By JANET UREN
Earlier this year, CBC Radio hosted a phone-in program asking listeners to respond to the question: “Is live theatre dead?” Some callers agreed, saying, more or less, “It’s been replaced, and good riddance.” Others insisted that nothing rivals the sheer human power of live performance.
In fact, not only is theatre alive, it is growing. Market research done using Statistics Canada data reports that between 2001 and 2008, total consumer spending on live performance increased by 49%. Canadians spend twice as much on performing arts as on live sports, and — according to a 2010 survey — theatre attracts 12.4 million Canadians annually, compared with only 11.1 million for live popular music. That means that almost half of all Canadians over the age of 15 attend live theatre at least once every year.
Still, the economics of theatre — where production costs typically exceed revenues — are brutal, and the average performance-related annual income of actors hovers around $12,000, as reported in The Toronto Star in 2009. “Many actors and comedians leave the occupation because of high job insecurity,” says Service Canada in a report called “Job Futures.” “Like many other occupations in the arts, multiple employment is common.”
There is a lot of competition in Ottawa. With most of the oxygen being taken up by the National Arts Centre and the Great Canadian Theatre Company, there may actually be more companies producing good work here than there is audience. But John Muggleton, an actor who worked in television in Toronto before returning to Ottawa as director of marketing at the Ottawa Little Theatre, says that the competition is not waged with other theatres. “It’s Future Shop and Best Buy that hurt us, all selling products designed to keep people at home.”
If theatre has survived, it is an economic miracle, largely because of the commitment of driven artists. As David Whiteley of Plosive Productions says: “Nothing else is so comprehensive, so expressive. Nowhere else do you work so closely, so creatively with others. Nothing else brings together so many of the arts — visual arts, music, story-telling, writing. Theatre is complete.”
The Gladstone Theatre shines as an example of theatrical passion. The venue — on Gladstone Avenue west of Preston — was a tired old commercial space until 1982, when the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC) converted it into a rough-and-ready theatre space. There, the company presented Canadian works for over 25 years. In 2007, it was strong enough, financially and artistically, to move into a new purpose-built home. The old bare-bones garage-cum-theatre on Gladstone was left empty. Enter Steve Martin.
In one of Ottawa’s most gallant theatre adventures, Martin purchased The Gladstone and renovated it into a little jewel of a theatre. He had a vision of a small, classy theatre, managed as a business and producing a year-long list of good plays, well publicized and featuring the city’s best artists. The results were disappointing. Martin now leases The Gladstone to Plosive Productions, which manages it as a rental facility and uses it for its own productions. One of those was a recent production of the Canadian classic Billy Bishop Goes to War, a one-man tour de force with actor Chris Ralph playing 18 roles; the play has been nominated for a Rideau Prize for Outstanding Production and Performance.
One of the regular tenants at The Gladstone is John P. Kelly’s SevenThirty Productions, which mounted November last fall — a play that won Best Professional Production and Best Actor awards for Todd Duckworth from the Capital Critics Circle. Kelly came to Ottawa in 2004, expecting to find work here. Instead, he was forced to found his own company, though the last thing he ever wanted was to produce. The results have been artistically acclaimed, but it is a hard living. What keeps Kelly going? “It’s what I do,” he says. “It’s who I am.”
Companies like Plosive and SevenThirty are keeping The Gladstone alive, and Martin remains convinced that his vision is tenable. He believes, however, that theatre-goers are looking for a “blue jean” experience, something that rivals film for ease of access and affordability. He will test that theory with a new show this summer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet. Ticket prices will be low, and Martin intends to marry theatre with live dance music on weekends to appeal to a younger, music-oriented crowd.
The newcomers may be struggling, but Ottawa veterans have arguably survived by identifying a clear niche, venue, and audience.
Odyssey Theatre, for example, is Ottawa’s pioneer “theatre in the park.” Since 1986, it has been producing its annual flagship play in Strathcona Park, where it specializes in commedia dell’arte (the classic masked street theatre of Italy). Ottawa people like to stay outdoors in summer. The Odyssey has captured their attention and used its seasonal success to build, grow, and diversify. It has taken time.
The GCTC also found its way. It started in 1975 with an identifiable constituency — cultural nationalists who wanted to see Canadian works on the stage. It has worked for over three decades to develop that audience and to build a strong business. It has taken patience.
A close and disciplined focus may have worked for established companies, but diversity is the emerging trend. Ottawa’s newest theatre business, for example — the Avalon Studio — has several strings to its bow. Last fall, Muggleton and actor/teacher Chris Ralph discovered a long-abandoned vaudeville theatre on Bank Street that had been repurposed for office space. They have reopened it now as a modestly sized and wonderfully atmospheric old theatre, but the Avalon is also making its living as a recreational drama school and event venue.
Ralph, whose acting career includes a diploma from the National Theatre School and work in Montreal and Toronto, is optimistic about the industry. “Theatre isn’t dead,” he says, “but it is evolving. To survive, we have to be flexible and inventive.”
Plays have to change as well, says Muggleton, and to have smaller casts. “As we work out of smaller venues, we need a different kind of play — two- or three-handers that we can afford to mount. Plays also have to be shorter, faster, and more dynamic.” And those plays have to be strong enough to please audiences trained by the consumer market to expect consummate polish and high-paced delivery. There is no room, ever, to compromise quality.
Quality is not the issue for Third Wall Theatre. The company has been presenting classic plays to Ottawa audiences for the past 13 years. It is a critical favourite, recently nominated for five Rideau Prize awards. It is worth noting that although the critically acclaimed God of Carnage drew the second largest audience of any show in Third Wall’s history, it was not a financial success. Welcome to the world of theatre.
Third Wall is remarkable in that it has a resident company, a body of actors on which it draws for all productions. This is an unusual model for a small company, but it has allowed Third Wall to build a winning theatrical team. Not only is the company able to count on some of the city’s best actors, but the model helps actors develop onstage relationships. Third Wall has also invested in the nationally recognized director Ross Manson.
Quality is expensive, and Third Wall has felt the sharp end of the financial stick. It too has diversified to survive, notably with the Empty Space Series, where actors gather in the splendid hall of Glebe St. James United Church to read from short stories, letters, or poetry. The company has also created the Third Wall Academy, a training program for young actors. And it is currently hammering out a new business model, including partnerships to develop new theatre works based on classic works of fiction.
At least Third Wall has found a home. Earlier this year, it staged Harold Pinter’s classic one-act play The Dumb Waiter in the friendly, rough-hewn Avalon Studio. In doing so, it benefited from the affordability of an intimate space, the marketing expertise of Muggleton and Ralph, and access to the emerging Avalon community. Third Wall also experimented with an innovative ticket system for that show, with gradually increasing prices for ticket-buyers. This gave the company access to upfront revenues and helped build buzz around the production.
So is live theatre dead in Ottawa? In this brave new world, where newspapers, books, and cursive writing are all threatened with extinction, will theatre be among the casualties? Let us look for an answer to Mark Twain, who once famously observed, “Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
“Passion Play” originally appeared on Page 27 in the MAY 2014 Issue of Ottawa Magazine.