Who do I Have to Sleep with to Get OUT of This Business?

The title of this post is inspired by a comment that I overheard backstage during a theatre performance. It seems appropriate, given the cut-throat nature of the industry described herein.

I recently came across two articles that discussed why theatre companies, live, die, and pass into memory. Neither provided a satisfying explanation, but both inadvertently hinted at some plausible causes.

The first was a thoughtful exploration of alternate structures for producing theatre, authored by Rebecca Novick, a theatre director and arts consultant in the San Francisco Bay area. In her view, the corporate structure of a non-profit corporation can hinder rather than help artists who are trying to find productive work in the theatre business. She offers suggestions to theatre artists and arts funders that would divert resources away from the operation of companies toward the people who create the onstage product. Her general thesis – that more investment in companies rather than artists might actually inhibit the art form’s growth – has an appealing logic.

The second was a light-hearted column in a local Toronto weekly which concluded that theatre companies compete in a zero sum game, played by Neo-Darwinist rules. According to Carly Maga, we shouldn’t be overly concerned by the demise of the game’s losers. Her title likens these companies to fish that are struggling to stay afloat or going belly up. In the article, she compares them to dead branches falling away from trees being hacked at by axes. Whether fish or foliage, she argues that the loss of companies like Dancap, along with the $40 million they’re rumoured to have lost, is inevitable and inconsequential in the greater scheme of things.

Rather than contradict either of them, it would be better to see Novick and Maga reconcile their views with one another. On the surface they seem to agree that theatre companies are of doubtful value and importance, however Novick is primarily concerned with the careers of aspiring theatre professionals and their creative output, while Maga seems unconcerned about anything other than assurance that natural selection is at work in the industry and that it is indeed natural.

When Novick talks about alternatives to traditional theatre companies, she’s really talking about self-production and self-employment strategies that will advance the field by bringing new talent to the fore and by shifting funds from inefficient companies to highly productive artists. Maga should try to explain to Novick how these aspiring theatre professionals would fare in the absence of the large established companies at work in every North American city.

Maga may consider this to be inconsequential, but everyone Novick cares about would be harmed by the evaporation of jobs for actors, directors, stage managers, technicians, costume designers, set builders, designers, and musicians (not to mention the corporate unworthiness in marketing and administration) that would result when the fund raising, marketing, and production capacity of large companies is diminished. Whether the companies in question are non-profit or commercial, like Aubrey Dan’s, most of the money they earn at the box office and raise philanthropically goes into fees and wages. Without these companies, competition for work in a contracted theatre industry would be much more intense for aspiring theatre professionals at all levels.

Here’s another thing they have in common: neither makes any meaningful reference to the relationship between theatre companies and audiences, or between artists and audiences. Maga is disturbingly cavalier about the whole audience thing.

First, she blurs the distinction between commercial and non-profit theatre in terms of scale. In Toronto’s commercial theatre heyday, Livent’s sales at the Pantages Theatre alone likely exceeded the combined sales of all the local non-profit companies (8 shows per week X 2,000 seats X 50 weeks = 800,000 tickets sold at premium prices). These are monster producers in terms of revenue and consequently opportunities for theatre professionals. Their mode of operation bears very little resemblance to the small non-profit theatres Maga generalizes about, and ticket sales are their lifeblood.

When she talks about the Canadian Stage Company, she seems almost hostile to the necessity of an audience. She credits the artistic director with resurrecting the company and explains away his box office failure (along with deep budget deficits) by speculating that CSC could sell its theatre out if it only had fewer seats. Why didn’t Aubrey Dan think of that? Or Garth Drabinsky, who could have told unhappy investors that his shows were all sold out… except for the empty seats.

In every example, she lauds the companies that play to tiny or empty houses, mystified by the popular appeal of a company (Soulpepper) that offered “a canon of classic plays and reputable casts.” This company, she allows, may redeem itself by opening its current season with something that might at last dismay its audience. Like Novick, she seems to inhabit a strange world where we all might be better off without big companies and their big audiences, performing in venues with a lot of seats. Taken to its logical conclusion, success in the performing arts might be best achieved by eliminating performances altogether, since they involve avoidable risk, cost, and contact with uninformed audiences.

The importance of audiences is notable only by its absence in Novick’s analysis. Although she’s making a valid point about the unnecessary proliferation of small theatre companies, she fails to acknowledge that there are perfectly valid reasons for incorporating theatre companies in some circumstances. Companies, unlike self-organizing artist run groups and collectives, strive to acquire capacity in three corporate functions: production, administration, and marketing. A constant focus on marketing is required to build audiences over time, and this is a chronically neglected practice of project-based groups. Yet isn’t it an assumed motive of aspirants in the performing arts to perform? And to perform for audiences rather than for each other? Audience development is an indispensable function of theatre companies yet is largely overlooked in this discussion.

I find it bizarre to imagine that big companies with big audiences are less important to the prospects of theatre artists than opportunities to work in more fluid, project-based groups or little companies with narrow audience appeal. In reality, they’re all necessary for the health of theatre in any major market.

Large theatre companies depend on a constant flow of talent from smaller companies and projects. Entry level theatre professionals depend on that flow to open opportunities for them at higher levels in the industry as their talent matures through practice.

The fact that Novick and Maga have taken this narrow view, analyzing artists, companies, and audiences as discrete elements, highlights what I think is one of the biggest problems affecting the performing arts, at least in Canada. Practitioners of the craft, once-aspiring or accomplished artists, eventually become managers by default, bringing their subjective views into positions that require flinty-eyed objectivity.

This is true of managers and executives across arts disciplines, where artistic experience is often an unspoken precondition of organizational leadership. The exceptional artistic director who diagnoses problems, strategizes well, and manages superbly, is not at all common. Despite this, the majority of Boards give them authority over their business managers in areas where their artistic experience is of little use.

NetGain was once asked to repair a music organization’s business plan. It had been drafted by a consultant who was chosen because he was an internationally renowned flautist with strong connections to government funders. When the plan was torn down and rebuilt to their satisfaction and relief, I struck a pact with the executive director: The next time they hire a flautist to write a business plan, I get to lead the wind section of the National Arts Centre Orchestra.

I play the kazoo.

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