I was a little overwhelmed by the response to my “Five Points of Contention” post. Despite its relentlessly local focus, it quickly saw almost as many hits as my less-than-jolly review of Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous and my attack on Sherlock-author Stephen Moffat’s sexist scripts. Thank you all for reading, for sharing on Twitter and Facebook, and especially for your comments. It’s been a bit humbling and very exciting.

Rather than bury my responses to your many challenging and intriguing points in the comments section of my last post, I thought I’d type them up in a separate entry. So here goes.


Grant Heggie thinks that “it is high time to discuss the gluttony of admin people working in the arts. To put it simply, there far to many people doing far to little work, getting paid a far much.”

I will admit that I am sometimes struck by the number of artistic directors, general managers, etc. in this city, and I’m not fully convinced that we need quite this many administrators of one kind or another. However, the notion that these positions are gravy-fuelled is patently absurd. If anything, I understand them to be lifesavers — the sorts of jobs that allow theatre makers to continue to dedicate their lives to the art without going broke. On the other hand, one might argue that it’s perverse to pay people to administrate rather than to act, direct, or design (though I’m not sure things are quite that simple); that’s the kind of argument that would move the discussion towards Rebecca Novick’s recent cri de coeur “Please, Don’t Start a Theater Company!” However, I don’t think it’s the case that Toronto suffers from an overabundance of theatre administrators who do nothing but administrate: my impression is that most of the people who administer theatrical things do so to make a meagre living while still acting, directing, and designing largely for free.


David Ferry confirms, reassuringly, that I did in the end understand properly what he meant by amateurization. Wearing my academic (and, horror, academic administrator) hat for a moment, I will say that at least the Theatre and Drama Studies program taught jointly by the University of Toronto Mississauga and Sheridan College, part of my department, has not “expanded [its] student bod[y] and lessened standards dramatically to justify [its] continued existence.” We have admitted more or less the same number of students year after year since 2002 (around 25 — I don’t have data for the years before that), and if anything, admission standards have become more stringent over the past ten years; standards of assessment in the program remain rigorous. I can’t say if our practice is representative of what’s been happening elsewhere.

David’s points about the relative youth of the Canadian theatre and the disparity between London and New York on the one hand and Toronto on the other are well taken. As far as the latter goes, however, I didn’t really offer such a comparison — certainly not as an apples-and-apples match-up. My point wasn’t that London and Toronto should be measured by the same yardstick. Quite the contrary.

So let me restate the point I was trying to make: Toronto is smaller than London, and its theatregoing population is probably disproportionately smaller still. And yet, in Toronto, over a third more companies receive public funding than in London (125 vs. 87). Amazingly, the actual money available in both cities is pretty much the same (leaving out the National Theatre, which is beyond the pale, and assuming roughly equal purchasing power for Pound and Canadian Dollar, which seems realistic): London is over three times larger than Toronto, and spends £26 million on theatre; Toronto companies receive just under $11 million. If anything, one could argue that there is more public support available here than in England. The real difference is not in how much money there is, but in how that money is distributed (which is why Bobby Del Rio isn’t quite right in saying that “we don’t have the dollars to turn [the arts] into an ‘industry’ per se. Not really. While London and NYC are amazing cities … we simply don’t have the money or population to do what they’re doing”). In theory at least it would be entirely possible to fund Toronto companies as well as London theatres, if we were willing to only fund around 30 troupes. I realize that sounds like a brutal cut. But think about it: 30 companies with an average operating grant of $365,000 each. Right now, we have seven companies in the city with that kind of funding.

Bobby is undoubtedly right that “the entire community would be livid (even more so than usual) if we simply took the money away from the smallest companies and gave it to the biggest companies.” But I’m not sure he’s correct about the consequences: “People complain about nepotism now (rightly). How deep would the nepotism run if the number of places to get paying work suddenly shrank significantly?” Why would that number shrink? If you triple the companies with actual serious operating budgets in the city, you might lose a few paid positions — certainly a significant number of paid artistic directors. But you’d massively grow the number of troupes that can stage more than one play a year, with more than three actors each, employing directors, designers, and crews. Put differently, you’d add 20 Nightwoods to the Toronto scene (except 20 Nightwoods with about a third more public funds than Nightwood has now). The biggest challenge would be finding performance spaces for all the work those companies could produce!

(Again, as I said in my last post: someone please show me that my math doesn’t add up at all. Because in some ways, I’d much rather it didn’t. And yes, I know that you couldn’t actually have 30 companies with $360,000 each, because the biggest companies need more funding than that. But you know what would work, give or take a few dollars? CanStage with its customary $2 million, YPT with its $1 million, and so on, all the way down to Buddies in seventh place, at close to half a million dollars, unchanged; and then 20 companies, all of them a bit over Nightwood’s current funding level.)

