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The Calgary Grand Theatre Society, for one, is on the cusp of losing its namesake space, The Grand Theatre, in the face of financial woes.Josh Platt/Supplied

As Canadian theatres struggle with snowballing economic woes in the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns, performing arts associations in two of the country’s largest provinces are asking governments to boost their support.

On Thursday, prominent performing-arts associations from British Columbia and Ontario pleaded their case, seeking greater government contributions – or at least the continuation of pandemic-relief funding – so that the sector can offset higher costs in the face of lacklustre attendance.

Many theatre companies have struggled to get ticket-buyers to return – Winnipeg’s Prairie Theatre Exchange alone has seen a 57-per-cent drop in subscribers – as government pandemic-relief programs are tapering off and persistent inflation has pushed up costs for supplies, rent and talent.

As a result, theatre companies are putting on fewer shows, often with fewer performers and shorter runs; in several cases they’ve cancelled scheduled productions outright. Some are struggling to find rehearsal spaces, while theatre operators can hardly pay their bills. The Calgary Grand Theatre Society, for one, is on the cusp of losing its namesake space, and Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre in Victoria has had to leave the Roxy, the venue it bought, sold and then leased over the past decade. Other organizations are facing staff cuts.

“It’s bleak,” says Lisa Li, the Winnipeg theatre’s managing director, who also sits on the board of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres, where dire economics are a subject of regular discussion. “The word ‘crisis’ has come up a few times.”

“People don’t have the same amount of money as they did prepandemic,” says Kenji Maeda, executive director of the Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance.

Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre Company, for example, has seen its annual patron numbers decline to nearly 173,000 from 220,000 since the pandemic began, and took a $1-million loss last season. It’s since postponed a production of Cambodian Rock Band.

“New incentives or discounted tickets are strategies to get people back to the theatre, but that also affects the bottom line,” Maeda says.

His group has joined forces with other arts sectors’ associations to form the BC Coalition of Arts, Culture, and Heritage, which launched a public advocacy campaign Thursday to push for more sustainable government arts funding. They’re asking the provincial government to boost the core funding of the BC Arts Council to $55-million, from $39.6-million in 2022-23, to maintain $34.5-million in pandemic recovery funding for another two fiscal years and to develop more sustainable funding models.

In Ontario’s largest city, the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts – an arts service organization representing 117 professional theatre, dance and opera companies – has been warning municipal and provincial governments that reduced or even stagnant arts funding levels could spell disaster.

“TAPA is ringing the alarm bell,” executive director Jacoba Knaapen says.

The group has submitted a prebudget brief to Ontario’s Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs, advocating for increased investment to the Ontario Arts Council of roughly 4 per cent over each of the next three years, “to account for future increases to inflation and population growth in the province.”

It also wrote to Toronto councillors, asking them to press Mayor Olivia Chow to honour a campaign commitment to increase the Toronto Arts Council’s budget by $2-million in 2024. In the end, the budget was passed with only an additional $800,000 spread out between the TAC and other culture organizations pending a new plan for the city’s culture sector.

A “perfect storm” of changes in consumer behaviours, rising costs and the lingering effects of the pandemic threaten the sector, Knaapen and Aubrey Reeves, president and chief executive officer of the national Business / Arts organization, said in a statement Thursday confirming its recent advocacy push. There’s an “unthinkable” question on minds across the sector, they wrote: “Are we on the verge of a major contraction, or worse, collapse?”

Theatre companies themselves have been more quiet about the unfolding situation – which has affected them unevenly – not wanting to put off the audience members who are returning. (In a notable exception to the gloom, Crow’s Theatre and the Musical Stage Company’s production of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, an American musical, has become the longest-running and most-successful show in both of those not-for-profit theatre companies’ histories.)

Soulpepper Theatre Company, one of Toronto’s most prominent not-for-profits, quietly pulled two shows from its spring schedule in December to keep its budget balanced, while, in January, the smaller new-works company Factory Theatre cancelled a world premiere of In the Kitchen, which was to be a collaboration between the playwrights Fatuma Adar, Augusto Bitter, Olivier Choinière and Rosa Laborde, for the same reason. For both theatre companies, fall audience numbers were lower than expected after what had seemed to be an encouraging box-office bounceback the season before.

Still, the situation is worse elsewhere. Some performing-arts groups are already in the final stages of a death spiral.

The organization that ran Calgary’s Grand Theatre, the oldest such venue in Western Canada, sold it to Allied Properties Real Estate Investment Trust in 2021. The Calgary Grand Theatre Society, which wanted to be a beacon for emerging local artists, was left as a tenant in the building that bore its name, and its financial woes only continued.

“Staff have done a great job of opening up the space, but the audience numbers are never what you’re hoping for,” says Devon LeClair, the society’s board chair.

The society’s leadership began drawing up a plan to partner with Arts Commons, a bigger theatre operator that LeClair says could have run the Grand as part of a suite of downtown spaces. But doing so would have required a new tenancy agreement and reduced rent in order to make the numbers work. The parties all tried to hash out an arrangement, but in January, LeClair says, they learned Allied wouldn’t accept the reduced-rent proposal.

Now, members of Calgary’s theatre scene fear losing the Grand space to another purpose, which has happened before: In the early 2000s, it was used as an indoor golfing facility.

“The last thing we want to see happen is for this essential piece of the Calgary arts community to be lost to something as wild as a golf dome,” LeClair says.

Two provinces over, seven positions at Winnipeg’s Prairie Theatre Exchange will be cut or consolidated next season as the company reckons with pandemic-relief programs such as the Canada Emergency Business Account coming to a close. “Without those, we’re left with business models that were informed by who we were before the pandemic, but in the reality of making theatre now,” artistic director Thomas Morgan Jones says.

Though new theatregoers have come to the PTE, subscriptions and ticket sales are plummeting, and costs have risen about 30 per cent. Next season, the theatre is expecting revenues to come in at about $500,000 less than before the pandemic.

The board approved a deficit this season for the first time in two decades. But still they are looking at smaller-budget shows with fewer performers and shorter runs. Outside help would be a clear solution to their problem, says managing director Li: “Funding to arts councils needs to go up.”

The Quebec scene is going through many similar struggles. Technical staff are leaving the sector for more stable jobs, and the real-estate crisis is also causing issues, says holly Greco, director of programming for the Quebec Drama Federation, which supports anglophone theatre companies and artists in the province. “Being able to find spaces to rehearse, let alone put on a show, is continuing to be a challenge for independent companies.”

Greco points to Montreal’s Imago Theatre’s use of an empty pool as the venue for a November production of The Retreat as a creative solution. “I see theatre folks renting dance studios for their rehearsals,” she says.

This kind of cross-pollination between disciplines is happening across Canada – and the organizers of the new B.C. coalition hope that will make an impact when it comes to requests for funding. “There’s been past criticism that the arts and culture sector is not connected,” Maeda says. Now, “we are collection of voices that are coming together.”

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