Toronto's CanStage – what's up with that?!?

by Megan Mooney

Okay, so, J. Kelly called me out.  He’s noted that I haven’t gone on the record with what I think of the whole CanStage thing.  So, this post is LONG overdue (I’ve been on vacation, yay summer!) I’m gonna do general thoughts first, then I’m going to answer the specific questions J. Kelly asks in his first CanStage post in this series of posts.

Before I say anything though, let me tell you that with all my heart, I hope CanStage succeeds.  I’m not sure what the definition of success is in a general sense, but for the short-term I’m going with ‘not collapsing under their own weight, and still being able to put on shows’, because, I’ll be honest, I am really afraid the writing is on the wall for CanStage (or Canadian Stage Company, whichever they’re calling themselves these days) but I’m praying to random deities that it is not the case.  Watching a theatre die is always heartbreaking.

This is gonna be a long one, hopefully you’ll stick through it with me.

CanStage and their current position 

From what I’ve seen, and from talking to ‘non-theatre’ people, there are three stratum of theatre in Toronto. 

1) The great big mega stuff (Mirvish, Dancap, and imported shows at the Sony Centre.)

2) The middle level, still pretty big and ‘mainstream’, but not huge, and not as many musicals (CanStage and Soulpepper)

3) ‘Alternative’ theatres, that I have been told by ‘non-theatre’ people are intimidating and they assume they won’t ‘get’ the plays (Passe Muraille, Factory, Tarragon, Buddies, and on and on – basically, everyone else, excluding community theatre groups and dinner theatre groups)

Actually, technically there’s another, it’s places like Second City, where people don’t even realise it’s a type of theatre, they just go for laughs.  But for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll leave them out for now.

For the first eleven years of their life, CanStage was the only company to occupy that second strata.  They had no competition.  Basically, if people wanted to go to a show without paying $80 or $90, or if they wanted to see something that *wasn’t* a musical, then they headed to CanStage.  It was the only ‘safe’ theatre, the theatre where people who like theatre, but are intimidated by ‘alternative’ theatres could go to enjoy a show.

Then, in 1998, along came Soulpepper.  Suddenly there was competition for those theatre-goers that didn’t want ‘huge’, but also didn’t want ‘alternative’.  Soulpepper had no lofty claims of promoting Canadian theatre, it was a repertory theatre, plain and simple.  Sure, they talk about “vital Canadian interpretations of history’s great stories,” but that’s just code for Canadian productions of good, already produced elsewhere, shows.

In many ways, they’re pretty comparable.  Similar demographic, similar ticket prices, with Soulpepper coming in a bit cheaper generally (than the Bluma Appel Theatre, not Berkeley), strong productions, good reputations (remember, I’m not talking any inside stuff here, just the stuff that your average Sam sees). 

The problem is, CanStage seems to have been spending it’s time assuming it’s still the only game in town.  So, while Soulpepper presented a slick image, did a ton of PR, and ran shows all year ’round, Canstage seemed to assume it was business as usual and didn’t really change anything.

But, since it wasn’t business as usual, they lost bums in seats.  From a strictly business perspective, not artistic, they need to start working as though they have competition (’cause, well, they do).  I’m not saying the artistic should disappear, it can’t, but the business part has to be a priority too.  That’s why I think that there should be a managing director *and* an artistic director – so that they each have to make the case for their priority, and nothing gets watered down without a fight.

The switch to more ‘crowd pleasing’ shows has back-fired for them in the theatre community at large, but I am not sure how many non-theatre people, who like to go to a show every once in a while, care.  I wonder if the average patron notices the lack of Canadian content, or laments the lack of ‘challenging’ work.  I suspect that might just be us.

But, I’m betting the average patron does notice that they hear a lot more about this Soulpepper place, and oh, it’s in a really cool location, and hey, look, I can still go to a show in August if I want!  And, to top it all off, they’re even a wee bit cheaper than CanStage, maybe I should try them out.

For CanStage a couple glossy posters and some ads seem to be the extent of their PR.  Now, to be fair, I know from the times I’ve been contacted, the publicists work their asses off to get theatre writers in and doing not just doing reviews, but doing profiles of the artists etc.  And this may be where the lack of ‘internal’ interest is hurting them. 

If a theatre writer isn’t interested what’s going on with CanStage, then they’re less likely to write about them, and that leads to a lack of public visibility.  I mean, until we’re all speculating about their potential implosion – then, apparently we’re all really interested in writing about it.

The most recent challenge for CanStage is that the implosion has now become visible to ‘outsiders’.  Average Sam’s have read the articles about they losing an Artistic Director 8 months after promoting him to the position, they read about the lay-offs, they read about the fact that Martin Bragg is leaving (and have no opinion on the man himself, so it just looks like more rats from a sinking ship).  It’s no longer a poorly-guarded secret, people know these things now.

