It’s panic time in Canadian theatre.
With this week’s announcement that Toronto’s Dancap Productions will be shutting down following the recent demise of the Vancouver Playhouse, the health of the country’s theatre ecology – commercial and not-for-profit – is being pronounced in critical condition.
The importance of these deaths, however, is being greatly exaggerated. Time to take a deep breath and keep calm.
Carrying on, however, is not a good idea. If we don’t examine these losses with a clear eye, we might end up perpetuating models that no longer enrich the country or theatre producers.
Take Aubrey Dan. In a way, the president of Dancap Productions is the final dupe of former Livent impresario and convicted fraudster and forger Garth Drabinsky, whose last chance of appeal was shot down by the Supreme Court of Canada in March.
Time and time again, Dan talked about filling the “vacuum created with the demise of Livent”. He used those exact words in an interview just last month.
The assumption that there is a vacuum to fill, however, was Dan’s big mistake – albeit one shared by many theatrically minded Torontonians who still wistfully refer, as Dan did, to the “glory days of commercial theatre back in the 1990s”.
The death of Dancap must finally bring an end to this denial. All future would-be impresarios angling to take Dan’s place should be required to read Justice Mary Lou Benotto 2009 ruling that finally sent Drabinsky and his cohort Myron Gottlieb to prison.
Detailing financial funny business that dated all the way back to the birth of that theatrical partnership in 1990, Benotto concluded: “The exponential growth of [Livent]was analogous to an athlete taking a performance enhancing drug. The result may be spectacular but the means involve cheating.”
Dan assumed that there was appetite in Toronto to financially sustain a new Livent when there wasn’t even enough for the old Livent in stronger economic times.
And so, over the course of Dancap’s five years of existence, Dan’s losses have estimated to around $40-million.
The Vancouver Playhouse, meanwhile, closed after 49 years due to a debt of about$1-million. Now there’s a comparison that stings, because the Playhouse has made a much more significant contribution to Canadian culture than simply bringing American tours of Broadway shows to town.
But the fact that the not-for-profit Playhouse couldn’t find a way to raise a million bucks in a city where the average house costs that much is a bad sign. Indeed, it’s worse than the debt itself.
On the West Coast, however, we’re seeing the classic first stage of grief, too: Denial.
Vancouver Civic Theatres decided to go ahead and bring in what was supposed to be the Playhouse’s final production, God of Carnage – then was surprised to find that audiences aren’t flocking to the 655-seat theatre. Now they’re going to take a bath.
The Playhouse might be the canary in the coal mine for Canada’s regional theatre network, which was set up in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s time to look at what that institutional model offers us and ask whether it’s good value for public money compared with the smaller, more dynamic companies that are in comparatively robust health.
God of Carnage is a good place to start the examination. That’s a French play translated into English by a British playwright, then adapted for an American audience. It was turned into a movie by Roman Polanski last fall starring Jodie Foster and Christoph Waltz. I can rent it on iTunes for about $6.
Is the experience of seeing God of Carnage live with Canadian actors putting on Brooklyn accents worth the extra $53 (plus gas, plus parking, plus babysitter, plus rushing through dinner to make curtain time)? What does it contribute to Canadian culture beyond the economic spin-offs that arts-funding defenders drone on about ad nauseum?
The question of whether the regional theatre model is a success for anyone beyond administrators, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and tax collectors is one that’s being asked across North America.
On Facebook, many artists have been sharing a recent blog post titled “Please, Don’t Start a Theater Company!” In it, San Francisco director Rebecca Novick criticizes the “fossilized model” of regional theatres in the U.S. and drops the following troubling statistic: “In the past fifteen years, the number of non-profit theater companies in the United States has doubled while audiences and funding have shrunk.”
Canadian theatre faces a similar situation. In another online essay being circulated, Toronto theatre creator Jacob Zimmer asked, in the wake of the Playhouse closure, whether artists are really serious when they refer to theatre as an “ecology”.
“[T]e problem is that we, as an arts community, seem to want endless growth,” Zimmer wrote. “Current structures to be maintained while new ones are continually born and grow. Which isn’t how I understand ecologies to work.”
“To be blunt, things have to die in order for other, new, things to grow.”
Indeed, theatre, as an art form, is about death or, at least, disappearance. Live performance exists in the moment, then it is gone.
The ephemerality of theatre isn’t a weakness; its constant cycle of death and rebirth is its biggest strength. Our priority should be to keep the art, not the institutions, alive.