Tired of reading yet another installment of the Orillia Opera House/summer theatre saga? Of hearing how tax funded and municipally managed summer theatre has denied Orillia the chance to develop its own home-grown summer theatre programme? Of continued reports of how the local creative community is shooed away from their own city facility due to high costs, staff attitudes and a so-called lack of talent? You can be forgiven.
The story that just writes itself!
Latest news? City Council will be asked to ratify a request to issue an RFP (Request for Proposals) to solicit potential interest for the artistic management for the City’s 2014 summer theatre season at its sitting this coming Monday (October 21st), as a replacement for the now-departed Campbell & Webb (‘Laugh Out Loud’) duo. Pounding the pavement for good new theatre? Sounds promising on the surface, but let’s look a little deeper.
Are we planets orbiting 2 different suns?
What The Green Room sees is the evolution of two distinct solitudes. On one hand are the concerns of the creative community in terms of access, cost and opportunity to appear on the Orillia Opera House stage. On the other hand is a bureaucracy that circles its wagons, shutters its doors, and will not connect, consult or converse with the creative community or even open their books for the most superficial of investigations by the paying public.
Questions Orillia City Hall will not answer
Case in point: The Green Room sent a request, in writing, information concerning the above-mentioned RFP to Parks Recreation & Culture director Ray Merkley, City CAO Roman Martiuk and a majority of Councillors. These gentlemen were offered the opportunity to respond and comment. After 7 days, no responses were received.
All things come to an end one day
Background: Word got out back in late May-early June that 2013 would be the last season in Orillia for Dave Campbell and Tim Webb and their ‘Laugh Out Loud’ theatre branding. The Green Room heard it, others in the theatre community heard it, so you can be sure the City of Orillia and its Opera House management team heard it too. No one should have been surprised; after 4 years one might expect them to move on to greener pastures. Yet only now, in mid-October, is the City acting to replace them. Why not back in the summer? Why not back when serious professional theatre entrepreneurs were planning their 2014 programming? How can this too-little, too-late effort can succeed when professional theatre schedules for 2014 are well into the planning stage?
A collision course with the private sector; who knew what & when?
Opera House manager Krista Storey and Parks Recreation & Culture Director, Ray Merkley made their request to Council for this RFP on October 7th. Yet as much as two weeks prior, rumours that a private group was about to announce a new summer season of 4 shows for Orillia, complete with local partners, were bouncing around the theatre community and within the City bureaucracy. There was even a draft of the season brochure in circulation. (The official announcement is scheduled to be made, by mere coincident, just days after the RFP ratification vote on October 21st, so stay tuned.) How could this information have escaped Merkley and Storey? Yet, amazingly, no one on City Council was informed of this development by City staff prior to the October 7th request. When duly informed by phone the next day of this very positive development, by The Green Room no less, one Councillor was taken totally by surprise.
If it is the duty of professional city managers to inform Council of factors surrounding the decisions they are expected to make, why then was Council not informed that a private initiative was forthcoming shortly?
Is it the role of government to compete with the private sector?
The RFP now awaiting Council ratification will place the City of Orillia in direct competition with the private sector for the same entertainment dollar in the same small market. Is this the correct philosophic direction for a municipal government to take? Should the City not support private initiatives in the arts, not compete directly against them?
What is the real agenda here?
This private initiative, complete with local business partnerships, will provide a full season of professional theatre right in the downtown core of Orillia next summer. Isn’t this exactly what the City and the Opera House management team have been trying to achieve for the past 4 or more years? Ah, but the ‘catch’ is that this private initiative does not intend to use the Opera House; it intends to base itself at one of the many other performance facilities available downtown, and at much lower cost. Surely City staff knew this too. Over the past few years Opera House general manager Krista Storey has been imploring Council to annually capitalise and/or subsidise a city-run summer theatre programme on the basis that the City’s downtown tourist industry needs the attraction desperately. With this RFP request in front of Council to go into competition with a private initiative, that now appears to be somewhat false and hypocritical.
The City could step aside, offer support to the new private initiative, and allow professional summer theatre to go ahead in 2014 without the City competing for the same entertainment dollars just blocks away. After all, managing and funding theatre programming is not what cities do; it’s not what staff are hired to do. Searching out and booking shows for city facilities is one thing, but directly producing, fully financing, and managing summer theatre seasons is not the normal mandate of a municipality. Barrie doesn’t do it; Midland doesn’t do it. Can anyone name a city that does it?