So, what does all this mean?  Well, it means CanStage needs to get it’s act together.  And they’re working on it.  This upcoming season seems to be offering several (largely unknown) incentives to people in terms of ticket pricing; from a program for people 23 and under to get $5 tickets to shows, to expanding the $20 tickets to be available to anyone, not just those under $30.  Training programs for youth have also been introduced, but again, I suspect that’s something that we, as people in the theatre industry, care about, but that the average person going to a show doesn’t, other than perhaps an ‘oh, that’s neat’ factor.

We’ll see where all this leads.  I have my fingers crossed for them, and I do think that they’ll pull out of this.  And for the record, I have no problem with producing crowd-pleasing bums in seats shows, theatres need money to survive, but I would like to see maybe only one of those per season, but basically, don’t count it as part of the season.  Program the rest of the shows as the season, and the crowd pleaser as an add-on.  Then they can work towards more interesting stuff, and more CanCon, but still have a revenue generating show.

But really, do we need It’s a Wonderful Life and Shirley Valentine in the same season of The *Canadian* Stage Company?

 

Okay, the questions…

 

J Kelly’s specific questions (truncated) :

 

1) Hire a new artistic producer? Or a managing director and artistic director?

I’m a big advocate for having both a managing director and an artistic director.  For one thing, it means that each can focus on one task – spreading people’s time and attention more thinly rarely ends with better results than people being able to focus.  It also means that these people can be there based on specific expertise, not because they can manage both jobs.  It will open up the pool of candidate
s.

If those aren’t good enough reasons, then add into the mix that it will mean that a good strong dialogue and discourse will happen on each show.  I’m sure that happens now, but it will up the ante.

 

2) What should CanStage’s mandate be?

Hmmm.  I don’t know.  I don’t really have a solid opinion on this, I just think they should pick a mandate and stick to it. 

On the site they sayThe Company is committed to creating and producing the best in Canadian and international contemporary theatre, attracting and developing the best artists and plays in Canada and promoting its Canadian productions in international markets.

And yet, the only Canadian work in the 08-09 season are co-productions with other companies, and in the smaller Berkely space, instead of the main theatre, Bluma Appel, that people tend to think of CanStage.  If I were anal I’d tell you that, in fact, there is only 25% Canadian content on the CanStage stages.  So, gotta say, it doesn’t feel too much like it’s “producing the best in Canadian and international contemporary theatre”.  So, it seems like the focus is much more on the international. 

But, maybe they were basing the season on the mandate that was in a June 24 press release where it said “the Company is dedicated to programming international contemporary theatre and to developing and producing landmark Canadian works which have been awarded some of the country’s most prestigious literary and performing arts honours” which sounds like a different mandate, with the focus on contemporary international work.

I do feel though, that if Canadian theatre isn’t the focus anymore, it maybe shouldn’t be called the Canadian Stage Company.  It seems somehow a bit misleading to call it that, if that’s not the focus.  And yes, I know, that whether they produce Canadian theatre or not, they are a Canadian theatre company, but, I don’t know, it just rings hollow to me somehow.

I actually really like the original mandate, as stated on the websiteCentreStage merged with Toronto Free Theatre in 1987 to form The Canadian Stage Company. The original aim of the merger was to create a national theatre cased in Toronto, with Canadian work at the centre of its endeavours. Glassco and Sprung were co-artistic directors and took turns producing seasons.”

 

3) Who would you like to see run CanStage? Impractical suggestions as welcome as practical ones.

I got nothin’ man.  Not a single thing.  J Kelly?  Wanna do it?  Come on, give it a shot, we’ll be here to give feedback when you need it.  *grin*

 

4) Re-re-rebrand the name back to CanStage, or keep Canadian Stage Company?

CanStage all the way!!!!  (By the way, their website seems to use both The Canadian Stage Company, and CanStage)

5 thoughts on “Toronto's CanStage – what's up with that?!?”

  1. I completely forgot about the impact that Soulpepper has on CanStage, so thank you for mentioning it. That’s a huge piece of the puzzle we haven’t been talking about, probably because both companies haven’t really engaged with the independent theatre community, so what happens to them really isn’t on the radar.

    The more I think about it, the more it makes sense for CanStage (with a name change like you suggested) to produce contemporary international work at the Bluma, and keep the Berkeley in some form dedicated to creating new work, possibly as a spin-off company. And that needs to be decided before bringing in someone to run the place.

    BTW, are you the Mooney working at Tarragon?

  2. I wonder whether the government arts cut backs will hurt them. I don’t know enough about Canadian theatre to be able to weigh into this in any kind of significant way of course, though your points about it not being as Canada focused as it claims seem very on point. A lot of this really does seem like a branding and marketing issue. When you’re the only game in town these sorts of things tend to take care of themselves – you’re the default brand, an absence of anything else defines the product – once you have competition and really have start thinking about identity, branding, and marketing, the work reveals itself to be very complex. Those without aptitude or experience sink very fast. Sadly, mounting good productions is only part of the game.

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