The CBC lost the exclusive Canadian television rights for NHL broadcasts to Rogers Communications….
The Orillia Opera House failed to attract The Orillia Stage Company as host for 2014 professional summer theatre.
Many feel the CBC should take their loss as an opportunity to reinvent itself.
A possible parallel?
Should the City of Orillia take that same opportunity with its Opera House?
The Green Room continues to monitor the operations and programming at the Orillia Opera House for a number of reasons: the facility is unique due to the mandate of control over programming exercised by City staff; the building is a jewel in the crown of downtown; and the City continues to invest in its maintenance, improvement and management at levels that, in proportion, dwarf many other municipalities. However, it remains for many community groups an inaccessible facility due to rental rates and policies.
The City’s efforts to produce and manage professional summer theatre almost entirely at its own expense have gained attention around the province. You can read related coverage from The Green Room by clicking these links.
Designed to Fail?
Orillia gets its professional summer theatre, but not at the Opera House
Quelle Surprise! No one made the grade!
Council raises the thermostat on the Orillia Opera House
Recently, Orillia Opera House events have attracted comments from people knowledgeable in both theatre and municipal management. The Green Room is happy to reproduce some of those comments and dialogues here, in the interest of continuing the conversation:
Craig Metcalf, former Director of Culture for the City of Orillia, offers some important perspective. He writes….
I appreciate your efforts, John, in keeping the cultural and broader communities informed of the activities at the Orillia Opera House. Other local media fail to provide a critical overview of the facility (and I’m using ‘critical’ in the context of analysis and careful evaluation as opposed to disapproving judgements). So many of us care deeply about the Opera House, its prominent position in the architectural hierarchy of Orillia, its place in our collective history and its role as a performing arts centre for a variety of performers and audiences. I’m not writing to necessarily challenge your opinions and conclusions, but to provide some context from my perspective as to issues of budget and policy.
The critical first phone call
I would start by saying that as we are in December, and if the Opera House and Council wish to proceed with summer theatre, they must program WITH the Orillia Stage Company and not AGAINST it. Someone must pick up the phone and begin the conversation and end it quickly and without acrimony. It is not as easy as it sounds, but seems to me the only way for two programs to be successful in a rather small market.
How did the Opera House get to this point?
At the risk of boring you and your readers with details, I think it is important to understand the evolution of the Opera House and its operating expenses. I will try to use a very broad brush. When the facility was built in 1895 it was a performing arts centre AND the seat of municipal government. As a result the theatre shared operating expenses with other municipal departments. As an example, the current Green Room was the Clerk’s department. The Studio Theatre was Council Chamber. The Studio back-of-house was Parks and Recreation. The basement housed the jail. And so on. As the town grew into a City so did its services and the staff required to deliver them. As departments moved to new facilities, all that remained of the City operation in the Opera House was storage of files in the basement. And that ended as well. Now this is where it gets a little tricky. I acknowledge that there is only one taxpayer, and taxpayers generally don’t care about which department is assigned what resources; rather, the prime issue is the overall household tax bill. But for municipal bureaucrats, budgets and line items rule. As Council approves departmental budgets, they expect those budget targets to be met. So over time, the Opera House became more and more responsible for operating costs which used to be shared with other departments. As the (now) lone occupant of the building, the Opera House covers all expenses through its budget. It was a slow evolution to be sure, but as the costs increased with the exit of other staff, so did the pressure to produce more and more revenue. How else was the Opera House to cover its costs without raising the cost to the taxpayer? As time has demonstrated, the success in meeting self-generated revenue targets has been inconsistent. And there isn’t the space to review year by year. The salient issue is that the taxpayer is on the hook for every operating dollar which the Opera House cannot generate, and there have been both good and bad years.
Fast forward to 2003.
The Opera House’s status changed from agency of the City managed by the Opera House Management Committee to part of an in-line City department. By about 2007, the migration of Opera House staff salaries to the City of Orillia salary grid was complete. The result was an exponential increase in Opera House staff salaries. Why? It was an issue of fairness. As employees of the City as opposed to an agency it was only fair to pay the staff at rates comparable to staff performing similar functions in other departments. That is the difference between a community facility and a municipal facility. And of course there were many life safety improvements and equipment enhancements along the way as well. The combined result of increased budgetary responsibility for expenses and salaries was a facility whose rates were among the lowest in the province (but still not low enough to be affordable to local users) but simultaneously had one of the highest municipal subsidies in the province. I have no specific knowledge of current operations but I expect the status is still the same.
