On October 23rd (last Wednesday) The City of Orillia snuck its anticipated Request for Proposals (RFP) for the 2014 Orillia Opera House summer theatre season onto its website. No fanfare, no announcements. If you blinked, you probably missed it. It you blink again, you’ll miss your chance to apply. But do have a look: It is a remarkable document, an affront to the theatre planning process and production independence.
Of the 19 pages, only the last page contains specifics of what the City is expecting from respondents. The first 18 are mostly boilerplate material common on most RFP’s; somewhat interesting but largely liability and escape clauses covering the City’s derriere.
Ray Merkley: short on detail, late for deadline
Although his comments were too late to make the deadline for the previous article concerning Orillia’s summer theatre, Parks Recreation and Culture Director Ray Merkley did eventually address (sort of) some of The Green Room’s questions concerning summer theatre as underwritten or supported by the City. When asked if the theatre community (here or at large) would be consulted in the development of the RFP document, he replied “The City of Orillia has a standard Request for Proposal process in which the desired results of this process will be indicated.” Not exactly an answer to the question, but that’s about as good as it gets when the public comes calling.
Merkley was also asked “Where does the City/OOH intend to gain input on programming and management of summer theatre if not through discussions and consultations with experienced members of its own theatrical community? His answer: “As is always the case City staff consults with other theatre professionals and community members when required.”
However, it is clear from the RFP document that no one with any knowledge or experience with theatre was in fact “required” or consulted. But this may be by design. There is little to indicate that the City of Orillia and its Opera House management team ever had a desire to sincerely put forward an appealing open invitation for the 2014 season. There may be a ‘Plan B’ well underway.
Slow reactions or absent intent?
Merkley admitted that Dave Campbell’s and Tim Webb’s decision not to return to the Opera House “was confirmed in August, 2013”. This, in turn, serves to confirm reports heard in late May and June, and surely heard by City staff, that their departure was inevitable. Nevertheless, staff waited at least two additional months (August to October) before broaching the RFP process with Council. Even then, it is not clear they wanted to do it; Councillor Tony Madden told The Green Room recently that the RFP process was a result of his own initiative.
Not only was this RFP late in coming, the document poses somewhat absurd demands on respondents. For example: Proposals for the 2014 summer theatre season must be submitted by 2:00pm November 6th. That’s 14 days from the date of issue and only a few days from today. However, as noted on page 19 of the RFP, proposals must include “bios and resumes of all principals….[a] preliminary budget and show synopsis.” How a prospective producer or artistic director can be expected to secure shows rights and put together a budget that includes those rights, plus casting and production costs in 10 days or less is beyond understanding.
Evaluations will be complete by November 12th, presentation of proposals made to Council on November 18th and the contract awarded on November 26th. Any way you look at it, it’s a rush job. However as suggested above, this may in fact by design.
Who is really in charge here?
Opera House General Manger Krista Storey is the designated RFP Coordinator, an official title in this process. Ms. Storey, who has for the past four years enjoyed essentially unopposed control of summer programming, sees her mandate continued to the point that, “Under no circumstances shall the respondent [applicant] rely upon any information or instruction from any other employee of The City of Orillia or its agents unless the RFP Coordinator [ie. Storey] provides the information or instruction in writing.”
Not only that, but as Merkley points out in his responses to The Green Room, “departmental staff” will be the sole evaluators of the applications, although the City reserves the right to “seek advice or expertise, if needed, from other theatre professionals.” No mention of users groups here. And given the fact that the City and Opera House staff have historically circled the wagons on every other discussion regarding what happens at the facility, hopes for any outside consultation are justifiably faint.
“We reserve the right to interfere”
Given the potential for unprecedented levels of managerial and artistic interference by City staff, any self-respecting theatre producer would be concerned about the level of City staff input. The RFP is quite clear on this: “…The City of Orillia reserves the right to negotiate minor changes, amendments or modifications to the respondent’s submission, without offering the other respondents the opportunity to amend their submissions.”
“When I say ‘Jump!”, you ask ‘How high?””
What about the scheduling and duration of the programme? Will the producers have control, or will the City dictate when and how long the season will run? Not much doubt about it; the City is in control.
