Burton Lancaster…the other Burton Lancaster.
His résumé spans 40 years on both sides of the Atlantic, includes nearly 200 shows which he has either written, directed or produced; 6 new theatre start-ups in Canada alone; past artistic directorships from coast-to-coast, including the Charlottetown Summer Festival; 10 years of experience in Britain and Europe with such companies as the Old Vic, the Royal Court and the New Shakespeare Company. The Green Room sat down for a conversation with this incredibly experienced theatre personality in his Orillia home where, curiously, he is not being pursued for his input into that City’s live theatre programming.
Legend has it that one day you pointed somewhat randomly at a city in the middle of Canada and decided to start a professional theatre company there. That city was Thunder Bay. The Magnus Theatre is still thriving today, more than 35 years later.
There is a certain amount of truth to that story. However, I had been in Canada for 4 years previously; I originally came to work at Expo 67 with Les Grand Ballet, and followed that up by being the theatre director at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown which amongst other things included artistic and administrative responsibility for the Charlottetown Summer Theatre. My father had died, so my mother had come over to live with me and my wife at the time. My mother and my wife were crying all the time. They hated Canada; they wanted to go home. So we went back. I was hired as Associate Artistic Director at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, and I hated it, absolutely hated it! In the meantime, I had previously come to the conclusion from my earlier experiences that you needed a population catchment base of at least 100,000 for a functioning theatre company. I looked at the map of Canada, saw Thunder Bay and learned that it had 100,000 people. Plus, it wasn’t near anywhere else that might compete in terms of people leaving to see productions elsewhere. I went there, I liked it, and decided that was where we would go. When I arrived and set up what became the Magus Theatre, I discovered that it was in fact two cities (Fort William and Port Arthur), with a huge gap between them, and they didn’t like each other! So, while living in England, yes, I did pick Thunder Bay from a map, but not at random.
Certainly 1967 was a very exiting year in Canada, with the Centennial and Expo and so on. But there must have been something else that attracted you, at 31 years of age, and persuaded you to stay.
I felt that through the work I had already done in Canada, particularly at the Confederation Centre, from the good connections I had developed, the people I knew, that this was the right move for me; that is starting, my own theatre company. In England at the time there really wasn’t anywhere that didn’t already have a theatre company. In Canada I knew that wasn’t the case. I didn’t know if I could start-up a new theatre company because I had never actually done it, but I felt that I could and I wanted to see if I could, so the only way to find out was to do it. So I did. I was fortunate to be there at the right time. I had met the right people from Thunder Bay by chance, people with political clout willing to support us. And of course, at that time the Trudeau government was very much in favour of the arts and were granting money to start this sort of thing. In fact, there are several companies across the country, not just theatre but symphonies and ballets, that are today very well established which started exactly the same way at the same time.
Do you think the arts environment today makes it more challenging to start a professional theatre company than say 30 or 40 years ago?
Absolutely. The main difference is money. As I say, back in the 60’s and ‘70’s when we started Magnus in Thunder Bay, the various levels of government were granting start-up money. They isn’t done so much nowadays.
You have founded six theatre companies from coast-to-coast. Has there been some commonality, some repeating obstacles, which had to be overcome in the founding of each one?
Almost every town already has some form of theatre functioning within the community. You have to use local people. It’s not something you can say you want to do, it’s something you have to do. The theatre exists for that community, you are doing it for that community. You need the community or you aren’t going to exist. You need to have contacts with those people. However, sometimes you find that the local theatre people feel threatened; they feel you are coming to take over their bailiwick. I would say to them ‘We can live together, we can work together’. But there was often resistance for a period of time. I didn’t let it worry me,I knew one day it would all go away. They would eventually realise that they could benefit from us and we could benefit from them. We could be partners.
You have a theatrical résumé than is unmatched perhaps in the country, a career spanning all levels of production, direction and artistic roles in addition to several successful start-ups. Barrie has two successful professional theatre companies. Do you think Orillia has what it takes to develop one of its own?
I don’t think it’s a question of whether Orillia has what it takes; it’s a question of whether the people of Orillia would have the determination to stick with it.
Do you think it is appropriate for a city to take over full artistic, managerial and marketing control of summer theatre as opposed to nurturing its own home-grown theatre?
No. I’ve seen it happen in other places, and it all eventually falls apart. All it takes is a change of administration attitudes at the city level and ‘bang’, it’s over. For example, there was a highly successful theatre company in Petrolia. One day the town fired the man who for over 15 years had made it successful, just like that. The program was over.
