About a year ago, prompted by the mess at the Factory Theatre, I started writing a series of blog posts about what bothered me about our city’s theatre scene. Kelly Nestruck’s article in this Saturday’s Globe and Mail about one of Toronto’s major theatre companies, Soulpepper, now has me reconsidering some of what I wrote back then, and some of what I’ve written since. My first long post on this subject came in list form; let me make another list.

1. What is success?

Nestruck cites 2012 attendance figures at Soulpepper and Canstage as an illustration of how things have shifted in Toronto: Soulpepper last year attracted an unprecedented 102,435 visitors, Canstage “only” about 86,000 — a disappointing year for a company that in its heyday, in the 1990s, sometimes saw more than 300,000 spectators pass through its doors (writes Nestruck). Good for Soulpepper. But frankly, good for Canstage, too: with about 260 performances last year (in three different venues), that’s an average of over 330 tickets sold per show. (Yes, that includes Shakespeare in the Park, which I assume skews averages massively. But that’s how cross-subsidizing works.)

I don’t think a theatre that’s managing to attract average audiences large enough that they would fit into only two of Toronto’s not-for-profit theatres (the Enwave and Canstage’s own Bluma Appel) can be considered a failure. I also don’t think we can expect any non-musical theatre to reach the kind of gaudy numbers Nestruck lists for Canstage’s glorious (?) past. But of course it makes for a more compelling narrative to tell the story as Canstage’s decline and fall and Soulpepper’s rise to box office power. And of course a 330-seat average looks paltry, even embarrassing, for a company that performs a large share of their shows in a behemoth of a theatre with room for 867 spectators.

I’ve written about this problem before, as have others: the Bluma Appel is an absurd theatre. It’s simply far too big for non-musical theatre — and as a space the cavernous dimensions of its auditorium only serve to make an already shallow stage feel even more flat and two-dimensional. And filling over 800 seats with anything other than broadly entertaining fare is really difficult, not just in Toronto.

So yes, sure, Canstage is doing a far worse job now of selling out an enormous theatre than they did in the past. But why should that be the standard by which we measure a company’s success? As far as I’m concerned, the best season of shows in town is programmed by Tina Rasmussen at the Harbourfront. The two most exciting performances I saw in Toronto this year were part of her WorldStage lineup: She She Pop’s Testament and Philip McKee’s Lear. The former, now a Dora winner, didn’t come close to selling out; the latter did, but had audiences deliberately limited to around 30 per night. Getting bums in seats is not the same as making good theatre.

2. What is weird-ass shit?

Albert Schulz used that phrase in his interview with Kelly Nestruck: “The fact is that companies are struggling just to survive and find an audience – the way not to get them is to do weird-ass shit.” Thing is, I have no idea what he means. In the article, the line seems to refer to Matthew Jocelyn’s programming at Canstage. But surely it can’t? What exactly is “weird-ass” about producing Broadway successes and major hits from the London stage? The Arsonists can hardly be considered out there, can it? (Or perhaps it can. Which would truly be a devastating commentary on just how predictable our theatre landscape has become.) Perhaps Schultz — if he is actually talking about Canstage — has Jocelyn’s more adventurous efforts, like Fernando Krapp, The cosmonaut’s last message, or The Game of Love and Chance, in mind. Calling any of those things “weird-ass shit” strikes me as extraordinarily vanilla, though. And is it even true that there’s no audience for weird theatre? Although I’d say Toronto rarely sees anything that’s even approaching weird-ass-shit territory in terms of form, we get plenty of “weird” content: every other SummerWorks show would surely qualify. But those don’t seem to lack an audience. Terminus was a pretty weird play — and was nevertheless commercially appealing enough for David Mirvish!

Underlying Schultz’s comment seems to be the conviction that audiences are best found by giving people what they expect. He may well be right. He certainly has far more experience in these things than me. But even as a commercial proposition, this seems at least a questionable idea: surely the point of good marketing is to make people think they want what you’re selling, not selling them something they already want? More to the point, though, the notion that theatre has to stage things that conform to an audience’s expectations and desires sounds an awful lot like artistic bankruptcy to me. Art that defines catering to an audience’s taste as its raison d’etre has lost its purpose.

This is not our theatres’ fault, exactly. It’s partly the failure of our public funding system — because it doesn’t manage to create conditions in which artists are free to take risks. It’s partly the failure of our public discourse — because there are hardly any voices that don’t simply reinforce ways of thinking and talking about theatre that would have seemed old-fashioned in the 1950s. It’s partly the fault of ingrained theatrical structures that make risk-taking practically and financially much more difficult than following well-trod paths.

Still: if Schultz is right that theatre has to choose between having an audience and putting on weird-ass shit, then theatre as an art form is about to die. Because “weird-ass shit” is a pretty perfect definition of what distinguishes art from commerce or kitsch. Art is weird. It’s challenging. It’s meant to reshape your perception or your thoughts. It’s unsettling. It refuses to conform, in big ways and small. And sometimes, it’s just shit. Because along with the refusal to conform comes the right to fail. You can’t have art without failure. (Not that failure doesn’t have its own attraction.)

To me, that’s exhilarating. It’s exciting. Going to a show knowing that I don’t know quite what to expect is thrilling — especially if it’s a production of a play I know really well. And I refuse to believe that there aren’t scores of others who feel the same way.

