In late October, the City of Orillia, under the supervision of Opera House General Manager Krista Storey, issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) inviting applications from outside organisations to produce a full summer season of theatre in the Opera House facility in 2014. The deadline for submissions has now past, and Ms. Storey makes her report to Council tonight, December 2nd. It will come as no surprise that all applicants failed.
To put summer theatre in her own perspective, Ms. Storey comments in her report to Council that “summer theatre is key in Orillia Opera House programming and budget”.
This alone is an interesting remark. In an attempt to make conditions as attractive as possible, the City in its RFP offered the Opera House facility for rent well below its own published rate sheet: $1000 per week for the 700 seat Lightfoot Auditorium (versus $1000 per day normally), and $750 per week for the Studio Theatre (versus $300 per day normally). One wonders how this low rental rate contributes to the reduction of the facility’s $500,000+ annual operating deficit. Or, as certain Orillia City Councillors are wont to ask these days, “Where is your business plan?”
4 failed bids… 1 common denominator
All four applications had individual failures that Ms. Storey summarised as; an absence of proper budgeting; excessive budget expenses; overly optimistic ticket sales expectations; and an incomplete season.
However all four applications had one common failure: the nature of the proposed shows themselves. All the productions suggested by the applicants apparently (no details were provided) “…have played in the area in 2013 and/or at the Orillia Opera House in recent years” and ‘…varied from those that have proven successful over the past four years’ as “… indicated by audiences through survey responses.” The apparent contradiction in these remarks cannot be explained (produced in the recent past and yet unsuccessful?). However, what these comments do mean without any doubt is that, despite an apparent open invitation extended to artistic directors and production companies to stage a season of their own, City staff fully intended to exert artistic control over programming. Each and every one of the applicants failed to pass Big Brother’s taste test.
Why this 11th hour effort? The first of several good questions.
While the failure of all applications should come as no surprise to those monitoring the Opera House over the past few years, what is surprising is the timing of the RFP itself. The Opera House staff heard the same rumours back in late May and June that the rest of the theatre community had heard: Dave Campbell and Tim Webb would not return as summer theatre artistic directors in 2014. That announcement was made official sometime in August, according to Parks, Recreation & Culture Director Ray Merkley. The mystery is this: why did Ms. Storey and Mr. Merkley wait until mid-October to request alternate proposals for 2014, and then give only 2 weeks for detailed proposals to come forward?
Was there a Plan B all along?
Was this Request for Proposal (RFP) a ruse designed to fail? There is a hint of a Plan B in Ms. Storey’s comment in her report to Council: “Since none of the submissions were viewed as satisfactory, staff are proceeding with planning a summer season for 2014 by purchasing pre-packaged shows to fill the 15 weeks of programming within the approved budget allowance for the summer theatre programming.” Maybe this was the plan all along.
So many questions; so few answers
Ms. Storey writes about an “approved allowance for summer theatre programming”? Has anyone seen this allowance? Not the public! Has Council? Since the budget process is still underway, has Council pre-approved whatever it is Ms. Storey and Mr. Merkley have in mind? Given the losses incurred each of the past several years ($40,000 to $60,000 annually), it will be interesting if, going into an election year, Council chooses to exercise fiduciary responsibility. Or will Council just go along for the ride one more time, unbelted and blindfolded, driven by bureaucrats who apparently know better than the private sector what makes good theatre. Pity the poor Orillia tax payer!
Here are more questions from tax payers that beg answers from someone on Council:
- In light of the summer-long professional theatre season already announced by The Orillia Stage Company that will deliver the tourism boost sought by Council, why is a similar City-sponsored programme required at all?
- Why is Council determined use tax payers’ money to compete with tax payers?
- Is summer theatre a make-work project needed to disguise the fixed costs of a highly paid unionised staff and facility?
- If the Opera House staff was happy to offer such low rental summer rates to a summer theatre company, why can’t they in turn offer those rates to local musicians, orchestras, youth groups and choirs for the summer months?
Here are questions Council themselves should be asking of Ms. Storey and Mr. Merkley:
- Why is summer theatre so ‘key’ to the operation of the Opera House? Has any effort been made to develop alternative innovative programming , such as a Speakers’ Series or Movie Nights? (reference the Midland Cultural Centre for ideas!)
- What are the true motivations behind Ms. Storey’s and Mr. Merkley’s hell-bent determination to deliver 15 weeks of summer theatre in direct competition with the private sector?
- Why did the Orillia Stage Company choose to present their shows elsewhere in town and not at the Opera House? Is there an issue regarding staff, staff attitudes, and policies that need investigation?
- If most of the Opera House costs are fixed, and staff is by contract sitting around twiddling thumbs, why doesn’t the City address Opera House rental rates in order to match market demand with market prices?
Should anyone be surprised?
Perhaps a clue as to why to these and other questions are never answered can be found near the conclusion of Ms. Storey’s report: “Comments were neither solicited nor obtained from any City department” or “…from any City Committee….”or “…from the Communications Manager.” In other words, no input from other staff and most certainly not from those outside of City Hall with any theatrical experience. This summer theatre junket is a closed circuit, in-house project. The results are therefore hardly surprising.
In the meantime, and in the absence of any attempt to differentiate summer Opera House offerings from the private sector summer theatre already announced for 2014, Ms. Storey proposes using tax payers’ dollars “…to secure the performances [those 15 weeks of purchased shows, as quoted above] as soon as possible to allow for packaging opportunities and for promotion during the upcoming holiday season …”
Since no one at City Hall responds to outside inquiries regarding Opera House operations, we can only watch and wait for the next episode in this sad Reality Show.