Entertainment Notes

How to woo back the audience

Brian Bergman March 18 2002
Entertainment Notes

How to woo back the audience

Brian Bergman March 18 2002

How to woo back the audience

Entertainment Notes

Like most Canadian playwrights, Calgary’s Eugene Stickland is not in it for

the fame, money or glory. “Let’s face it,” says Stickland, “this is a lonely and often frustrating profession.” Still, the 45-yearold Regina native is luckier than most: for the past eight years he has served as writerin-residence at Calgary’s Alberta Theatre Projects, where five of his plays have premiered, including Midlife, which recently completed a run as part of ATP’s annual

PanCanadian playRites festival. Two years ago, though, Stickland’s employer appeared headed for oblivion. Over $750,000 in debt and losing patrons, ATP launched a desperate bid to drum up $ 1 million from private sources—and to reconnect with its audience. That it succeeded on both scores, says Stickland, is good news for theatregoers beyond Calgary. “There are precious few showcases for Canadian plays. This is a special place and we almost lost it.”

The phoenix-like recovery of 30-year-old ATP may also hold some lessons for arts organizations across the country. Bob White, who has worked with the company since 1987 and became artistic director during the depths of ATP’s financial crisis in late 1999, cites the most basic one: never lose touch with your audience. White says ATP earned a reputation for a steady diet of heavy, issue-oriented plays: “One subscriber described it as like being at a particularly intense Sunday morning at the United Church.” By the fall of 1999, ATP, which uses the 450-seat Martha Cohen Theatre, had a mere 1,800 subscribers, down from the 5,000-plus season tickets it sold, on average, a decade earlier. Single ticket sales were also in a tailspin, and the theatre was in real danger of going dark.

White, who had overseen playRites—a showcase of new Canadian work—for a decade, was named artistic director in November, 1999. His first moves were to slash ATP’s $3.3-million annual operating budget by more than 20 per cent and to launch an ultimately successful, $1-million fundraising campaign. He also developed a more crowd-pleasing playlist balancing the serious and comedic, and focusing on the character-driven plays that ATP s audience could relate to. One thing that has not changed is ATP’s focus on fostering Canadian plays, many of which later travel across the country and abroad.

As a result, ATP subscriptions have edged up while single-ticket sales for the first half of the 2001 -2002 season increased 70 per cent from the same period a year earlier. “There’s a shocking directness about people here,” says White. “You can do something that pisses them off, but they want to be able to talk to you about it. I love that sense of engagement.”

Brian Bergman