3. How do you find an audience?

Isn’t the obvious answer that you don’t? If you’re looking for an audience, you will necessarily slip into the marketing-free commercial perspective of the market conformist. Audiences aren’t found: they’re made.

I would submit that none of the major Toronto theatre companies seriously engage in shaping their audiences. Canstage may or may not do weird-ass shit, but they still sell that shit as Broadway- and West-End-approved gold. Soulpepper’s own marketing could not be more conservative in the way it talks about the stage. The Factory has been trying to reach Torontonians who don’t normally go to the theatre (I don’t know how successfully), but that’s still an effort to find an audience: look, what we do is actually something you’ll like (or something you can relate to, or something that will resonate, etc.). And so on.

In one way or another, all our major theatres keep promising audiences that they will get something predictably enjoyable or moving, something that’s exactly as it should be, something that’s perhaps ultimately about them. That’s no way of building or making an audience. That’s assuring people who already go to the theatre that nothing will change while not giving people who don’t go to the theatre any reason to check it out. We’re a city full of young creative people who will happily spend their spare time in art galleries and at art house films but rarely at the theatre. Acting companies can write those people off. Or they could try to appeal to their sensibilities. They could rethink the theatre as a space where edgy, challenging, threatening, odd thing — in other words, cool things — happen. But only if they’re willing to take the risk of alienating audiences who have grown up thinking the dull, predictable, solid fare they have subscribed to for years is as good as theatre gets. That may sound like a huge dare. But I’m not sure there’s an alternative, commercially speaking; and I’m certain that there isn’t an alternative, artistically speaking.

4. Hope?

“There’s a preciousness about the way we approach certain texts that I think, both as a director and an actor, I would love to see change and shaken up – and I don’t just mean in this company.” Albert Schultz said that. Not in 1998, but last week. To which all I can say is: dude! Who’s stopping you?

“Precious” is right on. It defines exactly the attitude of most of our directors and actors to the text they’re working with. I have much to say about the etiology of that particular disease, though not now. But I’m thrilled, if baffled, to hear it from Soulpepper’s artistic director.

I also want to repeat what I said on Twitter: much as I have criticized Soulpepper in the past, and even though Nestruck’s article about the company set off these reflections as well, there are some things they do that I genuinely admire. There is no other company in Toronto that gives young actors as much of a chance to appear in real roles, in front of sizeable audiences, occasionally in interesting work. I may not often like what those actors get to do, and the plays they get to do it in, but never mind that: at least Soulpepper aren’t afraid of professionals in their 20s.

I’ve gone on and on about this in previous posts, but I will happily keep harping on that string: our theatre is shockingly, depressingly, and ultimately detrimentally middle-aged. No art has ever been propelled by people my age. Very few artists reinvent themselves in their 40s. Combined with everything else that’s serving to constrict our theatre’s creative impulses — commercial pressures, a timid approach to audiences, reactionary critics (not all of them, but too many), inadequate performance spaces — the overwhelming influence of the middle-aged on our stages just reinforces the drive towards conformity. Soulpepper’s dedication to giving young talent a chance has to be seen as an unqualifiedly good thing in this context.

Brain tired now, so will stop. Discuss!

2 Responses to Toronto Theatre: More Thoughts

  1. MK says:

    Just a small thing. Can we please stop referring to the Bluma theatre as belonging to Canadian Stage? They are in there a total of 11 weeks next season. At this point they’re a rental company. If the Bluma is to thrive, people need to know that the space is available to others.

  2. It’s a fascinating analysis truly, but I think it’s myopic to discount the contributions of the broader community. Not everyone has the resources to mount productions with the cost of Soulpepper’s.

    Albert has done a fantastic job building the company, and he deserves to run the company however he sees fit. I also think that deviating from the original mandate is an obvious product of growth. I don’t see how the largest theatre company in Toronto (Soulpepper) can afford to take the same economic risks – as when the company first started. Simply considering the number of staff Soulpepper employs, it’s quite clear that different considerations are at play than 1998. Also, consider that the audience clearly isn’t perturbed by this new direction (not in the majority anyway) – as their audience numbers/box office revenue are INCREASING… (What other theatre in Toronto can say that, I wonder?)

    With that said, I do take issue with Albert’s usage of the term “weird-ass shit”. While it does seem like a dig at a larger company like CanStage attempting avant-garde work on what is clearly a commercial platform, today’s “weird-ass shit” is tomorrow’s classic. I’m sure Samuel Beckett’s work was perceived as “weird-ass shit” when it first hit the stage…

    Also, as a playwright/director myself, I’m INTERESTED in doing unconventional work. That’s how I learn, stretch, grow. (Quick plug – I’m currently writing/directing a show called “The Trial of Ken Gass” based on the Factory controversy of last year – and I’m employing a new actor to play Ken Gass every night.) Did I take an artistic risk employing such an unconventional technique? Yes. But I also got a great article from the Globe and Mail – as well as great reviews/industry attention/publicity/etc.

    What’s “weird-ass” today is commonplace tomorrow.

    For my money, I thrive on artistic risk. I’m interested in the evolution of my work, in constantly challenging the audience’s perception. I went for coffee with brilliant theatre director Daniel Brooks once, and he sent me a quote via e-mail the next day that has impacted me the rest of my career:

    “Fail Again. Fail Better.” -Samuel Beckett

    Bobby Del Rio

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