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Theatre companies worry loss of SummerWorks funding will have big impact

Director Ted Dykstra worries that the loss of federal funding for the SummerWorks festival will hurt theatre in the long run.

Ryan Enn Hughes/ryan enn hughes The Globe and Mail

The loss of federal funding for Toronto's SummerWorks theatre and music festival, which fell under sharp criticism last year from the Stephen Harper government, could be felt throughout Canada's theatre community, theatre professionals say.

"The very existence of theatre, in anything outside of a commercial construct, is dependent on some kind of public funding," said Matthew Jocelyn, artistic and general director of the Canadian Stage theatre company.

The rejection by the Department of Canadian Heritage of SummerWorks's 2011 grant, worth about $47,000 to $48,000, can affect the entire feeder system for new Canadian plays to reach larger audiences.

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What's at issue for larger theatre companies such as Canadian Stage or Soulpepper goes beyond the condemnation of SummerWorks by a spokesman for the Prime Minister in August over the spending of public funds on the festival's presentation of Homegrown. That play explores the friendship between the playwright and a member of the Toronto 18 terrorist group.

It also goes beyond the way in which the Prime Minister's Office criticized in December the process in which SummerWorks received its 2010 grant from the Heritage Department, and the fact that the 2011 grant was rejected a few days ago, just weeks before the festival's Aug. 5 opening.

The most immediate impact could be the disruption of SummerWorks' role in showcasing new plays. It's a juried festival so its presentations are often picked up by larger companies, such as Tarragon and Theatre Passe Muraille. Informally, artistic directors also attend festivals such as SummerWorks to keep an eye out for future artistic partners.

In recent years, the festival particularly garnered attention as a testing ground for Toronto and national works. The Dora Awards-nominated The Middle Place, a massive distillation of hours of interviews with residents of a youth shelter, premiered at SummerWorks in 2009 before continuing to Canadian Stage and wide acclaim on tour. The Kreutzer Sonata, originally commissioned by the Art of Time theatre company and then mounted at SummerWorks, comes to Soulpepper next month. Victoria theatre company Atomic Vaudeville's musical Ride the Cyclone was presented at SummerWorks last summer before continuing on tour.

"It's invaluable for so many people," said actor Ted Dykstra, who is performing in and directing The Kreutzer Sonata for Soulpepper.

"One of the things that needs to be noted is the fact that [SummerWorks artistic director Michael Rubenfeld]did go out and find work from coast to coast to present here, and that was a rare opportunity for companies coming to Toronto and for Toronto audiences to see what's happening in Vancouver today, what's happening in Edmonton, what's happening in St. John's, what's happening in Fredericton," said Jocelyn of Canadian Stage.

The Heritage Department had provided grants over the past five years to SummerWorks in part to help expand its showcase of national works. The festival will continue as scheduled in August, despite the loss of the federal funding, which represents about 20 per cent of its budget. It has had to cut its outdoor presentations and its ad budget, as well as raise ticket prices. It has also started a last-minute public fundraising drive.

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Asked about the funding decision, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty responded, "One thing I'd say, and maybe it's different than it used to be, is we actually don't believe in festivals and cultural institutions assuming that year after year after year they'll receive government funding."

He added, "They ought not assume entitlement to grants. ... No organization should assume in their budgeting that every year the government of Canada is going to give them grants because there's lots of competition, lots of other festivals, and there are new ideas that come along.

"So it's a good idea for everyone to stay on their toes and not make that assumption."

Flaherty was speaking at a press announcement Tuesday for the Canada Walk of Fame Festival to be held in Toronto, for which Ottawa is contributing $500,000.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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