The Soulpepper model may prove a godsend for the independent community here as well
by joel fishbane
I have a friend who runs a restaurant, but only for two weeks at a time. For months she works to get her restaurant ready, spending thousands of dollars on marketing, supplies and employees. There is a grand opening followed by fourteen nights of dinners after which she shuts down, throws out the equipment and sends most of her employees home. She’s usually in debt and yet, a few months later, she does it all again.
Is this a ludicrous way to run a business? Yes. Have I just described the standard operating practice for theatre companies across the country? Absolutely.
Theatre companies continually assemble the pieces of a production only to discard most of them after closing night. Productions continue to run, regardless of whether or not they’re popular and the successful shows are often not extended due to financial constraints, venues no longer being available or artists having prior commitments.
|Soulpepper's Billy Bishop
(Eric Peterson, photo credit:
Cylla von Tiedemann)
Artists could be guaranteed work for an extended period of time.
This dilemma is currently being addressed by Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company, who have entered 2011 with an impressive and highly experimental new bag of tricks. With 17 shows slotted for the year, they have hired artists on two six-month, multi-show contracts. Essentially, they have become a repertoire company—but unlike Shaw and Stratford, the frequency of shows will be determined entirely by audience demand. A show that is not selling will be dropped from the schedule, allowing for extra performances of the production everyone wants to see.
Elements of this business model may prove ideally suited for Montreal. Segal and Centaur are the obvious contenders, as their multi-venue theatres favor simultaneous productions. They also have the budgets to ensure that sets and costumes are recycled (or even designed) to serve more than one show. Artists could be guaranteed work for an extended period of time. And there would be more time to generate publicity, ending the constant tug-of-war for space in the city’s few English papers.
However, the model may prove a godsend for the independent community as well. If Soulpepper’s strategy catches on, it may lead to a new type of agreement with the CAEA (Actors Equity). It has long been known that the CAEA’s various contract agreements aren’t always suited for Montreal’s quirky theatrical environment. Currently, companies wishing to engage unionized artists must fill out single-show contracts, even if they hope to employ them for more than one show. This is both an administrative and a financial strain, especially on small companies already lacking in resources.
Soulpepper’s model is still experimental, of course, and it may be that they have an audience base we simply can never hope to echo.
But the most striking thing about the Soulpepper model is that it would allow for companies to chart an audience’s needs. As supply will be based on demand, companies will be better positioned to watch for trends. And as there will already be an infrastructure in place, producers can theoretically act on this information—pun completely intended. With a whole stable of artists under contract, timely and prescient theatre can be assembled at a much faster rate.
Soulpepper’s model is still experimental, of course, and it may be that they have an audience base we simply can never hope to echo. Still, the changes in Toronto remind us how crucial it is for a community to continually explore new strategies that may help our companies to thrive.
But for now, you’ll have to excuse me—I have to go help my friend tear down her kitchen.
Soulpepper's Billy Bishop Goes to War is at the Segal Centre