keeps the Canadian artists small. But I think that we deserve better.

We deserve to have homegrown talent that stays here and becomes a household name. Canadians need to see themselves on their stages. And that includes seeing Canadian names above the title and celebrated for being a Canadian artist who stayed in Canada rather than leaving for the U S.

The “Theatre Community”

This essay first appeared in the Feb. 22, 2022 episode of Stageworthy.

Here’s a question that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Just what is the theatre community? We often talk about the quote unquote theatre community. What does the community think about this? What is the community doing about this?

And I love the idea of the theatre community, but often a moment after I talk about the theatre community, I find myself wondering what exactly is the community and how do I find it? Because a community is a social unit with a commonality, like a, an identity or a religion or values or, or passions. Or in the case of the theatre world of vocation, but a community needs to be a social unit.

Now I live in Toronto, which is a pretty big city for theatre, but there are small pockets of theatre all over this city. Lots of theatre cliques for want of a better word. There are some names that everyone knows, and a lot of names that might be known within a single clique, but might not be known in another.

The problem with these clique’s is that they are both the theatre community and not, they are the community because for the people involved in that group, that’s their community, but they are not the community because they’re a small group for the larger theatre community. That’s something that’s more complicated to describe.

When I think about the theatre community, when I’ve asked people to tell me what they think about when they think of the theatre community in Toronto, the only thing they seem to be able to think of is the fringe tent or the patio or whatever we’re calling it. Now, fringe seems to be the one time of year when the theatre world comes together and forms a community.

We gather, we have a few drinks, we have some conversation. We talk about the amazing theatre we’ve seen. We talk about the things that we’re working on. We hang out and just enjoy being with other theatre people. And for 10 ish days, we have this place that we go. And when it’s over, that’s pretty much the end of the community for the year, because it’s the only time we seem to gather as a group.

When I first came to Toronto, when I first started hanging out and being in the world of Toronto as an adult, I learned that there was a bar called the Green Room and I assumed that was the theatre bar. And I thought to myself how amazing it was that there was this place where all the performers and other theatre people in Toronto could go and hang out.

Well, imagine my surprise and disappointment when I discovered that it was just a bar. Occasionally you would find some theatre people there, but it was not a theatre bar. And I think about New York city, where there have been restaurants that were integral to the theatre world, like the Edison cafe, sadly, no longer with us and a cursory Google search assures me that there are other cafes and restaurants that are theatre centric where people go, we don’t have that here.

There are a few places that have become central to the theatre scenes in cities here and there. At least during the fringe season, someone will have to let me know if they’re theatre hubs all year long in Winnipeg. The Kings Head becomes the bar of choice for fringe casts and crews. And in Edmonton, the performers shunned the beer tents and instead head to Steel Wheels.

But to my knowledge, these places, these hubs of the theatre community are temporary and mostly related to the local fringe scene, but it would be great to have a place that could be more of a regular gathering place, where we could talk about things happening in the theatre world, where we could meet where we could have community instead of making Twitter, our theatre commons, because Twitter is no place for discourse, but when we have no place to gather on the regular, how can we be a theatre community, I guess in the end, I don’t have an answer because I still don’t know what the theatre community is.

It’s something we talk about as though it was a thing and every now and then we get a taste of what it could be and then it’s gone, but I long for it. And maybe you do too. The only question is what do we do about that?

Truth and Honesty in the Theatre

This essay first appeared on the Feb. 8 episode of Stageworthy.

We have an honesty problem in theatre, and I’m not talking about on stage, we talk a lot about truth on the stage. We want where we portray to be as truthful as possible. We pursue on the stage for a scene a moment to be as honest and truthful as possible. offstage, there may be many times when we feel like we can’t be truthful and honest. Think about a time when you were unhappy with the way that the audiences were reacting to a show or even you were unhappy with the turnout of audiences to the show, you felt like the show could have been getting more audiences but wasn’t getting the audience’s it deserved.

But could you say that? Could you post on social media about how disappointed you are? It’s pretty much understood that you don’t, at least not in a place where anyone but your closest friends might see it. You have to publicly remain positive. And if you’re frustrated about things happening behind the scenes, or if there’s something toxic happening in the rehearsal hall, whether it’s from the director or producer, or even another actor, can we call it out? Do we call it out? Do we talk about it, regardless of whether or not we should we often don’t.

