Stage Management

Fourteen fixes for a broken theatre

In every theatre maker’s dream, the pandemic ends, the doors are flung open, and the patrons rush in, hungry for the visceral thrill of live performance. As the house lights dim, an actor speaks, and an ancient art form with a long history of reinvention enters a new golden age.

There’s a nightmare version too: After months of isolation, people crave connection and conversation. But the virus, unlikely to be the last we’ll know, has instilled a phobia of crowded spaces. Sitting in the dark beside strangers continues to feel risky, while at‑home entertainment keeps getting better and better. Theatre is forced into the catacombs, where small bubbles of loyal fans gather around to carry on the ritual of familiar stories and shared outrages.

I believe theatre will survive; it always does. But, in the meantime, these cursed quiet days present us with an opportunity to imagine a better future — one where the hectic, insular activity of putting on plays becomes more important and commands impact and power it did not have when the lights went out in March 2020.

Who even remembers what it was like back then? Faux bravado ruled. Some iconic playhouses had already closed; others were struggling to find audiences. The boomers who propelled Canadian theatre in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s had reached an age when their donations were more avidly sought than their presence in the audience. “Youth and diversity” was the mantra. But now I wonder whether generational change and loosening the grip of white male management will be enough to kick-start a future with new voices and new visions.

As theatre critic for the Montreal Gazette in the ’80s, I covered an explosion of creativity on the francophone scene, a transformative experience that lured me to abandon a fat salary and launch Theatre 1774. For most of the ’90s, I wrote plays, directed, and slogged to pay the bills. Since leaving the company to write novels, I’ve seen two of my plays produced at Centaur Theatre, in 2000 and 2015. Before the pandemic, I took annual theatregoing trips to London, often saw plays in Toronto, and made occasional visits to the Stratford and Shaw Festivals. But it’s in Montreal that I’ve most closely watched a community of talented artists increasingly struggle against impossible odds, coping with outmoded institutional models and missing out on the audiences they deserve. Forced to scrabble for grants and donations, they’ve made immense personal sacrifices to create.

The situation here — with all of its dramatic woes — has much in common with the scene in the rest of Canada. And a more sustainable path, I believe, begins with legacy theatres, specifically with their leadership roles, or lack thereof. I’ll stick to the stage I know best, but hope it can serve as an instructive mirror for others.

Founded in 1969, Centaur Theatre enjoys strong name recognition that dates back to the ’70s and ’80s, when new plays by David Fennario and Vittorio Rossi attracted tens of thousands of people. Centaur became a voice of Anglo Montreal through turbulent times. At its high point in the mid‑’80s, it had two subscription seasons on two stages. But in 1991, in mid-recession, the founding artistic director, Maurice Podbrey, lamented in a Gazette interview that after two decades of growth, the theatre had racked up its first deficit. Still, there were 8,000 subscribers to an eight-play season, which sold some 112,000 tickets each year.

In retrospect, even the early ’90s were the good old days. Today the subscription season has dropped to five plays (and may go to four). Subscribers number in the mid‑2,000s. Seven of the last nine seasons ended with significant operating deficits. If this were still the ’90s, we might link Centaur’s misfortune to a sagging economy and the shrinking Anglo community. But with 780,800 first-language English speakers, Anglo Montreal is bigger than Winnipeg, where the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre operates on a $12-million budget, thanks to Montreal-born Steven Schipper’s sound management over thirty years. Since 2000, the population of Greater Montreal has increased by 20 percent, to 4.2 million, more than 55 percent of whom are fluent in English. After several years of strong economic growth, Montreal had emerged as the fastest-growing urban economy in Canada by 2019, with a GDP second only to Toronto’s.

Maybe Anglo Montrealers just don’t want live theatre anymore? That idea is easily refuted. Since the entrepreneur Alvin Segal rescued the ailing Saidye Bronfman Centre, in 2007, the Segal Centre, located in the unhandy suburb of Côte‑St‑Luc, has been on a steep growth curve. Under the artistic direction of Lisa Rubin, revenue has increased to $6.6 million, thanks to a year-round program of contemporary plays and ambitious new musicals. Hiring Rubin may have been Segal’s best decision, but the octogenarian’s considerable entrepreneurial skills, honed while building his stepfather’s suit business into an international force, are all over the theatre’s management structure and strategy. With only 4 percent of its pre-pandemic revenue coming from public subsidy (compared with 32 percent at Centaur), the Segal has become a hopping cultural centre, drawing accolades and audiences across age, ethnic, and language groups.

So, in the absence of another wealthy business genius with many rich friends, what would it take to restore Centaur Theatre’s place in Anglo Montreal and make it an important cultural force once more? Here are fourteen ideas. Inspired by life in lockdown, they lean heavily on strategies for making new friends and getting back in touch with old ones. They’re all aspirational fixes — and offered up as fodder for a much-needed discussion.

1. Pursue growth. The 2019–20 Centaur subscription season offered only fifteen weeks of theatre, including two shows brought in from elsewhere (and it was all cut short by COVID‑19). A few short-run events filled out the brochure, including the Wildside, a mid-January festival of indie shows, and a public presentation of a new work. But these offered little revenue potential, and most local artists who participated were paid a fraction of union rates. Reducing high-risk, high-cost productions may be necessary to stop spiralling deficits, but it is bound to exacerbate Centaur’s slide off the public radar. In financially challenged times, the only route to growth and excellence is by way of a reimagined community role, which requires top-tier diplomacy.

