Dear Green Room,
I first got involved in reading The Green Room when it was published as the excellent Scott Talk and continued to take a look when ever it was posted on line, even though I no longer lived in Simcoe County, because it continued to be a quality publication.
As I said a month or so ago, I felt obliged to write to you about the Orillia Opera House rental prices while researching a report on rates and have stayed with you to read both sides of the on going correspondence about summer theatre. In the new posting of the interview with Mr. Martiuk and Mr. Merkley, I again ran into things I felt required clarification and took keyboard in hand to provide my prospective on the issues. My response is below. Thank you for providing a forum where such discussions can take place.
Martiuk: It’s really a question of how much money you want to put into it, because when it was run by Sunshine Festival we provided subsidies between $130,000 and $187,000 a year. [editor’s note: these figures and dates have not been substantiated by any City documents]. If you double or quadruple the subsidy, you double or quadruple the attendance. If we put in a significantly larger subsidy we could significantly increase the seat count.
To make the assumption that increasing the municipal subsidy for summer theatre would increase attendance, is naïve in the extreme. If the show titles chosen don’t tweak the theatre goers enthusiasm from the get go, if the advertising starts too late, or doesn’t get far enough afield, or isn’t inclusive of the local patrons; if the theatre seats are uncomfortable or staff isn’t welcoming, (to make but a few examples), the result can be small houses and big loses.
The subsidy proposed for the Sunshine Festival Theatre Company, (and my memory of it is different that Mr. Martiuk’s), was to pay for a far different operation than the present day set up. A classic case of comparing grapes and raisins. We were in the Lightfoot Auditorium with casts of 30 and crews of 8 to 10, all paid, multiple sets, multiple costumes per person, extensive properties to build and carpentry and wardrobe facilities to maintain.
In addition, the Festival printed and mailed tens of thousands of brochures jointly showing off the Opera House, The Festival and the City of Orillia’s other attractions. We went to tourism shows in Toronto, produced and maintained our own web site, paid one third of the cost to create a ½ hour destination travel show about Orillia, which aired on the travel channel, made commercials that ran on CKVR, AM 760 and Classical ‘96, paid for highway signs, our office space, internet and 800 phone lines and utilities.
Those shows brought tourists and the people of Simcoe County into Orillia because the Festival made sure patrons all over Ontario knew what we were producing and where we were. Because of the productions size and quality the tourists came and spent lots of money in Orillia, even with the casino in existence. We filled the Lightfoot Auditorium orchestra 4 or 5 shows a week, and averaged 6,000 patrons a show. Maybe our ticket prices were too low,(we were obligated to make sure the theatre was accessible to low income families), but there was nothing wrong with the operation or the productions. Pardon me, but it’s specious in the extreme to compare the grants from the city and not what they are spent on.
Finally, if the advertising costs, tourism shows, production offices, group travel offices, Sunshine Getaway to Orillia Packages, overhead and advertising buys, (most of which were never picked up by anyone and now are no longer done), were deducted from the Festival’s subsidy, I have no doubt the Municipal funds going directly to our productions are comparable to 2013.
Merkley: I want to say something about your earlier comment about access to grants. I’ve only had the cultural portfolio for six months, but I have been with the municipality twenty plus years. I do recall that the Sunshine Theatre Festival Company was for a period under the umbrella of the City. One of the rationales for moving them away from that was the possibility of access to grants in order to be a more sustainable operation, and clearly that didn’t pan out in their favour. So I’m not sure it’s always just when you have a private entity that you have access to grants.
On the contrary to Mr. Merkley’s statement, being a not-for-profit and allowed to apply for grants was a great success for The Sunshine Festival Theatre Company, and something we did with a great deal of skill. We received $70,000 for our production of CATS, $10,000 in operating funds from Trillium, $10,000 from the Federal Festival Sponsorship Program, $15,000 twice over the four years we were a stand alone operation for promotion, (increased to $30,000 per annum, with co-sponsorship dollars), and a $30,000 grant to make a 30 minute television show about Orillia and it’s many attractions, to be shown on the travel network. Unlike the present, we only considered our theatre productions one part of our mandate. The other and equally important goal was to promote Orillia and bring people to the City to the benefit of other attractions, accommodations and retail. None of these grants were available to the Municipality or a for-profit theatre company, except for the Provincial advertising grant.
The truth is, most theatre companies that operate from year to year, (meaning without sizable cash reserves). are only as viable as their last successful season. We did not fail as a company; we made one major error in show selection; ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, and it brought our 20 year history of success to an abrupt end.
Up to that point we’d had a largely successful run, combining Municipal subsidies and box office revenues to provide excellent entertainment for patrons at home and abroad, made a major contribution to Orillia Tourism and employed many Orillians, both as on stage talent and backstage technicians.
It would have been nice if the Sunshine Festival had operated in the present day, when City subsidies were considered investments in the arts, not deficits, but despite the many excellent benefits the Festival brought to the table in addition to our shows, this was not the case.
Editor’s Note: The Green Room welcomes comments received either for on-line posting or as a separate Open Letter on this or any other topic.