No matter how troubled I am by the current funding model, however, I can’t really agree with Carmen Grant‘s contention that government support for “shows which are being produced on a whim or as a thrill by amateurs looking for their 15 minutes of fame is embarrassing and infuriating. It happens, we all know it happens, and almost all of us have seen the sad, shit-quality outcome of such productions.” I think that’s unduly harsh. I also frequently find those less than polished shows more exciting and interesting than what’s being produced by much better-funded, much more “professional” theatres in the city. Exactly what constitutes “quality theatre” (Carmen’s phrase) remains a matter of debate, I think. But it is certainly true that the present system doesn’t create suitable conditions for producing professional-level, polished, and thought-through — if unconventional, challenging, or recalcitrant — work. No matter how “amateur” or “professional” you are, it’s very difficult to stage anything on a few thousand dollars.


Nobody Important” makes a related claim — that “Toronto theatre doesn’t produce lesser known classics, put the younger people in the forefront, etc. because, unfortunately, the audiences won’t come. … In order to survive, theatre companies have to rely on the crowd pleasers, the plays that people have heard of, the actors that people like, in order to continue making theatre.” I would respond that this is largely arguing a hypothetical, although it’s presented as empirical fact: as far as I know, no company has done any of those things consistently and for an even mildly protracted time in recent memory. We have no idea if audiences will come or not. And it doesn’t help, of course, that the vast majority of our theatre companies are hugely underfunded.

The same commentator also echoes David Ferry’s point about the lack of a history of theatre: “And comparing the European theatre scene to the North American isn’t fair. Europe, because it is much older than our young country, has history and way more of a head-start towards creating a culture-loving population.” As a point about culture, I must confess that I don’t understand it. An immigrant culture like Canada should be richer in cultural resources, not poorer than a European nation-state. We should be able to draw on the full range of theatrical traditions of the world — certainly on those of the great European theatre nations. The country may be young (though even that is obviously eminently debatable), but the cultures that inform its many hyphenated populations are not. Why can’t we tap into those traditions? Why haven’t we? (David Ferry’s second comment gives a fascinating potted history that answers the second why, though not quite the first one.)

As for the absence of a history of professional theatre in Canada, I frankly don’t buy it. Others are better able than me to make this argument properly, but I neither can give much credit to the notion that the lack of a national culture of playwrighting before the second half of the 20th century explains the current situation nor do I believe the situation is all that different elsewhere. London has plenty of old theatres, sure, and they might have fading photos and posters evoking the great names of days gone by — but the Ellen Terries and John Gielguds of the past are decorative elements in the lobbies of those theatres, not active forces on their stages. What is interesting and powerful about London theatre now has much more to with the last 50 years than with the awe-inspiringly long history of professional performance in and around the city. It’s worth remembering that Britain did not have a National Theatre until 1963, and that that theatre did not have its own building until 1976. The Royal Court’s English Stage Company was founded in 1956. I don’t quite see the dramatic difference between the Canadian and the English timelines when it comes to the development of modern theatre.


Larry Switzky takes me to task, rightly, for drawing too sharp a distinction between 20th-century drama and everything else. I completely agree that the modern canon on our stages is also extremely limited, and that there are many treasures to (re)discover — as Larry knows better than most. My only defence is that the canon of modern (but non-contemporary) theatre in Toronto may be small, but at least it exists; Soulpepper now does much more to bring those works (or at least the more predictable ones) back to audiences than to revive the “classics” with which the company began.

At the same time, Larry’s doing a much better job of describing why I would like to see more classical theatre than I did myself. Sure, there are certain specific plays I’d like performed, but at heart I’m much more concerned about the need for a more capacious understanding of what theatre can be, and would like us to return to old plays as one major source of “a set of performance (and maybe humanistic) values: a less cramped vision of the diversity and extremity of life and its depiction, say, than you usually get in a black box at Tarragon or The Factory.” I do indeed think that the classics hold a huge wealth of “neglected representational and affective possibilities” that we ignore at our peril. But I will readily admit that the way those plays are typically staged now makes it very easy to forget that they contain that potential. It’s hard to recognize something as visionary or revolutionary if it sits in a museum display case gathering dust.

(Jacob Zimmer’s detailed and hugely engaging response on the Small Wooden Shoe blog deserves its own post. That’s happening tomorrow.)

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3 Responses to Toronto Theatre: Responses, Part 1

  1. Noam Lior says:

    The trouble with a topic like this is that, once you start looking at a bigger picture, you can’t talk about anything without, eventually, talking about everything.

    Nevertheless, a couple more points to throw into the mix:

    I think training/education is a factor in the matter of our limited canon/repertoire, in a number of ways. A lot of our actor training utilizes and emphasizes tools that are not useful (or actively counterproductive) for a wide variety of texts. Thus, on the rare occasions that we see works from ‘outside the canon’ produced, they too often tend to one of two extremes: either an attempt at psychological realism, which elides a lot of what makes the piece different and interesting in the first place; or else a stylistic/historical presentation (not necessarily Original Practices, but commedia-flavoured, or bouffon-inflected, or whatever) that often sacrifices audience engagement for some form of performer virtuosity.

