Update from the City of Orillia Council Meeting of December 2, 2013
Why was the RFP delayed so long?
Why was the application window so small?
What are the budget implications of summer theatre?
Why didn’t the City offer RFP applicants the same deal as Campbell & Webb?
What’s with the magic number $40,000?
Is the City prepared to compete with another theatre company in its downtown?
And…is it time for public input into programming?
These were just some of the questions raised by Councillors Madden, Gardy and Spears at Orillia’s Council meeting on December 2nd. On the agenda items was a report on the status of summer theatre at the Orillia Opera House (see post from earlier this week) given the failure of the City’s Request for Proposals (RFP) for summer theatre failing to garner a single successful candidate. Normally a report like this would be “received as information” with little fanfare and no discussion. Not this time.
Mind the Gap!
Right off the bat, Madden asked Parks Recreation & Culture Director Ray Merkley to explain the gap from the time his department learned about the departure of artistic directors Campbell and Webb to the time the RFP was issued, a period of more than 2 months.
Merkley again conceded that the City had known for some time. “I think there were discussions throughout the summer… but it was in August that we learned they weren’t interested in returning for sure.” He continued “It was shortly thereafter that as a staff group we got together and prepared the report and came to Council, I think it was October [in fact October 23rd], for permission for the RFP process.” Nearly two and a half months to react? No specific explanation for that lapse was offered.
But Madden had more questions; it looked like Merkley and Opera House General Manager Krista Storey would have a longer-than-expected stay at the Council table.
Did the 2 week response time affect the quality or quantity of responses?
While commenting that an RFP response is difficult for applicants to put together, and applicants were given short notice, “a 2-week window”, Madden wondered if this may have affected both the quality and quantity of responses. He suggested that summer theatre planning should, in fact, have been done before October. Merkley was asked to comment.
“We realised it was a quick turnaround to get them [RFP application responses] back,” Merkley admitted, “but we wanted to ensure, whether it was us or a proponent doing summer theatre, that they would have more time to put that in place.” However, he did concede that summer theatre planning for 2015 needs to start around July 2014, in order to meet the theatre planning process.
Merkley explained that 2014 was unique since the City didn’t know officially until August that Campbell and Webb would not return; that put the City behind schedule. An observer might conclude that when it takes more than two months to react to an event such as the departure of key artistic directors, it’s easy to get behind schedule.
What exactly did the City offer?
Madden also commented that the RPF “didn’t speak loudly and clearly what support the City was either ready or willing to provide.” He observed quite correctly that Campbell and Webb were given “cash flow and administrative support, things like payroll, somewhere in the neighborhood of $200,000….. Offering a grant of $40,000 [as outlined in the RFP] is a lot different than $200,000. ….Why wouldn’t we have offered that through this RFP?”
Merkley’s only explanation was that “RFP’s are generally worded in such a way as to accommodate various scenarios.”
Ms. Storey then chimed in, explaining that only during the past 2 years of City-run summer theatre there was there an underwriting of upfront summer seasons costs. This underwriting was not the case in years prior to the City taking over control. One must then assume that the City was not prepared to put underwriting on the table for 2014.
$40,000; the number that keeps coming up
However, $40,000 seems to be a magic number in terms of Orillia summer theatre, coming up repeatedly whenever City staff talk about losses (or in their jargon ‘investment’). $42,000 was the grant awarded to Campbell & Webb’s enterprise Laugh Out Loud Productions in 2011 when their return was in doubt the next year; $40,000 is the amount the City claims it lost /“invested” running the seasons in 2012 and 2013; and $40,000 is the amount offered as a potential maximum grant in the 2014 RFP to a qualifying producer.
Can we build locally? Madden asks
While the City may have bungled the job this year due to slow reflexes, Madden expressed his opinion that the RFP process was worthwhile going forward; “I don’t want this [RFP process] to go away. There is simply too much talent in the City and we should be encouraging a successful and local operation over time.”
And then there’s the issue of The Orillia Stage Company…
It didn’t get any easier for Merkley and Storey. Wayne Gardy brought up the sticky issue of the summer theatre programme being presented in 2014 by The Orillia Stage Company in downtown Orillia in an alternate location. He pointed out that the Opera House “has competition” and wanted to know how the City would address the budget for 2014 with that new factor in the mix.
