n. “One that supports, protects, or champions someone or something, such as an institution, event, or cause; a sponsor or benefactor.”
My theatre company’s recent production of David Mamet’s RACE would have to qualify as a complete success. I say that as humbly and “Canadian” as I can. Independently produced (aka shoestring budget), we crafted every detail of marketing and presentation to exude “abundance” and quality. The play opened with a fully sponsored opening night gala, post-show audiences buzzing with excitement over their wine and tapas at the art gallery next to the theatre. Critical reviews throughout the run were astonishing and we took in almost $15,000 in box office as people flocked to see this provocative legal drama. All of the artists actually got paid a bit of pocket change. Creating this kind of success on an indie theatre budget is, I suppose, a feat.
As proud as I was of the show, I still see some emptiness in a fairly full glass.
The artists I had the honor of working with, the grateful audiences that supported and so loved the show, the creative process itself, filled my cup quite substantially. But it doesn’t runneth over.
The future is exciting but uncertain. Our box office is sound, our audiences supportive, our presentation inspired. Audiences want to see more of what we’ve got to offer. How do we expand?
The cost/benefit structure of theatre is not profit-friendly at the best of times. Having only a finite amount of product to sell (seats), the ratio of expense to revenue is daunting. The larger the venue is, the more the cost, and so the disproportion continues.
Outside of box office, another route of revenue for theatre companies is concessions. Part of the charm of our presentation was sprucing up our venue and running a lobby bar with top shelf local wine labels and charming volunteer bartenders serving the libations. To get this accomplished required red tape slashing and jury rigging a liquor license so complicated in its contortions it would make Stephen Hawking have a nervous breakdown.
There really are no proper liquor laws in place for a theatre company to run its own bar in a venue which they rent. Why? Bloated Canadian bureaucracy with zero flex and random bylaws. While the nightclub district in downtown Vancouver on a Saturday night resembles a war zone and the blood alcohol content of vomiting 20 year olds would kill an Irishman, trying to locally legalize a glass of pre-theatre vino is trickier than teaching atheism in Utah. These laws need to change if Vancouver is to have a cultural milieu comparable to cities rather than towns.
**Sidebar note to theatre venue administration, in the interest of making theatre inviting: Don’t start mopping the lobby floor and turning off the lights five minutes after a show ends. The post- show audience needs a chance to socialize, commune and snuggle. I know you just want to go to sleep, but a bit of post-encounter nicety makes one feel much less cheap. Haven’t you read “The Rules?”**
A few dollars to spruce the place up would also go a long way towards helping us theatre folk gain sex appeal.
In a perfect world, our liquor laws will loosen up and our venues will lose the seniors bingo vibe.
Aside from plying audiences with refreshments, an alternate route to fiscal stability is public funding, something our company has never received and likely never will. Our mandate is to produce provocative dramas from global playwrights such as David Mamet, Neil Labute and other searing scribes of foreign origin. So many of our audience members commented, “Why aren’t more shows like this being done in Vancouver?”. It became clear that a large cross section of our audience usually resisted attending theatre. This constant sentiment was echoed by many who were in the industry themselves.
Our artistic talent base here is incredible, the city filled with fantastic actors, directors and creative minds. Great shows do get produced, often to empty houses, and I surmise, in spite of the odds.
I believe that it’s our Canadian arts bureaucracy (funding boards and outdated administrative practice) which is partly to blame. Cue the closing of The Vancouver Playhouse and the emergence of a new order.
Entertainment has not been the bottom line when it comes to arts grants and so often the most deserving shows do not have any grants in place which would enable them to advertise and gain a larger audience. David Mamet’s RACE entertained its audience and definitely spoke to black audience members and certainly addressed many themes of racial and sexual politics – Checkmate for Canadian funding initiatives. However, David Mamet is an American writer. No matter that every member of our cast, crew and audience is Canadian, and of differing ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, gender, etc. The reality is that there exists virtually no room in the Canadian public funding mandates for small theatre companies to produce foreign work, no matter how substantial or entertaining it is to a wide audience. It’s not about entertaining audiences, but rather “serving the community”. It’s not a meritocracy but rather an exercise in placation, a proving of one’s “Canadian-ness”.
Here’s how I would stand the best chances of getting a Canadian public grant. I would write a play myself, making the project “indigenous”. It would be about Canadian farm boys in World War I, staged in a parking garage in downtown Vancouver to make it “site-specific” and “innovative to Canadian theatre practice”. The play would have no discernible plot but would include spoken word poetry and historical black and white slides of outdoor curling tournaments on the Canadian tundra. Some of the male soldiers would be played by women, rewriting historical reality to create a new and inclusive alternate universe. The play would culminate with a multicultural movement/dance number set against a bagpipe score.
So, I don’t think our mandate will change in order to fit the public funding narrative. It’s drying up and dying anyway, not because of an “evil Harper government” but for the same reasons all institutions die – being obsolete.
This leaves the final avenue of financial and artistic growth for our company: Private funding. Patronage, as it is classically referred to.
Some of the greatest art in history flowered during the Renaissance in 15th Century Italy. Enlightened monarchs were in charge of small and manageable city-states with relative autonomy. Merchants flourished, and a number of families grew wealthy both inside and outside the ranks of the nobility. They in turn financed wonderful works of painting, sculpture, and music. The key element in this production was patronage. It was the money of patrons that allowed artists to live long enough and well enough to produce their fantastic achievements.
In modern times, there has been a trend away from individual patronage. It is somehow considered “elitist” and thus does not fit into the mold of certain political philosophies. So instead the government is expected to shoulder the burden of funding artists, providing art for all the people this way. Who exactly gets to create and deliver this art is chosen by committees, in the usual government manner. Whether the best art is produced under these conditions is open for debate, but I fall clearly on one side of it.
Sponsorship and patronage are the answer for a company like ours to evolve, I believe that undoubtedly. The amount of inspiration and sheer creative output that goes into producing a good play is immense. We are up to the task and indeed spend close to a year putting our shows together regardless of financial gain and often taking financial risk. The sense of a new “scene” in town, a new way of presenting theatre as an “event”, a cultural gathering that also involves socializing, art (and maybe a few drinks) is what we’ve trying to materialize on a wider scale. Our number one goal: to entertain.
We have ventured down the private sponsorship road and to date have found it a long and difficult one, but the most apt to yield return. We’ve worked in Herculean fashion to produce shows that it seems that audiences love and appreciate (Neil Labute’s Fat pig, Michael Weller’s “Fifty Words, David Mamet’s “Race”).
We’d like to continue our journey but will have to stick our thumbs out for a ride. Who will pick us up?