A lack of bureaucratic flexibility
In addition to its unique position vis a vis other provincial facilities, the Opera House is hamstrung by a bureaucracy which does not fit the flexible planning needs of a cultural facility. You raise the issue of rental discounts in the RFP which are generally not available to local performing groups in the summer. As the Opera House is obliged to meet the budget targets set by Council, there is no discretion on the part of the staff to negotiate rates with users (there is an existing User Fee Bylaw which would require Council-approved exceptions). We know that exceptions have been made (the summer theatre rates, the recently approved special rates for five local groups annually) so additional deviations are possible. But in order to reduce rental rates, the reduction in budgeted (projected) revenues must be compensated by the taxpayer, by a reduction in expenses, increased self-generated revenues or some combination. Given the year-over-year financial results of the Opera House, to increase revenue targets sets the facility up for failure.
If something’s broke, you fix it.
If something ain’t broke, sometimes you have to break it. Whether the Opera House is “broken” or not is a matter of personal opinion. I think we could all agree that the capital needs of the building are being generally addressed, at least the essential issues. Where opinions differ are in respect to programming.
Perhaps instead of addressing summer theatre in isolation, or rental rates, or bureaucracy we need to holistically address a new Model of Service Delivery. This means laying everything on the table with no sacred cows. It would be a difficult, but I think necessary, public conversation. I know, John, that you have consistently called on the Opera House to include local theatre professionals in programming and other discussions. Perhaps you have the forum to begin a public discussion of a new model. I’m sorry to have taken up so much space, but I think some of the background may prove useful in moving forward to something meaningful – for the Opera House, its clients and the audience.
And the dialogue continues….
From Jay Wilson, professional actor and puppeteer, in response to the failed RFP process…..
Perhaps the municipality is wanting to prove that the land where the Opera House sits could be more profitable (less tax burden) as a parking lot, museum or bed and breakfast. In a way they may be correct. In this day and age, who in their right mind would chose to go into the business of live theatre with the intent of challenging their audiences, provoking meaningful dialogue about political, social and spiritual issues, and denying the reality of the box office receipts. Orillia won’t be the first community to lose it’s Opera House. Be careful what you wish for.
Craig Metcalf writes in response to Mr. Wilson’s comment post …..
I am replying to your comment, not to be provocative or argumentative, but to seek clarification on your last sentence: “Be careful what you wish for”. Having read both the Green Room article and the article in today’s online Packet, I cannot find a reference to the expression of a wish and, therefore, cannot find a specific desire articulated. I must assume you have inferred that Council’s intention is to fund a program which is doomed to fail, and that somehow that failure may justify the shuttering of a cultural drain on scarce municipal resources.
I see evidence to the contrary. This Council (the Federal government as well) has committed hundreds of thousands of dollars in capital improvements to the Opera House. Specifically, this Council approved the rehabilitation of the stone foundation in concert with the library construction (money spent unnecessarily in my opinion, but spent nonetheless). Also, one can see the new load-in elevator nearing completion as well as internal work improving accessibility for performers. This would be a very expensive diversion if the ultimate goal is divesting the municipality of the asset.
I would agree, however, that challenging audiences through theatre is not likely to happen in Orillia due to the monetary conditions you articulated. So although I believe the Opera House (bricks and mortar) is here to stay, its budget obligations respecting programming leave the operating aspects in limbo year over year.
Jay Wilson responds to Craig Metcalf….
I think Mr. Metcalf and I are in agreement. The Opera House won’t be torn down but it will never live up to it’s mandate of offering a truly thought provoking live theatre experience. Most likely it will become a museum, bed and breakfast or night club. And if this is a wish, it will never be said out loud.
I’m not writing from Orillia so I don’t really have a pulse on opinion about the Opera House from the residents of the area. I am only going by what I have seen in Ontario over many years. The Orillia Opera
House is one of the few remaining. Other Ontario communities abandoned their opera houses long ago.
The reason I mentioned “be careful what you wish for” was to see if it would get a reaction. I think Joni Mitchell wrote that song about a parking lot for the same reason. Silence would have been very telling
indeed. Thank you Craig!
Is there a lesson here for performing artists, writers, directors, designers and technicians?
Fortunately, an inspiring live theatre experience doesn’t require bricks and mortar, just creative thinking when it comes to location and relative audience comfort. Often, in Canada, an indoor facility is
nice, given our climate.
A legacy really isn’t bricks and mortar. Ideas are the true legacies of a civilization. And yes governments love bricks and mortar. They will build a hospital in a heartbeat, but when it comes to operational
costs, well, just ask a nurse.
And so, dear reader: What do you think?
Feel free to write an email (in confidence, if you wish), or to post a comment below….