Theatre

From rags to threepiece business suits

Ian McDowell October 1 1979
Theatre

From rags to threepiece business suits

Ian McDowell October 1 1979

From rags to threepiece business suits

Theatre

Ian McDowell

The new fall theatre fashion promises to be the three-piece business suit. After 10 years of nonstop electioneering on behalf of Canadian plays and Canadian nationalism, Toronto’s 20-odd professional theatres have stopped worrying about who is to write and perform their plays and begun to worry over whose job it is to pay for them. Theatres are now trying to speak the language of the bottom line.

“We’re looking at an effective 25-percent cut in our budget this year,” is George Luscombe’s first remark when asked to describe his upcoming 20th-anniversary season as head of Toronto Workshop Productions (TWP). He has announced seven plays, but three of them are one-man shows, that favorite low-cost form of drama beloved of theatre accountants. Another is a co-production and one is a touring show. Billed as a “stage of celebration,” the new TWP lineup is a careful balance of what should be afforded and what can be. Two new plays ( The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Mac-Paps by Luscombe and Mac Reynolds) will carry on the TWP tradition, but the five other attractions (the first being solo singerperformer Ann Mortifee, which opened Sept. 19) say little more about TWP than “Happy Birthday” sotto voce.

Budgets for every theatre in the country that depends on government sub-

sidy have been cut back this year. In Toronto, less government funding in the long term translates into an immediate need to sell more tickets for the very next show—and it’s nearly impossible to spend less money yet come up with more product. For Luscombe, a “costefficient” season means cutting back on the shows he produces best, new plays. At Factory Theatre Lab, new artistic director Bob White has decided to produce no shows at all in the conventional sense, spending his budget instead on economical workshops of new plays in an attempt to “get back Factory’s mandate for discovering new writers”— with the occasional showcase of new work, such as Robert Siddons’ Girls in Chains in November.

The real trend, however, is to bigger and better box-office, to emulate the man in the three-piece suit: no one sells tickets faster than Ed Mirvish, the proprietor of the Royal Alexandra Theatre. Topping off this season at 44,000 subscription seats sold, Mirvish and his lineup of blue-chip Broadway and West End shows could probably sell 44,000 more. He has considered adding an extra week to the runs of each of his subscription attractions but he prefers to reserve time in the Royal Alex calendar for special events such as the Canadian Opera Company season.

The reason for Mirvish’s success is the fact that his theatre is big. His volume of ticket sales can easily underwrite any kind of show the Alex might want to produce, providing the choice doesn’t affect the sales curve. The one

theatre that could perhaps match his success is the city-owned St. Lawrence Centre where Toronto Arts Productions (TAP) presents five shows annually, with big budgets, healthy subscription sales and the added plus of government subsidy. But this year the opening show, Centaur Theatre’s travelling production of David Fennario’s Balconville, has been upstaged by the activity in the TAP boardroom, where the choice of successor to artistic chief Leon Major is being pondered. Major’s troubles have always made better copy than his shows, especially since the arrival on the scene of Toronto Star critic Gina Mallet, who sends imaginary people (such as Sherlock Holmes) to the St. Lawrence to borrow her byline for attacks on Major’s shows. Her full-frontal attacks may have been a final added push to Major’s long-rumored departure next season. Who will follow him? Board members will probably opt for a conservative hand with the cash register to counteract increasing budget problems. Which effectively rules out Stratford Artistic Director Robin Phillips, whose application made headlines

but who is also reputedly a wild man with a dollar.

The hard fact about box-office is that a producer needs a recognizable name to promote. The Royal Alex opened its season Sept. 10 with the New York hit comedy Da, starring Tony Award-winner Barnard Hughes—there are few Tony Award-winning actors available for hire at small-theatre prices. And the increasing drawing power of young writers and actresses such as Michel Tremblay and Clare Coulter only begins to solve the problem. Looking down the Jist of what is advertised for the new season in Toronto, one soon notices some confusion in the scramble to find surefire hits. For instance, no fewer than three productions of the Charlottetown Festival hit musical Eight to the Bar were being planned by various theatres. And Erika Ritter’s new comedy, Automatic Pilot, is touted by at least two. In short, the productions one can count on seeing are those this side of the horizon—the plays that are already in rehearsal.

The consistent box-office winner among the smaller entries in the Toronto theatre ticket sweepstakes has always been the Tarragon. Six plays are offered this year and while the season traditionally gets re-organized as it moves on and money tightens, two plays, Michel Tremblay’s Damnée Manon, Sacrée Sandra (starring Frank Moore and Clare Coulter) and David Mamet’s The Woods, look to be the strongest entries. And Theatre Passe Muraille is producing what may be the first commercial success of the season, a double bill from Newfoundland of CODCO’s comedy team WNOBS and the band Figgy Duff at the Horseshoe Tavern from Sept. 20.

Theatre Passe Muraille’s business strategy lately has been to produce at least one commercial hit per year, and then to spend the next year touring it across the country. Director Paul Thompson’s collective shows (1837, The Farm Show) have usually provided Theatre Passe Muraille with their annual vehicle, in the process discovering veteran Passe Muraille actor Eric Peterson, who last year paid the company’s mortgage with the hit, Billy Bishop Goes to War, which toured to Toronto from Vancouver. This year one of Passe Muraille’s more conventional contributions will be the dramatization of Michael Ondaatje’s novel/memoir Coming Through Slaughter. But the big financial push will probably come with Thompson’s new collective work, The Torontonians, and an as-yet-unscheduled play about homosexuality in the big city.

Just one theatre in Toronto is still content to produce exactly what it wants without looking at the balance

sheet. Tiny Phoenix Theatre on Dupont Street last year produced two excellent shows, American Buffalo by David Mamet and the difficult (because of the huge cast) Restoration comedy The Relapse. Ecstatic reviews don’t translate into healthy profits when you have only 166 seats to fill. This year’s first production, Chinchilla by Robert David MacDonald, will star Robert Benson as Serges Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes. Chinchilla looks like the one sure artistic bet for this fall.

What does all this activity add up to? There’s a good deal of healthy choice for

the ticket buyer, from workshops of brand-new plays to visitations by Broadway stars. There are at least 50 professional theatre productions planned between now and Christmas. There are more theatre companies and, most important, more entertainment for those who want it. But for theatres and their managements there is increasing pressure to abandon long-term artistic goals in an effort to float their financial ships. Theatres haven’t yet learned that the lowest common denominator is not necessarily the most salable commodity.