We don’t talk about these things. And often, it was our theatre school experience that laid the groundwork for that silence. When I was in theatre school, I did not have a great experience. I wouldn’t say that my experience was toxic. I just wasn’t very happy. And part of the problem was that to be completely honest, I was one of those students that rode the edge of being cut from the programme. Back when that was a regular occurrence. I’m told we don’t cut people from programmes anymore, which is good. But it was something that hung over my head for the entirety of the three years I was at school. And I wasn’t the only one. All of us knew that we could be cut from the programme and that they wouldn’t have to give any reason. And their reasoning if they gave one wouldn’t be questioned. We went through our days in fear. And so if we saw problematic or toxic behaviour, we didn’t say anything. We learned not to rock the boat.

I’ve been doing this podcast for about six years now. But occasionally I’ll find out that somebody I’m interviewing went to the same theatre school that I did. And I would ask them as somebody who went to that school and really curious, I’d ask how their experience was, and they would get this frozen smile on their face. And they would say, Oh, it was great. But I could tell there was something not quite right there. And so we just gloss over it and move on.

And then afterwards, when the recording was over, I’d asked them again, about their experience. And I would hear stories about how their experience was toxic, but they didn’t feel like they could say that out loud, that they couldn’t call it out.

And so they just didn’t. And they tried to put their theatre school experiences behind them all while it taught them that the most important thing for them to do was keep their mouths shut.

How are we supposed to change things when we can’t talk about them?

It’s hard enough to be an artist without having to bottle up the truth without having to bottle up what you’re feeling like things are not going your way or when you’re being treated unfairly or where you just want to be able to admit that you’re disappointed in something like the turnout for a show, as I mentioned before, or a bad review. It’s hard enough to get a bad review for a show. And again, we don’t complain about that we take our lumps and we try to let it slide. Even though we want to respond. We don’t because that’s not how it’s done. That’s not professional. And so we shrug and pretend that it doesn’t bother us. But of course it does. But we can’t see that it does we have to remain positive.

And I wonder sometimes if the public, the people who aren’t artists see this and wonder if we’re being disingenuous. Do we seem artificial to them? Because we put on that brave positive face all the time? Does it make it difficult for the non artists to relate to us? Is that why muggles have this idea that so often portrayed in the media that we’re really fake people? I believe that people can sense when we’re not being honest. And when there’s something we’re not saying. And we know it too. It eats at us. I know what eats me when I do it. And I wish I could just say what I’m thinking. But I don’t because that’s just not what we do. And why isn’t it something we do? Why is that kind of honesty frowned on.

Why is it that if I get an unfair review, I can’t say anything? Why is it if if I had a bad experience in the rehearsal hall, I can’t say anything?

I wish I had an answer to the whole thing. I wish I knew how to fix it. But maybe if we talk about it, we can take a few steps towards fixing the toxic aspects of the industry, and also be a little bit better to ourselves. 

I booked the space before I had a play – bad idea or best idea?

I had an idea for a new play, a new solo piece (because apparently, I caught “the bug” with The Commandment), and I wanted to make sure that I didn’t spend the next eight years writing it, like I did with the last solo piece, and so I knew that I needed to light a fire under my ass. Because I know that I need that. If I don’t have it, it will be a thing I want to write, but that I don’t really have to write, which means that I won’t.

But I’m getting off topic. I had an idea. First I wrote a poem about a Christmas monster, and then I started to think about all the other Christmas monsters, the ones who were once gods and the ones who were always just monstrous, and what they mean to the holiday we cut and pasted over Yule and Saturnalia. And so, I started to read about them and their origins. I started with this book, and then found more. And so I started to write. I spent some of the time over my Christmas break writing. And then I booked a space. I called up Rosemary at the Red Sandcastle Theatre, and rented the space for the end of November 2018.

And that lit a fire, let me tell you. Every time I look at a calendar, that adds some fuel to the fire. Because it sounds like a long way off, but it comes up quicker than I’d like.

So I’m writing, with a deadline, to make a thing to perform in November. And I don’t know what its going to be yet. And that’s exhilarating and frightening.