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The Sony Centre never recovered from the departure of the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada when they moved to the new Four Seasons Centre a decade ago. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
The Sony Centre never recovered from the departure of the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada when they moved to the new Four Seasons Centre a decade ago. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Why Toronto’s city-owned theatres need a miracle worker Add to ...

Clyde Wagner, Luminato’s executive producer, is leaving the arts festival to take charge of the three theatres owned by the City of Toronto – the Sony Centre, the St. Lawrence Centre and the Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts.

I’d call it a rescue mission, because each of these three theatres has lost its way in recent years. Now, they need to be reinvented in order to help Toronto solidify its place as one of North America’s top theatre destinations – a reputation that also depends on the Mirvish organization with its four theatres, a lively fringe scene and two internationally renowned summer festivals (Stratford and Shaw) within easy reach of the city.

Despite a spiffy renovation, the Sony Centre (formerly the O’Keefe Centre) has never quite recovered from the departure of the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada to the new Four Seasons Centre opera house a decade ago.

In the same period, its neighbour, the St. Lawrence Centre, lost its mandate as the place where original Canadian plays could draw large audiences and achieve mainstream success, instead relying first on shows already certified as hits in London or New York, and later driving away long-time subscribers with obscure plays from Europe.

Further north, the Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts has never recovered from the shock and damage inflicted when its former operator, Livent, crashed amid charges of fraud – which eventually landed Garth Drabinsky and his Livent partner Myron Gottlieb in jail. The largest of its four spaces, once the home of major Livent musicals, became a white elephant; eventually, it was reconfigured as two smaller spaces, entailing a loss of almost 1,000 seats.

That’s why Toronto City Council decided the three theatres should be merged, under the name Civic Theatres Toronto (CTT). In 2015, veteran cultural activist Robert Foster and councillor Gary Crawford were appointed as a task force to deal with the future of the three theatres.

The upshot: after a wide search, a CTT selection committee chose Wagner, who takes up his new post as president and chief executive of CTT on Jan. 9. Clearly, he’s a man who has a mandate to perform miracles for Toronto theatre – and if there’s anyone who can do it, I’d say Wagner, with his amazingly diverse track record at many posts in Toronto, New York and California, is the right person.

“I took the job because I see nothing but great potential,” Wagner told me the other day over mint tea at a café across from the Sony.

“We can create something really exciting combining these three theatres into one organization. We can achieve much more that way than they ever could when they were separate.”

That’s because operating three key theatres gives them more clout at securing shows.

Wagner had just attended a festive-season party at the Sony, where staff members from all three CTT theatres were introduced to him.

“Clyde brings leadership, managerial skills and a broad reach internationally,” Foster says. “He knows all the other arts leaders very well. We believe that broad reach will be a big asset.”

Foster and Crawford set up a board with 15 members for the three CTT theatres, and the board appointed a selection committee of six, with three city councillors (Crawford, John Filion and Pam McConnell) and three members of the CTT board (former National Ballet of Canada CEO Kevin Garland, Ryerson professor Ira Levine and Foster).

The selection committee retained the search firm Caldwell Partners, which contacted 200 candidates. The list was then narrowed to six candidates and ultimately two finalists before Wagner was chosen and signed to a three-year contract, with an option to renew. According to Foster, the other finalist, who works outside Canada, was very impressive, but Wagner was the ideal choice.

The current top executives at the theatres – Mark Hammond at the Sony, Jim Roe at the St. Lawrence Centre and Pim Schotanus – are all expected to stay on. Wagner says there will be a lot to do for all of them.

Wagner’s father was a captain in the military, stationed in Kingston. Clyde grew up, along with his older brother, in the Thousand Islands, near Kingston. His mother was American, and Clyde – their second son – was destined to go back and forth between Canada and the United States for various career opportunities.

As an undergraduate at Queen’s University in Kingston, Wagner majored in English but was also intrigued by economics. Then, at the University of Toronto, he took courses in politics and art history, followed by a summer course in film at New York University. He later capped his education by earning his MBA from the Rotman School in Toronto.

Wagner’s showbiz career began in the early 1990s when he worked as an usher at the Pantages Theatre, where Garth Drabinsky’s company Livent was producing The Phantom of the Opera. Then, he got a job as stage-door attendant at what was then the Ford Centre in North York, also operated by Livent.

Later, he worked for Livent in New York, doing a number of different jobs. It was an exciting period; Drabinsky produced Barrymore, Candide, Fosse and Ragtime on Broadway.

After that, Wagner, a dual citizen, was often on the move, taking various jobs in New York, San Francisco and Toronto. He was the associate producer on Drabinsky’s movie The Gospel of John; the associate director of a Louis Vuitton website for luxury goods; and a senior producer for the former Park Avenue Armory in midtown Manhattan, now a huge performing-arts space.

In his first stint at Luminato, starting in 2006, Wagner was a key figure in CEO Janice Price's senior management team, along with founding artistic director Chris Lorway.

Price credits Wagner with several key successes in the festival’s early years – securing Cirque du Soleil for three days of free performances, and bringing the opera Einstein on the Beach and Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna to Toronto.

“I was always interested in the business situation as well as the arts side,” Wagner recalls. “Janice and I worked closely on how the system worked. The goal of the festival is celebrating arts and creativity in Toronto, but underlying that we always had to deal with marketing and tickets.”

In 2014, Wagner told Broadway World, a popular theatre website, he was looking forward to taking Weisbrodt’s vision and developing ways to bring in revenue to support it.

Wagner’s departure leaves Luminato with another major vacancy, along with the one created when its super fundraiser Tenny Nigoghossian moved to Jazz-FM.

The city’s budget includes subsidies of $1.7-million for each of the three theatres – for a combined subsidy of $5.1-million.

The Sony Centre has one stage and almost 3,200 seats. The St. Lawrence Centre has two stages and about 1,200 seats. The North York centre has four spaces and close to 2,000 seats.

Foster hopes that revenue will be improved and losses reduced as a result of the merger. In that case, he says, the funds will be used to support other organizations within the arts and culture community.

“What’s important is not about me,” Wagner says. “It’s about what we are going to do.”

I’ll drink a toast to that.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Jorn Weisbrodt was part of the leadership team when Luminato was launched in 2007. In fact, Chris Lorway was the festival's first artistic director. Mr. Weisbrodt became the festival's artistic director in 2012 and left after the 2016 season. This version has been corrected.

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