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Arigato, Tokyo (by Jeremy Mimnagh) Buddies In Bad Times TheatreJeremy Mimnagh

"Shockingly low" attendance at the premiere production of a drama by award-winning playwright Daniel MacIvor has left Toronto's Buddies in Bad Times Theatre "scratching [its collective] head and asking some very serious questions" against the backdrop of an overall decline in visitors to Toronto's performing arts presenters since 2005-06.

"We're not happy," said Buddies artistic director Brendan Healy Thursday of attendance at MacIvor's Arigato, Tokyo, which concludes a month-long run April 14. Healy, who issued an open letter online Thursday expressing his concerns, wouldn't reveal precise ticket sales to date. Nevertheless, "filling a 120-seat house like ours with a Daniel MacIvor play that has great reviews shouldn't be that hard," he said. "I'm not angry about it, I'm not angry at audiences. I just think everyone here at the company wants to understand, to get some feedback around 'why.'" To that end, as part of a 10-year strategic plan, the company has prepared a 20-question online survey "to get to know [its audience] better."

Healy's actions come less than a month after he attended a meeting to which the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts invited the artistic directors of some 185 professional theatre, dance and opera companies "to discuss the current climate . . . the current challenges."

Details of the March 11 meeting are confidential. Nevertheless, it's likely attendance was discussed as TAPA, established in 1979, has been gathering statistics for almost 10 years with respect to Toronto performing arts. In a brief interview Thursday, TAPA executive director Jacoba Knaapen noted that between 2005-06 and 2009-10, ticket sales to professional theatre, dance and opera performances declined by eight per cent, going to 2.3-million tickets purchased from 2.5-million.

"That's not a sharp sort of jump-off-the-cliff decline but a slow decline . . . a marked decline," she said. At the same, performing arts do appear to be attracting younger audiences. In 2004, 2,400 high-school groups attended performances; in 2009-10, that more than tripled, to 8,700 high-school groups. "There is some good news in there . . . [since] the perception is that theatre audiences are white and aging."

Knaapen said the decline is hardly a secret and "not unique to Toronto. We see this kind of audience challenge right across North America." Meanwhile, to help better understand local audiences and "what motivates attendance," TAPA has developed its own survey that is going out to its member organizations next week whereupon they'll circulate it among "their audience base."