    Presenting ‘outside the canon’ work (and there’s a MUCH larger conversation that’s worth having– elsewhere– about what our canon is, how it came to be, and what we should do with/about it) takes a certain amount of effort. There’s a lot of reverse-engineering that needs to be done, examining the piece in its original context, not just for its story, but for its story-telling (i.e. narrative and theatrical conventions), in order to develop that new language that will render the play not only comprehensible but also engaging (and even, in an ideal world, entertaining) to a new target audience. Mind you, I do a lot of work as a dramaturge/theatre historian, so I’ve got some major biases here. Apply grain of salt as needed.

    This is where I would quibble with Jacob Zimmer’s incisive response: for me, one of the joys of being a post-modern media-saturated human-type-person is that all stories are “our stories” now. I’m a narrative junkie, and any narrative is fair game. The trick is to find ways to convey that narrative to “our audience” while also making it fun for all involved. I understand the call for relevance, but I feel it can be a deadly trap: “show me myself or why should I care?” As someone with a deep and abiding love for Batman, Frodo, Buffy, and Tyrion Lannister (to name but a few), I don’t require that a story tell me something new about the world in which I live; I do want it to be thought out, well-constructed, and energetically told. Or just pretty. That’s okay too.

    I have some problems with your analysis of the “theatre artist,” partially because I think you’re conflating a few different ideas there. There’s often more cross-over and cross-pollenation of skillsets than you might think. Many theatre practitioners (myself among them) will tell you that their work as an actor enriches their directing, or similar. The decision (and the ability) to be a generalist rather than a specialist can make for deeper, more interesting work (or not), but it doesn’t, in itself, negate or restrict collaboration. In my own case, working in a number of different capacities (sometimes on the same production) has helped me immensely to identify and articulate what my skillsets are, so that I can be much more specific about what kind of collaborators I need in order to complement my abilities and supplement my weaknesses. The kind of versatility you describe can also energize a theatre company, if artistic roles can be shared or exchanged fluidly from one production to another (i.e. actor from one production is director for another; director becomes stage manager, etc.) It has a kind of gnostic “everyone can be the priest” quality that I find quite attractive, in a doomed romantic sort of way.

    Your complaint, I gather, has less to do with role-switching and multiple skillsets, and more to do with the rise of the theatrical ‘one-man-band,’ and I think that’s a fair criticism. But I think that the major problem you’re hinting at is less a question of limited collaboration and more an issue of unfettered ego. The important distinction for me is that even those people who are good writers and good directors are rarely good at doing BOTH AT THE SAME TIME. Hat-switching between productions can be artistically and professionally beneficial. Hat switching within a single production is often (though not always) a recipe for disaster.

    One more point about money. A number of commentors have mentioned Canadian theatre’s valorization of new scripts, and the importance placed on the playwright. I don’t have statistics (or, to be honest, facts of any kind here; I’m going on rumours, legends, and a highly unreliable spider-sense), but I suspect that a fair amount of the money that does come around is ear-marked for new play development rather than, say, directing or dramaturgy/literary management. It makes sense, if you assume a certain set of cultural biases. New scripts are a permanent cultural product in a way that new productions are not. New scripts are developed in the theatre, but can then be mass-produced and sold in bookstores, and pointed to as enduring examples of “Canadian culture.” In some ways, I suspect, our theatres are funded to be a means toward literary production, which goes some way to explaining why we don’t stage a lot of lesser-known classics.

  2. Philip Akin says:

    Depending on the company of course there will have to be staff. You will no doubt find the more standard titles in the larger companies but in the smaller ones there is a great desire by people to not have titles that seem purely administrative in nature. At Obsidian no one wanted to be called a GM as it did not indicate a role with any creative input. Thus we have an Artistic Producer. And really what does it matter what people want to be called the same amount of paper has to continuously pushed.
    As for the exploitation of young in craft artists and technicians don’t get me started. That and the unpaid intern are blots on the entire system.


  3. Grant Heggie says:

    patently absurd, you are kidding right? Just looking at a few theatre companies web sites I see the following:General Directors general managers, associated general managers, business managers, Producers, associate producers and, here is a real laugh.. Artistic Administrators, What the hell is that?LOL… One company who’s name I will not mention has as an admin staff of 7, they do 4 shows in a summer and they are recruiting Production Managers and Tech Directors from kids still in theatre school. They also insist that they have provide their own car!!

    AS to what designers and production managers get paid, compared to their 9-5 admin counterparts never ceases to astound me.

    What does a company like that need 7 admin people for??

    No time to spell check or grammar check, please understand.

    Grant Heggie

    From 1985 – 1993 I worked in professional theatre, in Toronto as a production manager/ lighting designer. I “did”shows for all for almost every theatre in town.

    From 1993- 2004 I co owned a company called Set/Reset Inc. Click here to see what two people created and managed. http://www.readysetrecycle.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3&Itemid=7

    With all due respect… Have you ever actually worked as a theatre professional? I would also ask if you have had any private sector background? You write very well and are clearly capable of creating interesting rhetoric.

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