Respondents must agree to present four different productions, “15 weeks of production from mid-June to mid-September.” In addition, one of these four productions must be in the 700 seat in Lightfoot Auditorium. This would be a risky move for a first-year producer, given that this auditorium has not been used for summer theatre for six years or more. Audience size and production selections have never justified its use.
There must be “94 mid-week shows” in what is described as “a daytime and evening schedule to meet the needs of local business stakeholders”. No mention of weekend performances; presumably they could be added at the producer’s discretion and cost, with attention paid to any Equity rules that might apply.
Why this unusual schedule, when every other summer theatre programme in the world includes at least a few weekend performances and matinees? Simple answer: It’s to meet the demands of “local business stakeholders”, ie. local hotel operators. They have vacancies mid-week and need to fill them with tourist packages that include theatre. As Merkley points out, over the past several seasons summer theatre “has greatly impacted the business community including the downtown, local hotels, the Opera House, etc.. which is the primary mandate of the program.”
Whose mandate is staff following? The mandate dictated by Council. Where did Council get the idea for that mandate? From staff reports, of course! Round and round we go!
“We control the ‘when’ and we can interfere with the ‘what’, but you pay for the ‘how’”
With the producer now responsible for pleasing the “local business stakeholders” and the City reserving the right to make “changes, amendments or modifications” as it wishes, is the City prepared to step up and provide any marketing support to ensure its economic objectives are met? Not if it costs any money! “The producer is responsible for all costs…including marketing and public relations”. In other words, “You produce the number of shows we insist on, at a schedule of our choosing, for a season duration we demand, to please the people we choose to please, but we aren’t paying any associated costs for marketing.”
“Can I get the same rental discount you gave yourself?”
What about rental costs for the Opera House? The years when summer theatre was under City control, City financials indicate that the City was giving itself an approximate 50% price break on the rental of the 108 seat Studio Theatre in the Opera House. Will this discount be extended to a new producer? All that is said is that the City will offer “a long term weekly rental rate and advances on ticket revenues.”
“Show me the money!”
The City lays out very specific demands and expectations. They want things done their way. So, what will the City provide in return? There is a grant offer of $40,000 maximum. This is an interesting from a bookkeeping standpoint. Over the past three years, the City has either granted or lost through its own operation of summer theatre, between $40,000 and $60,000. In 2012 and 2013, the City in fact provided $200,000 of season start-up capital. But unlike previous years, in 2014 the City expects to collect real rental revenue from an outside source, not through sleight-of-hand internal non-cash bookkeeping entries. Given that the 700 seat Lightfoot Auditorium is mandatory for at least one production, the rental income from an outside producer will far exceed the $40,000 grant, meaning no cash out of pocket for the City.
Without season start-up capital from the City, the producer had better have deep pockets. Show royalties and any Actors’ Equity bonds must be paid well in advance and will likely leave nothing over from the $40,000 grant for actual wages and pre-production costs. Campbell and Webb had that covered by the City, but those days are gone. History proves that individual show ticket sales don’t start accumulating until two weeks before opening, delaying any positive cash flow until after many production and marketing expenses have been spent. Plus, if the City insists on continuing its policy of having receipts for expenditures in hand before paying out any of the $40,000 grant, the red ink will be flowing mightily before the first show even opens.
While $40,00 sounds like, and is, a substantial sum, it is at the low end of previous annual losses and a far cry from the $200,000 annual capitalisation the City was happy to provide its own municipally-managed summer theatre. And while perhaps enticing bait for the unsuspecting, when coupled with the ‘do-it-our-way’ mindset of the City, the demands set out handcuff a new producer in many important ways. Once again, this might all be by design.
Is a White Knight on the Horizon?
But not all hope is lost. A private sector summer theatre season, complete with many local business partnerships and sponsors (but not produced at the Opera House), is about to be confirmed and announced. It has the potential to bring in busloads of those wonderful tourists to spend, spend, spend! When that announcement is made, the lofty economic tourism mandate set out by a compliant, uneducated and uninterested Council, and conceived by Opera House staff, becomes bankrupt. The raison d’être of the RFP will then become a make-work project for its fulltime, union contracted Opera House employees, in direct competition with its own community and businesses.
For all the tax money and staff resources hurled at summer theatre in past years, what does the City have to show for itself?
Designed to Fail? You decide. And we shall soon see.