Theatre

Play therapy

Toronto theatres defeat cutbacks and closures

John Bemrose March 15 1999
Theatre

Play therapy

Toronto theatres defeat cutbacks and closures

John Bemrose March 15 1999

Play therapy

Theatre

Toronto theatres defeat cutbacks and closures

JOHN BEMROSE

There are times when theatre generates sheer magic. Like the evening late last month when The Drawer Boy, a new drama by 35-year-old playwright Michael Healey, received its world première in the old converted bakery that is home to Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille. Set on a southwestern Ontario farm, the play follows a young Toronto actor as he settles in with two bachelor farmers to research a drama about rural life. The Drawer Boy—which was inspired by the making of a famous 1972 Passe Muraille collective play called The Farm Show—soon revealed itself as a moving tribute to art’s healing power. For two hours, the capacity audience sat with that peculiar, attentive stillness that is a sure sign something special is happening. Then, when the cast members emerged for their curtain calls, the crowd stormed to its feet, cheering with an enthusiasm usually found only at rock concerts.

For the Toronto theatre scene, the triumph of The Drawer Boy is a heartening sign in a time of cutbacks, closures and risky new ventures. “There’s a vulnerability in Toronto theatre just now, from the largest to the smallest companies,” says Urjo Kareda, artistic director of the 28-year-old Tarragon Theatre. Of course, theatre is always a questionable business, subject as it is to the whims of audiences and the vagaries of art. But the current climate seems particularly uncertain. For a decade now, Toronto has enjoyed a reputation as the thirdlargest theatre centre in the English-speaking world, after London and New York City. More than 100 professional theatre groups perform in the city, in venues that range from converted warehouses to the opulent Princess of Wales. Theatregoers flock steadily from the surrounding regions—Toronto is within a six-hour drive of 30 million people, most of them in the American border states—to see musicals such as The Phantom of the Opera and Chicago. Others line up for specialty shows, including comedian Sandra Shamas’s one-woman tour de force, Wit’s End, now in its ninth sold-out week. Yet others make the trek to theatres such as Canadian Stage, Passe Muraille and Factory Theatre, which specialize in new Canadian or foreign drama.

Now that rich mix—and Toronto’s reputation as a theatre capital—has come under threat. This September, Canada’s longest-running musical, The Phantom of the Opera, will close out a 10-year run in the refurbished Pantages Theatre. With its signature 540-kg crashing chandelier, Phantom was long a cash cow for the financially troubled Livent Inc. and its recently deposed co-founder, Garth Drabin-

sky. In recent years, however, tickets had been discounted, and it was evident that Phantom was near the end of its run.

Now, Livent, whose headquarters have shifted from Toronto to New York, is looking for bidders to buy its assets, including the Pantages (as well as theatres in Vancouver, New York and Chicago) to help service its $334-million debt. Yet the real blow to Toronto is the winding down of Livent’s local production activities. Shows such as Ragtime and Showboat may have been aimed at the U.S. market, but their creation and initial runs channelled millions into the city’s economy. “There definitely was a trickle-down effect ifom Livent, and that’s no longer happening,” says Jessica Fraser, executive director of the Toronto Theatre Alliance. “When the final figures come down, we may have to revise this notion that we’re the third-largest theatre city in the English-speaking world.”

Fraser points, as well, to cutbacks by granting agencies, which have undermined much of the so-called not-for-profit sector—those theatres whose prime mandate is to stage new work, some of which may tour nationally. A few of the smaller companies have vanished entirely, while many of the survivors are making do with shorter seasons, plays with smaller casts and lower production values. A recent report from the Toronto Arts Council revealed that, between 1991 and 1996, $41.3 million worth of grants had been withdrawn by all three levels of government from the city’s arts community, including theatre. Some companies have lost up to 40 per cent of their public funds. “The cuts have stripped away 10 years of careful building,” declared council president Anne Collins.

