Four towns, four summer theatre programmes: How did it all work out? What was learned? The Green Room surveyed summer theatre in Barrie, Midland, Orillia and Gravenhurst and discovered that each summer programme had its own style, outlook and level of success. There may not be a single magic formula for small town summer theatre, but there are lessons to be learned from all, and by all. In an attempt to examine each programme through a consistent lens, The Green Room conducted in-depth conversations with most of the producers involved. Here are the highlights and common topics that came up in discussion.
Theatre by the Bay (Barrie)
with comments from co-founders Larissa Mair & Nick Baillie
Now in its 12th season, Barrie’s Theatre by the Bay is by far the most ambitious professional summer theatre company in the region, cleverly divided into 3 distinct companies (Youth, Intermediate and Main). “We had about 60 actors and crew on contract.” says co-founder Nick Bailllie. TBTB expanded their summer season from 3 weeks in August to a 4-production showcase that stretched from mid-June to late August.
Funding: TBTB’s budget this year was about $360,000, raised through a variety of sources, including fund raising events, grants from the City of Barrie, arts funding organisations, sponsorships of various kinds plus about 30% in ticket sales. In fact, according to Mair and Baillie, another $140,000 could be added if goods in kind were included.
Box Office Success: “It was our best season yet. For example, Munsch Ado About Nothing sold 100%, even after we added 4 shows. We’ve never had numbers like that before. All our shows exceeded our targets and all our previous average attendance figures for the past 10 plus years. It was so exciting and fun.”
Audience reaction: From an open air found-space productions (Nine Mile Portage and Romeo & Juliet), to a bright & cheery children’s production (Munsch Ado About Nothing) and a full-equity musical spectacular (Crazy for You) in the Mady Centre, TBTB hit every creative corner, enjoying hits throughout. “We built up tremendous amount of momentum through the season, with each show helping to feed into the next.”
Equity versus non-Equity: A hybrid. Although the big musical Crazy For You was an Equity production, it did also include the allowed 25% non-Equity quota. Otherwise, the shows were all-professional but largely non-Equity. Mair and Baillie do not subscribe to the belief that their audiences or sponsors demand only all-Equity casts. “We’ve had Equity members who have done terrible performances and non-Equity people who come in and you can’t believe that they aren’t doing more.”
Was this an issue with the audiences? “Not at all”
Local engagement: In addition to the tremendous sponsorship support received from the community, TBTB sets aside specific dates for local actors of all ages, many with community theatre roots, to audition for the companies. “We feel it is important to audition anyone who is interested in the community. There are no limitations or restrictions. There is so much talent out there. You don’t have to be in a big city to find it. We believe in giving people the opportunity to showcase what they can do. It’s important to develop their skills so they can move on. There are young people we want to mentor, develop, nurture and encourage. We take pride in trying to hire as many people in the community and build those relationships.”
Lessons Learned: “The main thing was lowering some of our ticket prices. Specifically, we brought our children show prices back to $8. We didn’t want ticket prices to be an excuse not to go.” “We learned that we could do matinees for our big Main Company productions (Wednesdays and Saturdays) because the older demographic associated with bus tours want to see shows in the afternoon and not late at night. We sold out every single matinee.”
What’s Ahead for 2014: “We think we found a formula in terms of the length of the programme , three or four different types of productions that have varying elements to them, and different venues. But we don’t want to rest on our laurels. We’ll probably stay in a very similar vein as this past year, but of course the actual productions will be new. We hope to have everything announced by mid-October.”
The Huronia Players (Midland)
with comments from Executive Producer (and past president) Susan Cook
The HP is perhaps the most established community theatre organisation in the region, now in its 52nd season. They boast strong management, excellent community support throughout their regular winter season, their own state-of-art-theatre in the Midland Cultural Centre, and technical expertise backstage that is hard to top anywhere. However, the summer of 2013 saw a dramatic change; a foray into summer theatre in August. It was an ambitious plan with a number of firsts: The first summer theatre production since 1985, a big production musical (RENT!), a director new to the group, and an almost entirely new cast of younger people.
Funding: The Huronia Players provides its own seed money for productions and earns back their expenses and more, largely through ticket sales and local business sponsorships.
Box Office Success: RENT was sold out 2 weeks before it opened. “If we had been able to add an extra week or weekend of shows, we would have sold those out too.”
Audience reaction: “I only heard positive comments. We had a young cast of 20 and received a strong social media buzz through them. The result was a younger audience at a Huronia Players production than ever before plus people who never been to the MCC. This went a long way to selling out the shows in advance.”
Equity versus non-Equity: Not only was this production a non-Equity show, it was non-professional. Although some of the cast and crew have university theatre training, no one was paid.
Was this an issue with the audience? “We’ve heard all sorts of positive things in terms of community feedback. We were able to capture the demographic that is frequently missing with community theatre, the 20 to 35 year olds.”