There has to be a foundation to sustain the program beyond city funding and management. Of course this includes engaging the community, but it also means having an independent board of directors set up for the theatre. Then applications can be made to various granting agencies. But without the board and an AD and General Manager directly involved in that process, you won’t qualify for the grant money. That’s why I think it’s wrong, particularly in summer theatre, when Artistic Directors come in, do their shows, then go back to wherever they came from. You should have roots in that community, you should be in that community, because that is what you are there for.
Are there other negative aspects of a state-controlled theatre program?
It’s a question of independence. For example, I have heard reports that at least one summer show in Orillia had its script altered from the author’s original in order to comply with a municipal preconceived notion of audience acceptability. Had I been the AD, I would have objected most strongly to that form of interference. Those matters should be decisions made by the Artistic Director and no one else. That’s what the A.D. is for.
Economic Tourism is the ‘cause celebre’ that has been used to sell Orillia City Council on underwriting $200,000 or so of theatre program costs. Is this a reasonable approach?
It might be for Stratford. But in smaller towns like Orillia or Barrie, it should be the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. The program has to run consecutively and consistently, on a day to day basis, not on a random schedule of performances dictated by hotel and their bus tour partners with packages to sell.
What are your feelings about blending local or regional talent, even if they are non-Equity, with a cast of Equity members?
Part of the problem of integrating Equity and non-Equity talent into a company is this: Rehearsals are during the day, not in the evenings after some other job. After rehearsal you are expected to go home to do some work on your own for the next day. You don’t just do the work in rehearsal. You have to bring something to rehearsal. Theatre is strange in the sense that it throws off an interesting image of being something that it is not. It’s very, very hard work. This has to be understood.
The main theatre in the Orillia Opera House sits largely unused during the 4-month summer theatre program while the 108 seat Studio Theatre downstairs is used for summer theatre. Is it because moving a show to the larger hall makes a show financially unviable due to, for example, increases in the Equity pay scale?
Equity has categories that are dictated by the seating capacity, yes. But they want their people to work. Therefore they will do what they can to help you; they certainly always have for me. What the Artistic Director and General Manger of a company need to do is sit down and create a budget based on what equity category you wish your shows to fall under. The Equity category calculation is based on a combination of factors that includes the number of seats, the number of shows and the price of each ticket. So a 400 seat theatre (the Opera House without the gallery) could still qualify for a low category if, for example, the ticket price was kept low. And if you were to tell Equity ‘We want to do a big musical with 10 Equity and 10 non-Equity actors’, they will take it to their council and almost invariably will say ‘OK’, because they want those 10 equity members to have work.
Most professional theatre companies claim that 30-40% of their revenue comes from the box office. The remainder comes from sponsorships, donations and grants. In contrast, Orillia’s summer theatre is almost 100% dependent on the box office. It derives nothing from donations; sponsorship has dropped about 40% over the past two years(1), and municipally-run theatre programs do not qualify for grants. Is there a flaw here that guarantees a financial loss for the City?
The largest proportion of a professional theatre company’s revenue beyond ticket sales normally comes from grants of one sort or another. You design a summer program to appeal to certain granting opportunities while meeting your own artistic goals. There is the Canada Council, the Ontario Arts Council and other regional councils. Out west, we produced brand new plays and they qualified for grants from the BC Arts Council. From that, one can extrapolate and develop make-work projects, training opportunities, whereby you hire young people and pay money towards their education for example. For instance, if one produced The Man of La Mancha with a big cast near the end of the season, you can take your young people and put them into that show. They have a ball through the course of their summer training, while knowing their parents, uncles, aunts are going to come see the show. That will have a very solid impact on the box office. In fact, this goes back to the point I made about engaging the local community.
In broad strokes, how would you envision a summer theatre in Orillia?
If I was running the summer program at the Opera House, I would like to do five shows, eclectic shows. You have to do a bit of something for everybody. Not everybody perhaps is going to like every show, but hopefully the shows they do see will be good enough that they might come and see another one.
I would run them upstairs, in the larger hall. Plus, if I might suggest something radical, I would rehearse downstairs so everyone is in the same building at the same time with the technical and stage people. It’s a matter of building connections with the people who work in the building and the immediate surrounding area. And of course, the space is empty anyway since the use of one hall excludes the use of the other hall anyway.
I could foresee starting a Young Company in January so they become the core of the Young Company in the summer show program. They could do one show of their own and then be part of the final show of the season, for example. Their goal and their reward would be to be part of that final show. And Equity would allow you to do that
Do you, in fact, have another theatre start up in you?
Absolutely. I would very much like one more kick at the can. This is what I do!
This interview has been edited and condensed from the original
1 2013 City of Orillia Budget documents