Yet there is good news too. Some theatres have found new sources of income, including local corporations. At Tarragon, Kareda says, “we now have sponsorships committed for the next three seasons—in some cases for plays that haven’t even been written yet.” Kareda credits Tarragon board president Elizabeth Comper—wife of new Bank of Montreal CEO Tony Comper—with stimulating interest among potential patrons. “Her commitment to our work has made donors see it as an exciting possibility.”

However, Ken Gass, artistic director of Factory Theatre, points out that most corporate donations go to a few highprofile institutions such as major art galleries, the opera and ballet. “For smaller arts organizations, the corporate sector is not the answer,” Gass maintains. What is the answer then? Putting on first-class work can help. Last year, Gass’s theatre rescued itself from near-bankruptcy by staging six wildly successful plays by Canadian playwright George F. Walker. Along with some dedicated volunteer work from friends of the theatre (Gass himself took no pay for nine months), and many individual donations, the Walker triumph helped Factory buy its own building.

Gass thinks smaller theatres, including his own, should aim higher. ‘We tend to get stuck in survival mode,” he says. “Maybe we should think more about creating a product that’s true to our mandate, but that can go on the road for 20 weeks and bring some benefits back home.” That is exactly what happened with Tarragon’s smash 1996 hit, Two Pianos, Four Hands, a drama by Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra about two young men who want to be

concert pianists. Toronto producer David Mirvish staged it successfully in New York, before its run at his Royal Alex Theatre. Now, the little play is travelling across the United States, with a second touring version planned for next year. All those ventures earn royalties for Tarragon.

With Drabinsky’s fall, Mirvish is now the only major theatre producer left in Toronto. Recently, he achieved a major triumph when he beat out interests in Chicago and Los Angeles to secure the exclusive North American rights (outside New York) for a production of The Lion King, Disney’s phenomenally successful musical whose Broadway run is sold out to the end of 2000. Mirvish is planning to build the show’s elaborate sets and breathtaking animal masks in Canada. As far as possible, he hopes to cast it here, too. That activity should help offset some of the negative economic impact of Livent’s collapse. Mirvish took on the musical even though production details are not yet worked out, and he does not know how much The Lion King will ultimately cost to stage. Insiders put the figure between $15 million and $25 million. “It’s more ambitious than anything I’ve attempted,” Mirvish says.

Mega-musicals such as The Lion King—which will open at the Princess of Wales in March, 2000, for a 22-month run—have their share of local detractors who claim they draw ticket-buyers away from original Canadian work. But Mirvish has another view. He claims that megahit profits (including increased subscription sales to his entire season) allow him to pick up productions from smaller Canadian theatres and give them a wider exposure in his Royal Alex Theatre, next door to the Princess of Wales. “The success of the big shows gives us the advantage of taking risks,” Mirvish says, “of showcasing a unique kind of theatre that comes out of our own community.”

Canadian plays that have benefited from the Mirvish touch include the city-bus saga, The Number 14, the hit show from Vancouver’s Axis Theatre Company, which played in Toronto in January. Then there is this spring’s Royal Alex presentation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town—to be performed by members of Toronto’s new classical repertory company, Soulpepper. This group made a sensational debut last summer with their brilliant interpretations of two plays by Molière and Schiller. They ended their season with a surplus and this summer—in addition to Our Town—are ambitiously staging four plays, including Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Soulpepper’s artistic director, Albert Schultz, is an actor by trade. But he sounds more like a businessman as he explains how—thanks in part to the Mirvish connection—his company is producing more than twice as many shows as last year with only a 30-per-cent increase in costs. And he’s keeping ticket prices down, too: a four-show pass will cost as little as $80. Says Schulz: ‘We have to make it possible for a younger generation to afford the classics.” Toronto’s smaller theatres, it seems, are taking a page from the big producers and getting financially savvy. But ultimately, the real vitality of the city’s theatre depends on how good the plays are—and there the outlook is encouraging. “Artistically,” claims Gass, “the Toronto scene has never been stronger.” The people who stood to cheer The Drawer Boy would no doubt agree. □