The Future of The Canadian Stage Company

Unless you’ve been living in a media dead zone for the last few months, you’ve no doubt heard the big news from The Canadian Stage Company. Back in February, Artistic Producer Marty Bragg announced that the beleaguered company would lay-off eleven members of its staff, as part of a bid to save the company from financial ruin. Since they are currently running a deficit of $1 million on a $10.7 million annual budget, the company has had to cut some of the fat. Unfortunately “the fat” in this case, has been the bulk of their artistic staff and all of the plays from the Berkley stage next season.

When the company was founded in 1988 with the merger of Centre Stage and The Toronto Free Theatre, they had a mandate “to inspire and support senior Canadian playwrights and identify emerging Canadian voices”. If a copy of their season brochure has passed through your hands in the last few years, you’ll know that they’ve deviated from this mandate considerably, programming primarily British and American scripts.

To be fair, I don’t think producing works from abroad is bad thing at all. I remember vividly when I saw Angels in America at Berkley Street in 1996. For a budding homo and student of the theatre who felt deeply compelled to create work addressing specific issues in the world, seeing that show was a life changing experience. I'm glad that Canadian Stage brought that play to Toronto, because I wouldn't have seen it otherwise, and that experience was integral to my development as an artist.

They've also produced some great Canadian work including a few of Ronnie Burkett’s masterful puppetry creations, George F. Walker’s Heaven, and Brad Fraser’s Poor Superman. Their play development program, headed by the stellar Iris Turcott, has been a major stepping-stone for many writers, even when the company hasn’t ended up producing the scripts they’ve developed. Though they are co-producing three shows with smaller companies at Berkley Street next year (which likely means the financial support ends at giving them the space for free) they are not staging a single Canadian play at the Bluma Appel, which as we know is unfortunately nothing new. Both the media and the general public have been complaining for years about the lack of Canadian work being produced by this company. I myself have had more than a few late night drunken conversations about the irony of an organization calling itself “The Canadian Stage Company” hardly producing any Canadian works.

I’d be willing to let that slide if they were staging groundbreaking American and British plays, but the truth is that the work on that stage for the last several years has been lukewarm at best. I saw The Clean House at the Bluma a few weeks back and didn’t even bother to review it, because the whole exercise was so uninspired, it wasn’t even worth my time to trash it. Fortunately, my artistic soul was saved later the same evening when I caught Small Wooden Shoe’s It’s a Matter of Scale at the Rhubarb Festival. The stark contrast between the quality of experience these two shows provided really got me thinking. While I feel terrible for Iris Turcott, Patty Jarvis, Katherine Grainger, and the rest of the staff who’ve been axed as pawns in the giant chess game of keeping this organization afloat, I can’t say I’m at all sad about the prospect of the entire company going bust. Let me rephrase that; if the whole place burned to the ground tomorrow, I wouldn’t shed a tear.

As BASH artist in residence at Canadian Stage during the 2006/07 season, I got a brief glimpse of the inner workings of the company; enough to know that neither would I want to take on the challenge of helming an organization like that, nor would I want to produce work there or at any company of similar magnitude. One of the things made clear to us was the astronomical cost associated with producing work on this scale. Paying out the IATSE staff, Front of House, and building costs for a four week run at the Bluma Appel is somewhere in the neighbourhood of $250,000. And that’s before you've paid the artists. Sets, costumes, actors, designers, playwright royalties, and a director will double that, bringing the cost of an average show in that space to $500,000. Can you imagine what the independent arts community could do with that kind of money?

Part of what makes producing work at the Bluma so challenging is the sheer size of the venue, which weighs in at a massive 867 seats. In order to break even on a production, the company needs to sell around 50% of the house for each performance, which is a hell of a lot of tickets. During our BASH sessions the question came up of whether or not “867-Seat-Theatre-Plays” are being written anymore. Companies in Toronto who have a successful record of producing Canadian work are doing it on a much smaller scale, presenting to audiences of 200 or less per evening. So what to do with the gargantuan space that is the Bluma Appel? Keep trying desperately to fill it with mediocre international work year after year in the hopes of having "a hit" or ditch it in favour of the more exciting season that can be presented solely at the Berkley?

This question also came up during BASH and the response that Marty gave was that closing the Bluma would result in the company loosing such a large amount of funding that they would have to cut a substantial portion of their staff. When he said it then, he made it sound like that was something that he'd want to avoid, and yet here we are a year later, with a full season of mediocre work at Bluma and eleven pink slips forked out to devastated staff members. Was this the smartest decision under the circumstances? Though I don’t profess to have the business sense to run an organization of this size, from where I’m sitting it most certainly was not.

A lot of people, including journalists, artists, and members of the general public have been grumbling that this slump in the company’s history is a signal that Bragg should bring his tenure as Artistic Producer to an end and hand over the reins to someone more qualified to do the job. I’d love to think that the solution is a simple as that, but I fear it’s far more complex. Could any other person in his position have saved the company from the situation they are now in? Whether it’s theatre companies or entire countries, there will always be people who will look at a past leader’s legacy and trumpet that they could have done better. Maybe Bragg just somehow skipped over thirty great new Canadian plays that would have filled the seats at the Bluma and kept the company afloat. Maybe another Artistic Producer would have sniffed out a different palette of international works that would have been both critically and financially successful. Maybe if someone else had been running the whole thing, the company would be in great shape and I would have one less thing to write about. Maybe. Or maybe not. Theatre has changed a lot in the last fifteen years and it would be great to say that the mess that Canadian Stage is in is all Bragg’s fault, that he’s a giant fuck-up, and should be publicly lynched or at the very least, sent out to pasture at some summer repertory company. I’d love to be able to say that, but the truth is, I don’t think that things would be much better if it had been anyone else. I don’t think that anyone, Canadian or otherwise, is creating theatre that suits the scale of the Bluma Appel these days. Even the mega-musicals Lord of the Rings, Hairspray, and The Producers, have failed to make their mark on this city in the last few years. Is it possible that theatre like this just shouldn’t be made any more? I sure as hell hope so.

