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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Theatre for Thought, February 15, 2011

Companies In Search of a New Model
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


  1. Soul Pepper has always been a repertory company, hiring staff for significant chunks, if not entire seasons. They're also a training institution connected with George Brown, which provides them with talent for semesters at a time. The big change is really the audience-driven runs. I have always felt that shows that are selling well should extend until they stop selling. I work at the Centaur Box Office, and we still get calls for tickets to Paradise By The River and even Mambo Italiano, months even years after these shows have closed.

    I think it would take a long time for the typical Montreal audience to really get the hang of the repertory model. Tableau D'Hote's repertory showing of Suburban Motel is a good example of this. Audiences were often confused and dissapointed that they'd missed shows when coming in the second and third weeks, likewise, confused that the shows in the 3rd week were different shows than the ones in the previous weeks.

    Where the Rep model does really well seems to be in places like Blythe in Ontario, where ticket sales to their summer stock shows depend on the tourist dollars. In this fashion, people spending the week there on vacation, are able to see a variety of shows. It might work well for the smaller companies working in Hudson in the summer time.

  2. While I appreciate this discussion, it should be noted that the audience defined runs we are discussing are very much related to a for-profit theatre model. There is no doubt that our completely non-profit, charitable theatre community could well benefit from a dose of capitalism, we should be tread carefully.
    Personally, as someone who once stood in the midst of the MELT community here and now participates from a respectful distance, there is enormous merit to listening to the desires of our audiences, just as long as it does not restrict the ability of artists to continue to challenge, provoke and even confuse said audiences for longer than one night.

  3. FYI, Lowell, Soulpepper is a not-for-profit theatre and a registered charity. There are very few "for profit" theatres, since by definition a theatre company is almost always a not-for-profit organization (a NFP is legally defined as a company whose purpose is something other than making money; theatre companies exist to bring art to society.)

  4. Thanks Joel. I am well aware of the status of our theatres here as non-profit (Soulpepper included), and as I state in my response, I am suggesting a touch of capitalism, not a whole-sale run toward a Broadway model. The fact of the matter is, as you have brilliantly suggested in your response to Patrick's recent tirade, we are not hard enough on each other. I would add to this, that we are constantly wondering why our audiences do not show up to shows, without seeming to consider that we are not giving them the kind of theatre they want.
    Again, I feel it vital to remind everyone that I am not suggesting that bringing art to society is not a laudable and important role for theatre companies. Challenging audiences, confusing them, provoking them, is absolutely necessary for a living, evolving theatre community. But we must consider the balance. As I said, the idea of a for-profit model (at least, one that considers the sales/popularity of a show as an element of its merit) should not be discounted out of hand simply because we are afraid of audience reaction. One of the reasons I felt I needed to step away from the theatre, was simply because I could no longer stomach the idea of producing plays for my friends to come and applaud.
    All in all, I think Patrick's rant and this discussion are for more linked than we might expect. It calls into question the nature of why we are producing our work, and for whom.

  5. I just wanted to clarify something Nanette mentioned in her post: Soulepper has their own educational and training programs completely separate from George Brown. George Brown does not provide Soulpepper with students for any of their productions.

  6. Agreeing with Anonymous in that Soulpepper does not use George Brown Theatre students in their shows. The partnership between the two organizations was solely to create the building that they both operate out of - there is no artistic tie to the two companies.


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