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Toronto's Soulpepper theatre embraces new business model

Soulpepper Theatre's Albert Schultz at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto, Jan. 12, 2011.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

What's the biggest economic problem with the way non-profit theatres operate in North America? The inflexibility of inventory.

Soulpepper Theatre Company artistic director Albert Schultz thinks he has the fix, however.

Over the past 12 years, Schultz and his colleagues have built the classical company up from a two-play summer season to a year-round operation with its own Toronto venue. For its 2011 season it's upping its productions to a whopping 17 from last year's 12.

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But Schultz expects its production costs will only increase by about 14 per cent.

How is that possible? According to Schultz, it's because the company is no longer using the North American model to manage its inventory.

The North American model

Imagine if an auto maker released 10 models a year, each in the same number, and each for one month only. That's essentially how almost every non-profit theatre company in Canada is run, from the Vancouver Playhouse to Halifax's Neptune Theatre.

Plays are programmed for a set number of weeks - and whether they're hits or they're flops, they have about the same number of performances. There's very little relationship between supply and demand.

"You take a bath on a third of your shows, and then you have shows like Christopher Plummer's Tempest, where two months before the show closes, you can't get a ticket," notes Schultz.

While short extensions are sometimes a possibility, others productions are invariably booked into the venue and actors have other contracts to fill. Often, the best solution is a remount a year down the line, by which time interest may have dwindled.

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"No other business in the world operates this way and it just makes no sense," says Schultz.

The European model

Last year, Schultz spent a "working hiatus" at the Vigszinhaz - the Comedy Theatre of Budapest - the home theatre of Laszlo Marton, who's returning as a visiting director at Soulpepper this year.

Like many European theatres, the Vigszinhaz hires actors on contracts of a year or more and shuffles them between multiple productions.

While North American theatre schedules are planned more than a year in advance, the Vigszinhaz announces its lineups in 90-day increments. This allows artistic directors to be nimble in response to the box office and bring back popular productions for as long as is warranted.

This month, for example, Yazmina Reza's recent Broadway hit The God of Carnage will be brought back for nine more performances, while Othello and Tracy Letts's August: Osage County will each return for a single performance.

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Productions stick around as long as there is an audience for at least one performance once in a while - some in the Vigszinhaz's repertoire date all the way back to the 1980s.

The hybrid model

For its 2011 season, Soulpepper has broken the year into two chunks and hired most of its actors on six-month, multi-show contracts, instead of most theatre companies' usual single-show deal.

For instance, Krystin Pellerin (of CBC's Republic of Doyle) will be in The Fantasticks as well as remounts of past hits, Our Town and The Time of Your Life.

At a certain point, those three shows will be running in rotation along with others in the two theatres Soulpepper uses at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.

That's not all that different from the way things work at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival or Shaw Festival; what is unique in Canada is that the frequency of each show's performance schedule will be determined mostly by demand.

Large swaths of Soulpepper's calendar are empty right now, notably June and November, but the company will eventually slot in productions to run in each of its two spaces every night, depending on which shows are most popular.

But Schultz says Soulpepper will never turn into Our Town, all the time - new plays will continue to be added to the repertoire; with less financial risk, the potential is there to take more artistic risks in programming. (This year, 12 productions are new to Soulpepper.) Getting this system to work does involve some complicated spread-sheeting, and the slotting in of one-person shows so that actors can have nights off.

And while Schultz expects it could take three years to bring the new system fully on line, he's excited about the possible benefits: Productions would have a longer time to build an audience through word of mouth; potential revenue increases by 35 per cent due to a decrease in nights where the theatres are empty; and actors would have more employment stability.

Certainly other Canadian theatres will be watching closely. The ultimate goal, after all, is to - in Schultz's phrase - "keep the best work alive."

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