Rather than have Bragg throw in the towel and get someone a little more fresh faced and edgy to take the reins, I have a different proposition. Get rid of the whole fucking company, raze both buildings, throw up some condo towers in their place, and fork that $10.7 million over to artists across this country who are creating innovative, compelling, and relevant work that actually touches the lives of Canadians beyond giving them an opportunity snooze in their high-priced Hazelton Lanes wardrobes and to say they took in some “culture” over the water cooler the next day. The artistic community deserves a substantially higher quality of work from our so-called cultural leaders and our society as a whole has a right to better use of the public money that this organization has been bleeding.


Lisa PN said...

i totally look forward to reading your blog. Your voice is fresh and true and makes me ask big questions which i like.

whoo hoo and good going, i can't wait to see more!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

So how do you really feel, Chris? ;)

You make interesting points for sure. I disagree that we should stop making plays for an audience that large. As a fellow playwright, I know you see the economic potential of creating a hit there. Artists have as much to lose from the loss of one of the few commercial theatre options in this country as the organization itself...

As far as CanStage goes, my biggest disappointment has been that the first thing to go is the art itself. I think it's the exact opposite approach needed to their financial woes. The business of art is both business and art. When you remove the latter, you might as well be selling footballs.

As for the loss of Canadian work, I still don't understand how a company can get so much government money to produce non-Canadian plays. The life of a Canadian playwright seems to get harder every year...


Sandy Katers said...

unfortunately, these kinds of suggestions weren't what they were looking for when they created BASH to bring in the voice of a younger generation.

Anonymous said...

Chris, I'm glad for this commentary. Much of my in-class time (teaching) and my out-of-class time (PhDing) has been spent musing on the (ironically named) Canadian Stage Company and its present (though fully historicized) misadventures. Some thoughts follow.

First, I'm glad that you point out the personnel and production costs of shows of the magnitude CanStage is, as you intimate, rather forced to put on. Since the Massey Commission report in '51 and through the regional theatre building nonsense from '58-'76, the federal government took an 'if you build it, they will come' approach to igniting public interest in the theatrical arts (initially called, The Drama... the Drahmah...). Worse still, the idea was that once you've built enormous buildings for theatre, you will encourage the public to see whatever's in them, and then you'll be able to make a Profession out of the occupation of doing theatre. I've always rather felt that all these noble pursuits were plain smack out of order--or at least ought to have been considered as parallel and constitutive endeavours, not accomplished in turn.

As for the Canadianness of the programming fare, I've always rather considered Alberta Theatre Projects to be Canada's National Theatre. More than the fact that they only do and have done Canadian work, they've convinced their audiences that that's the important thing to do (and that, btw, it CAN be done). Can'tStage doesn't dare--but I wonder, perhaps they could.

So yes, shots in the arm for the independent types (I guess "alternative theatre" has been mainstreamified so "independent theatre" it is). But I would ask the independent types to ask themselves what they want. A career? That's a lot of panhandling to the feds for the rest of (y)our life, under the current way of doing things. Opportunities to do art? Mais certainment--but it'll cost ya!

Of course, you could always ask Bell or Syncrude or Rogers or TD Bank to support you. Private sponsorship, oddly, often comes with fewer strings than the government subsidies that, say, keep your 800 seat Blumer up and running.

But no, let's not build condos instead of arts spaces. Though it's worth musing that a condo needs, what?, 80% sold space before it's built, and the Bluma needs 50% sold seats to make money, would the independent cause really be better served by less access to theatre and more access to, um, vertical human shelving?


Anonymous said...

Here's a note of optimism on this World Theatre Day: theatre is powerful, and its power is in its immediacy and ephemerality. When theatre builds giant bureaucracies and institutions--however well intentioned they are and however they may celebrate the spirit of their age (1950s/60s/70s Canadian Nationalism in this case), they become memorials of that age--statues of themselves. Statues have their value, but they are not immediate and ephemeral. Their own petrification gets in their way.

That's how I see Canstage, and a legion of other theatres like it in Canada and, by the way, around the world. As you said Chris, is has staged great productions, and surely it would do so occasionally in the future. I've seen only a few shows there in recent years, the cost being prohibitive (that's another issue): Blue/Orange, which was provocative and superbly executed, some absolutely dreadful Shakespearean biographical thing, The Goat/Who is Sylvia which--with respect to Albee--was like a scene from sketch comedy with pretentions to profundity, and probably a few others that were too boring to recall.

So I'm with you. David Mirvish is doing a great job of commercial theatre--some blunders notwithstanding--and there's a market for that. But let's be honest, theatre is widely perceived in our culture as irrelevant, and why not, when so much of what appears on stage at Canstage, Tarragon, Factory and Passe Muraille is talky, untheatrical, and largely forgettable? There are so many itinerant companies pushing the envelope both thematically and topically--and most of them are from a younger generation. Slowly, these ideas are creeping into those 'Alternative theatres', but Canstage? It's simply too big to turn into anything else. So I say: Burn, baby, burn.