Local engagement: Very high. With so many of the cast, crew and musicians from the local area, ticket sales from locals and sponsorship support from businesses were big factors in the success of the show.
Lessons Learned: “This past summer represented big moves: A summer show and a big musical. When you expand that much that quickly, it is stressful on the group. We want to be sure that everyone who participates has a really positive experience with the group. You worry when you expand quickly with so many people, but overall we are happy with the outcome.”
What’s Ahead for 2014: “We’re cautious about getting into large musicals and therefore don’t plan to do a musical every year; maybe every two years. However, we are certainly talking about continuing with the summer programme next season.”
The City of Orillia/Opera House Summer Theatre
There is no summer theatre programme quite like Orillia’s: Totally City-managed, almost totally City-funded, and by design and intent a season of productions that does not include local talent on stage. City staff (calling themselves ‘Producers’) manages hires and supervises an outside production company during a 4-month, 4-show, all-union programme from June to late September.
There are two scheduling curiosities worth noting. First, the emphasis each season is on midweek performances. In fact, only 4 Saturday night performances were offered over the 4 month season. This may be in deference to the hotel partners involved who need to fill space on weekdays more than weekends.
Second, the programme shuts down entirely during the last week of August and for the Labour Day weekend, arguably the busiest tourist time of the summer. The explanation offered by the City is that this period is “traditionally a slump at the OOH with business picking up considerably after Labour Day.” Not only is this counter-intuitive to the experiences of every other summer programme or festival in the region or beyond, but The Green Room’s tracking of ticket sales indicates that the expected pick up in September never actually occurs. The more likely explanation is that the programme is conceived as an economic tourism project with local hotel partners. Since those partners are fully booked at the end of the August, they have little interest in offering reduced rates and theatre packages. The Opera House staff has not reportedly developed a significant tour bus following that might help attendance in the fall.
Funding: Almost entirely by the Orillia taxpayer to the tune of about $200,000since 2011. Annual net losses amount to about $40,000 to $60,000, depending on how one accounts for non-cash items such as rent, staff time etc.. Being a municipally funded and managed programme eliminates any prospects of artistic grants and likewise reduces the potential for sponsorships from local businesses beyond a few strategic hotel partners.
Box Office Success: Due to the high number of complimentary tickets handed out to friends and supporters of the programme throughout the run, it is impossible to determine the exact revenue each season until City financials are made public late in the year. A Green Room tracking of the ‘bums in seats’ count (adjusted for opening night performances when 2/3 or more of the audience are admitted free) indicates that 2013 attendance fell to just under 6,000, a bit less than 2012. Since exact ticket sales numbers are not known, this is a close estimate only. It had been hoped that attendance would increase by at least 5%. Prior to the City takeover, attendance often exceeded 20,000, even 30,000, each season.
Audience reaction: Show quality was regarded as excellent, which is not surprising given the high cost of the all-Equity cast and crew.
Equity versus non-Equity: All Equity. City staff has repeatedly stated that Orillia’s summer programme shall remain small cast and exclusively all-Equity.
Was this an issue with the audience? No evidence has ever been presented by City staff to confirm staff’s position that Orillia summer audiences and hotel partners both demand and expect only all-Equity casts.
Local engagement: Famously zero. City staff has stated publicly that it is worth neither their time nor money to audition local performers, and in fact have stated that the inclusion of non-Union cast would lower the show standards to unacceptable levels. The local community theatre group is directly supportive and complicit in this exclusionary arrangement. Mariposa Arts Theatre president Michael Beresford publicly wrote on-line in The Green Room last year on behalf of members that the organisation “had no interest in being directly involved in summer theatre. Moreover, we have established an excellent relationship with the Opera House summer theatre over the past few years that has been mutually beneficial.” This ‘relationship’ presumably refers to the City renting the group’s rehearsal hall each season. Sadly for the group, the City chose not to renew that arrangement in 2013.
Lessons Learned: It’s very hard to know what lessons the City of Orillia has learned from its years producing its own summer programme, since the programme seems to repeat itself each season without much modification. One could assume that either little has been learned or that staff feel the programme is fine as is. Director of Parks & Recreation Ray Merkley, who oversees the Opera House operations along with GM Krista Storey, responded to a Green Room inquiry saying they ‘were quite pleased’ with the contracted work of Dave Campbell and Tim Webb.
This season also marked the evolution of the Orillia Opera House staff from facility managers working on behalf of local taxpayers into producers, managers and salespersons for Campbell and Webb’s touring theatre company for the benefit of other municipalities. The Equity shows were marketed aggressively by OOH staff to other municipalities including Gravenhurst (see below) on a fee plus seat fee basis. This is an interesting change in philosophy and human resource management that should be examined for its merits and effectiveness. To some it appears a make-work project for the Orillia Opera House staff in an attempt to mitigate the major annual financial losses in its own summer programme and to others a demonstration of management’s hubris. The City was not able to respond to The Green Room’s request details regarding actual financial gains for these efforts.