City CAO Roman Martiuk stated that while he was not anticipating any changes in terms of the City’s largesse for summer theatre, “It’s really a question of how we implement that budget. We can either increase or decrease the resources allocated to that budget. We had not contemplated the question of whether we should or should not have summer theatre at the Opera House. That has been a base programme, in our view. It’s been a question of who should carry on that programme.” If Council wished to change the amounts allocated to the Opera House’s summer theatre budget, Martiuk explained that it would be appropriate to do so during the upcoming budget meetings, and that advance notice of such a discussion would be appreciated so that staff could prepare a response.
That prompted Councillor Gardy to ask ‘Does that mean we’re going to be carrying on with deficits year after year?”
Martiuk answered that $40,000 was a consistent number for an annual loss, whether the programme was run by Campbell & Webb’s Laugh Out Loud or by the City. He added that in a previous report to Council when the issue of either continuing with summer theatre or dropping it entirely was debated, the staff recommendation was to carry on.
Stuck on the same track?
Of course, carrying on is fine, in the absence of an alternate from other producers. But that’s all changed with the arrival of The Orillia Stage Company. An alternative now exists; it’s just not necessarily the alternative City staff wants. Perhaps Martiuk is not fully aware of what The Orillia Stage Company promises to deliver in 2014 or perhaps he is simply not willing to concede its existence. “While $40,000 is a significant amount of money, the benefits of the season to the downtown are really important and we (staff) are not advocating either cutting back or discontinuing summer theatre.”
Martiuk’s remarks left it open for Madden to ask the bombshell question: “With respect to the City’s initiative, are we going to be competing or are we going to be complimenting the other [Orillia Stage Company] programme?”
Ms. Storey responded “We will absolutely ensure that our programming is complimentary to the programme that they (Orillia Stage Company) have sent out. We are always cognisant of the programming that is going on in surrounding theatres and communities. We always make sure our programming is not in competition. It is unfortunate that their schedule is identical to ours, however I have been in constant touch with our partners, the hotels and attractions, to ensure that we continue to have their support in 2014.” In other words, although Storey has not developed any “schedule” yet for 2014, she foresees no change in the Opera House’s direction; 15 weeks of summer theatre, full speed ahead!
What is the City committing to?
Merkley added that Ms. Storey was busy planning a summer theatre programme for 2014 “and we hope to make an announcement in the near future”, as confirmed in her report to Council, even without 2014 budget approval. Staff’s assumption might be that Council has historically always approved whatever is put in front of them. However, no one knows what commitments Ms. Storey has or has not made in terms of programming at this point.
What about value for the dollars ‘invested’? Councillor Spears asked Ms. Storey “Do we have any idea of the dollar amounts the summer programme brings into the City?” The only answer she could supply was that details regarding hotel packages and restaurant discount coupons for 2013 would be revealed during the upcoming budget process.
Surprise! An amendment to allow public input!
In accepting Ms. Storey’s report as ‘informational’, Councillor Madden then surprised observers by proposing the following amendment:
“That the report be forwarded to the Cultural Round Table to consider hosting a discussion on Opera House summer theatre programming alternatives.”
This was bold. The last thing staff appears to welcome is input from either the public at large or the creative community in particular on matters concerning programing in the Opera House. That’s what the Cultural Round Table potentially represents; an ad-hoc group of interested individuals within the business and creative community, co-chaired by Roy Menagh.
Over to you, Creative Community!
Offering the Round Table the opportunity to discuss summer theatre programming could open the door at long last to discussions regarding the overall priorities, policies and pricing of the Opera House facility by those who actually own it, pay for its maintenance, and pay the salaries of its unionised employees; the tax payer!
However, it’s a double-edged sword. As Madden puts it, it also puts some responsibility back on the creative community itself. “This seems to be a great opportunity to throw the matter out to the cultural community one last time. The Cultural Round Table is our (Council’s) best conduit from that broad-based group. Is there any interest whatsoever in having an open dialogue and discussion about summer theatre at the Opera House, not for this coming year but for future years? I want to know if there is interest out there and if there isn’t, then I’ll let it go.”
All in all, an interesting evening for City staff. They were, for the first time in a long time, asked to justify past actions and rationalise future directions regarding live theatre in Orillia. Hopefully there is some community interest building, and none too soon, to address some of the many issues surrounding the operations and programming at the City’s beloved crown jewel.
For comments on this issue from informed and credible observers, please CLICK HERE