Therefore, by demonstrating a steadfast determination to run summer theatre their way and under their roof, requesting the RFP process, and not informing Council of a private initiative for 2014, one might speculate that other factors are at play, such as personal ambition, ego , make-work, and an impulse to exert total control.
Does Council have the slightest understanding of theatre and the arts?
Would Council have voted down the RFP proposal had they been properly and fully informed of the private initiatives underway? Sadly, maybe not. Remember; this is a Council that is not only near-totally ignorant and deaf to the interests and complaints of the creative community with respect to the Opera House, summer theatre and the performing arts but has proven equally deaf to the general public on such matters as the location of the Farmers’ Market and Recreational Facilities, downtown planning and almost every other issue put before it during their term.
Make no mistake: These are not men and women with any theatrical understanding or experience. As a result, Council is easy prey to the vague generalities and questionable accounting contained in the reports handed to them by the professional staff, and they accept them with little hesitation.
No one knows nuthin’!
As it stands right now, the RFP for 2014 summer theatre is going forward without any known context, content or parameters issued by Council, and without any questioning or scrutiny or input from the creativity community. Is there to be a supporting grant, or is the season to be completely underwritten as it has been for the past 2 years? Is there to be any marketing support from City staff? Are there to be price breaks on rental charges? What level of artistic and managerial oversight will the City insist upon? No one seems to know. It’s a Carte Blanche for staff.
Can this opened up for community discussion?
Can a rope be pushed uphill? It’s probably too late to start trying. And here’s the other sad thing: the creative community has to stand up and be heard. It has to resist the temptation to remain fragmented into dozens of special interest groups. It must do what Roy Menagh and OPAF succeeded to do several weeks ago in obtaining a rent break at the Opera House for his organisation of choirs and bands; it must come together in a single voice. To date there is no sign of that happening.
Artists thriving under adversity
In the meantime, the creative community as a whole remains remarkably resilient. Individually or in their small fragmented groups, it continues to plan events, festivals, workshops, flash mobs, shows and exhibitions week after week, with little support from the City. And they use such venues as church basements, schools, shopping malls, banquet facilities, local taverns and 2nd floor dance halls. Curiously, these performances have earned the disdain of at least one City Councillor who, in conversation with The Green Room this past week, dismissed these efforts as ‘rinky-dink productions’ for not renting the Opera House. But perhaps under the circumstances, the ‘Rinky-Dink’ label is a badge of honour that Orillia-based artists and performers should wear with pride. They are succeeding on their own terms, not under the hammer of Opera House regulations, costs, management interference and attitudes.
Who will respond?
Will the RFP succeed in luring a new theatre entrepreneur to town? This remains to be seen over the next several weeks if the RFP goes ahead. Perhaps a notice will be posted on the Theatre Ontario web site. The Green Room threw the RFP prospect out to a number of potential parties with both regional and national experience in packaging and directing theatre seasons. None indicated any interest whatsoever. Reasons? Lack of preparation time for the 2014 season, high facility rental costs, staff attitudes (regarded by some as near-toxic), and potential artistic/managerial interference by municipal bureaucrats were cited by some or all.
What was left? What was learned?
No one disputes that Campbell and Webb’s shows were anything but slick professional productions. However, in private correspondence last week, the question was raised as to whether Campbell and Webb’s 4 year Orillia experience left anything of substance behind for Orillia. While some might disagree, The Green Room’s opinion is decidedly ‘No’. The City’s summer theatre programming by design and intent excluded the local creative community from any engagement, development or opportunity, thus there is next to nothing to show for the past 4 years, no foundation on which to build, no skill development left as a legacy; nothing except bland statistics regarding hotel room bookings by visiting tourists, and of course the deficit.
Will hopes be dashed by a headstrong municipal bureaucracy?
The soon-to-be-announced private initiative for downtown summer theatre could possibly change all that. However, if the City chooses not to support that effort and instead is successful in finding a new artistic manager for a 2014 summer season at the Opera House, the price to Orillia tax payers will likely remain much as it has been in the past, about $40,000 to $60,000 in net losses or grants, not to mention the continued exclusion of local, non-union creative talent. And it will simultaneously put at risk the potential success of the private summer theatre initiative. After all, the City can always dig deeper into the taxpayer’s pocket to fund its own follies and fantasies. The private sector, however, has its limitations.