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Laura Mennell in Tear the Curtain! (Brian Johnson)
Laura Mennell in Tear the Curtain! (Brian Johnson)

THEATRE

Canadian Stage’s new mantra: Less is more Add to ...

Now playing: Canadian Stage is … The Incredible Shrinking Theatre Company.

Since taking control of Toronto’s largest non-for-profit theatrical laboratory three years ago, mad scientist (aka artistic and general director) Matthew Jocelyn has aimed and fired his shrink-ray gun at just about everything.

More from J. Kelly Nestruck

ZAP! Audience attendance at the company’s two indoor theatre venues has gone down to 71,000 from 98,000.

ZAP! Runs of subscription shows in the main, 876-seat Bluma Appel Theatre that were formerly a month or longer have been reduced to two weeks or even to as few as six performances.

ZAP! Jocelyn has beamed his own productions from the main stage and into the intimate 240-seat Berkeley Street Theatre.

You’d expect a story with a narrative arc like this to be watched by the wider theatre community as a horror show – with the bald, turtlenecked Jocelyn cast as the villain, flushing his theatre down the drain.

But no, Canadian Stage’s current direction is being carefully observed by theatre managers in other corners of the country as a potential new survival technique, and the ever-smiling, artistically ambitious Jocelyn as the hero in a comedy where (hopefully) everything ends well.

Its new strategy of “right-sizing,” to use corporate-speak that has entered the artistic sector, may be the surest path to stability for the in-peril model of regional theatre – and show that cash-strapped times don’t have to mean downsizing artistic goals.

Indeed, with the Vancouver Playhouse’s shocking collapse under the weight of a perhaps outdated mandate fresh in minds, the choice could be seen in even starker terms: Adapt or die.

“The idea of shrinking on purpose or right-sizing an operation is right now very of the moment,” says Roger Gaudet, head of the theatre section of the Canada Council for the Arts. “We’re confronted with the paradox that even though our society in terms of population continues to grow, the economic picture is not necessarily continuing to grow; the model of continued growth is no longer sustainable. [Canadian Stage] is moving forward very quickly on something that everyone’s facing.”

Since taking charge of programming prior to the 2010-2011 season, Jocelyn – a native Torontonian who spent the bulk of his career in France – has transformed a theatre known for a grab bag of contemporary fare into one of the few English-Canadian theatres where directors rather than playwrights are at the artistic centre.

At first, this mission did not mesh with the familiar structure of the company. Jocelyn’s initial season of programming – featuring unfamiliar plays such as Fernando Krapp Sent Me This Letter – ended with a $474,314 deficit; that hiked the accumulated deficit he inherited from predecessor Martin Bragg to almost $1.7-million.

Jocelyn’s equally ambitious second season was headed toward red ink as well, but then Su Hutchinson swooped in as managing director to begin restructuring in February and make sure Jocelyn’s smaller-but-grander vision for Canadian Stage makes financial sense. Thanks to her work, Canadian Stage actually ended up registering a small surplus of $30,880. (It would have been bigger had the company not had to, like many Canadian regional theatres last season, write off bad debt from a co-production with the Vancouver Playhouse.)

“Let’s call it condensing,” says Hutchinson, who has returned to her roots as a theatre administrator after eight years working in the music industry. “We have an ambitious artistic vision and we need to make sure it’s delivered, but we have to do it in an affordable way.”

To that end, in addition to various behind-the-scenes efficiencies, Canadian Stage has lopped a week off of its planned Spotlight Japan festival this season, and Jocelyn’s own production of Melissa James Gibson’s play This has been moved from the Bluma Appel to the smaller Berkeley Street space.

Shrinking on purpose is a better strategy than trying to halt or reverse an unexpected income decline – particularly when a revenue model is no longer functioning due to changing economic times or increased entertainment options in a city.

Canadian Stage used to resemble many of the country’s regional theatres, the network of jack-of-all-theatrical-styles professional companies set up starting in the late 1950s that, despite being non-profit, have come to rely heavily on box-office results. Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg and Halifax’s Neptune Theatre are some of the most prominent examples.

Like those companies, Canadian Stage had a large A-house, where well-worn musicals and Broadway or West End hits would appear, and a smaller B-house where more experimental or Canadian-written works would be staged, often subsidized by the success of the bigger shows.

The problem with this semi-commercial model is that trouble can snowball when box office sales go down due to a lousy economy or a theatrical misfire. As an example, Hutchinson shared previously unpublished figures with The Globe and Mail that illustrate what happened at Canadian Stage. Back in 2006, the company finished its season with a famously disastrous revival of the rock musical Hair.

Though earned revenue was around $7.7-million, the season still ended with a whopping $694,668 deficit – showing how dangerous seemingly “safe” programming can be.

But that was only the beginning. Earned revenue (as opposed to grants and donations) sank to $5.6-million the following season and, by 2008, it had fallen to just $3.7-million. (It is not coincidental that Soulpepper Theatre Company, the successful classical company, opened its new theatre and began offering year-round programming in 2005.)

In Bragg’s final year as artistic producer, Canadian Stage’s attendance fell to just 115,827 – one third of what it had been pulling in the mid-1990s with approximately the same approach to programming. Clearly, something had to change.

Jocelyn’s tenure saw ticket sales shrink further in his first year, but attendance now seems to have stabilized around 90,000 per season – or 71,000, not counting the outdoor summer Shakespeare production – and earned revenue around $2.5-million.

Hutchinson is positive about the audience trends she’s seeing in the coming season. “We’re probably lagging about 20 per cent on [subscription] renewals, but we’re up 25 per cent on new subscribers,” she says.

Not everyone agrees that smaller is the solution, however. Max Reimer, the former artistic director of the Vancouver Playhouse, is agnostic about theatre companies “shrinking on purpose,” noting that the Playhouse’s shift from six shows a year to five, and from four-week runs to three-week runs 12 years ago, didn’t save them. “That might have have squeezed another 12 years out of the company, but another way to look at it, longer term, is that we became less relevant, opened the door to the [rival Vancouver theatre] Arts Club to grab more audience,” says Reimer.

Yet, Reimer – who cautions not to take lessons from the Playhouse until the full story is out (he’s currently under a legal gag order as financial details get settled) – agrees that regional theatres’ lack of flexibility can make them vulnerable. “Part of the problem is that these are very large ships that have a tremendous amount of momentum,” he says. “They have an 18- to 24-month planning cycle.”

Ultimately, Reimer suggests Canadian theatergoers and artists still should view the regional theatre movement as “an experiment” that has yet to conclude, since it only dates back to the Manitoba Theatre Centre’s establishment in 1958. “The whole process is younger than I,” he says. “It could be that we’ll been looking at this in 10 years as the best thing Canadian Stage ever did. Who knows?”

Follow on Twitter: @nestruck

 

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