Imagine a regional theatre company, based in a city’s downtown core with a dedicated space to their art. Imagine each mainstage season has approximately five or six performances that run from mid-fall to late spring. Each performance generally runs for a few weeks, with occasional matinees dedicated to students, seniors or pay-what-you-can. In addition to an education and outreach program, this regional theatre company presents talkbacks and may sometimes partners with local artists or playwrights to develop new or younger talent.
While this theoretical company might sound oddly familiar, it’s a scenario that exists in hundreds of cities across North America. However, following the closure of the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company in 2012 due to financial difficulties, many regional theatres were forced to take a closer look at their organization, with many continuing to search for ways to amend their operating models and artistic offerings,
More locally, Theatre Aquarius hasn’t strayed far from the above established model that has been relatively unchanged for decades. The company produces a relatively predictable six-play season that consists of two crowd-pleasing musicals, two popular cannon works and two more contemporary works that are usually critical award-winners, but have been previously tried and tested in similar markets. Financially, this model seems to be bringing the company success. In the 17-18 season (the most recent season for which information is publicly available), the company was one of the few charitable arts organizations in the city to declare a surplus (of 250 thousand dollars), including receiptable gifts to the company of just over $250 thousand dollars and ticket sales of over three million. However, with ticket sales making up a significant percentage of Theatre Aquarius’ revenue (67% in 17-18), it’s easy to imagine the outcome of their fiscal year being a very different scenario if just one show doesn’t perform as budgeted. Theatre Aquarius did not respond to a request for comment on this topic.
A reliance on ticket sales is not a problem unique to Theatre Aquarius, most other regional theatre companies, or many other arts organizations, which is partially what is causing a re-examination by many of the older business models. As part of this examination, companies are also frequently facing pressure to find a balance in diversifying both work presented or produced while simultaneously diversifying their audience streams. A price increase may alienate audiences while loyal ticket buyers may need to be coaxed into taking a risk on more adventurous programming. And programming that may be perceived as too adventurous or diverse for the company can lead to the dreaded ticket sale slump that is difficult to recover from.
Public grants are becoming increasingly difficult to rely on, as fewer grants and lesser amounts are becoming available, while those that do exist are frequently for project funding rather than year-round operating costs. The work involved in applying for grants is increasing, with the expectation to provide measurable deliverables and timely outcomes (often beyond the granting period) becoming the norm, resulting in more resources being required to apply for the grant, and if successful, execute the proposal. For many other organizations, grants are declined even after devoting many hours of work.
For this reason, even a sell out performance doesn’t guarantee that a show will accomplish their budgeted amount, particularly if all staff and personnel are being paid a fair and competitive wage. Although it is impossible to predict which shows will sell out and which will not, reliable programming, with known performers, playwrights, familiar content or a well-known musical certainly helps to sell tickets and minimize risk.
But this continued effort to minimize risk in programming has led to a desire for more contemporary, independent and locally charged work. Locally, we’re fortunate in that this void is increasingly being filled by smaller theatre companies that are dedicated to developing talent and creating locally. Although many of the performance runs are not as long or in as large a space as Theatre Aquarius, the high attendance numbers of many of these shows demonstrate an increased appetite for many different types and styles of professional theatres within Hamilton. This is a great thing for the future of the industry in Hamilton, as smaller theatres are important contributors to the national theatre ecosystem. Smaller companies are frequently able to take risks that larger ones cannot, resulting in the discovery and development of playwrights, directors, actors, designers and other creative professionals that will ultimately populate the larger companies and regional theatres.
These companies face additional challenges, as expenses continue to rise. Rents for rehearsal and performance spaces continue to rise. Insurance costs have increased. Hardware, props, costumes, paint and equipment are all increasingly expensive. For now, many of these companies are staying non-union because they can’t afford the contract they’d have to use with their venue or seat count.
Despite this, new professional theatre companies continue to emerge in Hamilton, each determined to fill a much needed void and contribute to the growing ecology. The challenge for each of these organizations is real as they are dramatically undersupported in almost every way, but the benefit to the entire city is tremendous.
To give them the leverage that they need is to support the small independent theatre companies; and not just support them, but create support for them if they are to continue to grow. These organizations need to be encouraged to keep taking risks- to move away from the old and unchanged model of regional theatre that is slowly causing the demise of many. This can be done in terms of attendance and increasing demand for tickets, while these organizations need to be continuing to apply for private and public funding that they very much deserve for their creations and fostering of the local ecosystem. Audiences need to not just pay for tickets, but a culture of donating needs to be fostered within organizations as well- something that companies can work on together, as a supportive theatre base does not just benefit one organization, but it benefits all. While this is just a start, these small but significant actions will ensure that our local independent professional theatre community can not just survive, but thrive and flourish as well.