What’s Ahead for 2014: Although financial for the 2013 season will not be known until later in the fall , what has been confirmed by the City is that the Toronto creative duo of Dave Campbell and Tim Webb will not be returning to Orillia in 2014 . What will take their place has not being revealed but will likely come out of the reports and recommendations to City Council. There is no indication that any involvement from either the community at large or the creativity/theatrical community in particular will form any part of any recommendations. City reports are typically short, opaque and surrounded by ever-encouraging rhetoric. Individual Councillors have not historically expressed any interest in asking detailed questions and have happily accepted the staff recommendations each year.
Town of Gravenhurst Summer Theatre
with comments from Gravenhurst Opera House General Manager Barbara Anderson-Huget
Although Gravenhurst is not within the geographic realm of The Green Room, its summer season cannot not be overlooked. Three reasons: First, the town has a long history of summer theatre that goes back to the 50’s, and this year marked its first serious attempt at re-mounting a full season for a very long time.
Secondly, of the four shows this summer two were all-Equity productions previously performed in nearby Orillia, one in 2012, earlier in 2013 . In fact, the town of Gravenhurst paid a fee (combination of flat royalty and per-seat levy) to Orillia in order to offer these shows, a move that was openly promoted by Orillia Opera House management and reported in the Muskoka press. Gravenhurst was one of a few Ontario towns to do this.
Thirdly and most importantly, the Gravenhurst season combined the above-mentioned all-Equity shows with two local professional non-Equity productions. One was the Gravenhurst produced Blithe Spirit, and the other the Double R Production’s (Orillia) Sadie Flynn Comes to Big Oak. “We gave audiences a lot of choice and a lot of variety by combining imported Equity and local professional productions.”
Funding: Like Orillia, this summer season was funded almost entirely by the town of Gravenhurst. The level of local sponsorship is unknown as is the exact budget. However, sources tell The Green Room that the cost of presenting the two Equity shows was a reported $72,000 (an average of $3000 per performance). There was in additional $40,000 spent on lighting and sound improvements in the Gravenhurst Opera House, and another $20,000 for marketing. The cost structure for the two non-Equity shows, on the other hand, was on a revenue sharing basis.
Box Office Success: Mixed. Paid attendance for the two non-Equity shows was strong, even though one was staged as dinner-theatre in the small downstairs Trillium Court. Management presented The Green Room with average paid ticket numbers for all the shows, although the numbers conflict with a number of anecdotal (and unverified) reports. However, the high fixed costs for the Equity productions likely far exceeded claimed ticket revenue, resulting in significant losses for the Town. In contrast, the local professional non-Equity productions and their revenue-sharing arrangements probably broke even or made a profit. Given the audience appreciation levels, this begs the question why it is necessary to pay big money for all-Equity shows.
Audience reaction: ”The response was terrific…. There’s a lot of desire to see summer theatre in Gravenhurst so this was a bit of a test to see if the support was as widespread as we suspected, and we were really pleasantly reaffirmed.”
Equity versus non-Equity: Two shows were all-Equity and two shows were local professional non-Equity.
Was this an issue with the audiences? “Audiences like good theatre in either milieu.”
Lessons Learned: “If we learned anything, it’s valuable to have a few more weeks for advance planning and promotion.”
What’s Ahead for 2014: “I am proposing a potential summer season but it will go to Council. Part of my mandate is to write a strategic plan for the potential uses of the Opera House, and since planning for next summer is just too important, too timely, not only am I providing what could happen in the future in terms of framework for the future, but I will be providing a scenario for a summer season for next year. I will provide that sometime in November. I would think we would have a decision in January.”
Apples and Oranges?
Given the cultural, community, size and demographic differences, it is hard to draw specific conclusions about what works for summer theatre in small town Ontario. However, there are a few threads that run through summer theatre programming of which organisers should probably be aware. following arguments could be made (in no particular order):
1. 100% (or nearly) municipal financing of summer theatre is not likely a self-sustaining model over the long term.
2. Audiences, particularly families, are sensitive to ticket prices
3. Audiences like a good show. They do not care if the production is 100% Equity (union) or not.
4. It is probably not worth the extreme cost of paying for all-Equity shows unless there is a specific creative reason, like major triple threat productions.
5. Saturday performances are important if one is looking to engage local audiences.
6. 8. Engagement of the local creative and theatrical community in terms of programming and sponsorship significantly increases attendance and social media buzz.
6. Shutting down a summer theatre programme in late August, only to re-open in after Labour Day, means a loss of both ticket sales and programme momentum.
7. The best period for summer theatre is between mid-June at the earliest, and Labour Day, unless there is considerable bus tour bookings for the late spring and fall.
Draw your own conclusion please. However, it is hard to argue with the success enjoyed by of our regional some summer companies, and at the same time not hard to figure out why others fall short of expectations.