During the last two decades, Anglo Montreal’s indie theatre scene has grown and matured enormously. A dozen incorporated companies, with combined budgets of $7.2 million, offer an extraordinary range of high-quality professional shows, including outdoor Shakespeare, youth and children’s fare, new Quebec plays, and  biting docudrama. The Black Theatre Workshop, for example, will soon celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. Montreal’s bilingual Fringe Festival is a vibrant summer event, managed out of the MainLine Theatre, on Boulevard St‑Laurent, a go‑to venue for some fifty smaller companies.

While these companies have strong identities and devoted bases, none has the resources or opportunity to fully realize the audience potential of their most successful productions. But Centaur could curate a bill of top-quality work drawn from smaller stages. There would be no shame and much merit in a legacy institution showcasing the broader community’s creativity.

The blunt fact is that without the vitality of smaller companies, there would be no pool of actors, designers, directors, and playwrights honing their craft and somehow managing to stay in this city. Whether these proudly independent troupes would be interested in being at Centaur is another question. Hence the need for diplomacy, and for a coherent “second season” that lets theatregoers know they are tapping into something special. And remember: nothing makes you hungrier for playgoing than having just seen a good one.

2. Demolish, rebrand. With its wide portico steps and stately columns, Centaur’s home at the Old Stock Exchange puts on a brave face, but renovation is long overdue. Priority should be given to the performance architecture. The smaller 241-seat space — unceremoniously named Centaur 1 — has an anchored plywood balcony that looms over a shallow stage, which faces a steep bank of fixed seats. The view from side rows is annoyingly restrictive. The entire space would be far more effective as a black box with movable chairs and stage. If social distancing is required, everything could easily be reconfigured.

Gutting Centaur 1 is both a practical and a symbolic necessity. A new name would help, too. Something feminine — the Mermaid? — could counterbalance the growly presence of a half man, half beast that’s embedded in the corporate brand. (The 422-seat Centaur 2 needs a serious rethink as well, but that’s a longer story.)

3. Move the office. Not until 2000, when my play Venus of Dublin was produced at Centaur, did I first see the administrative bowels — a  jumble of desks jammed into one corner of the ground floor. On my way to the artistic director’s window less nook, I passed pale people hunched around a photocopier, a strangely funereal atmosphere, as if nobody dared talk out loud.

The pandemic has emptied many great commercial spaces throughout the city. Now is the perfect time to move all but building-related employees to some spacious, well‑lit spot in one of Montreal’s creative neighbourhoods. Consolidated under one roof, rehearsals, publicity, and administration can build experiences that exude a welcoming aura. That should also make it easier for staff to cope with increased usage of the performance spaces by other companies and creators.

4. Feed and water the guests. On a trip to London last February, I agreed to meet a friend for drinks at the Royal Court Theatre, on Sloan Square. Arriving shortly after 5 p.m., I was surprised to find the restaurant-bar filling up and assumed there was an unscheduled event. Not so: all those people were there for a play, which didn’t start until 7:30. In normal times, the best London theatres are meeting places, alternative pubs. The Young Vic has a thriving all-day restaurant on the main floor and a spacious bar on the mezzanine. You can get Prosecco at West End intervals. London has acknowledged an inescapable fact: our info-entertainment-sustenance cycle is now 24‑7.

The pandemic has thrown many of Montreal’s best young foodie entrepreneurs out of work, which makes this a great time to replace Centaur’s menu of chips, chocolate bars, and ho‑hum house wines with inventive, creative fare. Celebrating and engaging our local foodie innovators might even incentivize their friends and fans to check out a play.

5. Reach out to families. Most parents will do cartwheels on behalf of their precious kids. Why not get serious about children’s theatre on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, timed so that adults can see the main show while their little ones visit a big-tent performance in the lobby? A juicy family show over the holidays would appeal to grandparents entertaining far-flung family. (We know there’s potential here: last year, when I took my grandson to The Nutcracker, an underwhelming experience at $250 for three tickets, Place des Arts was packed.) Montreal has two successful young people’s theatre companies whose work merits more exposure. Mainstage family entertainment at Centaur should happen at least once a year.

6. Single out singles. Going solo to the cinema is a thing to do, a perk of having spare time. The same cannot be said for theatre, which is deeply imbued with the Noah’s Ark syndrome. Why be shy about our need for human connection (or the fact that even married people can find it hard to get a date for the theatre)? Why not create a special solo price for designated performances, along with a post- or pre-show drink?

The tone of most theatre promotional campaigns oscillates between begging and boasting: We need your support! We are essential! Very little effort goes into imagining what it’s like to be an actual member of the public, which is ironic since, at its core, the art form is all about pretending to be other people.

7. Sell more tickets (and stop giving them away). I was surprised to open the royalty statement for my 2015 play, Triplex Nervosa, and learn that of 8,825 people who saw it at Centaur, almost 20 percent got in free with comps, vouchers, and passes. Early in the run, brisk ticket sales prompted a one-week extension. Even in that fifth week, though, 300 tickets were given away. As the only member of the team whose pay depended directly on the box office (10 percent of net), I calculate the largesse cost me about $5,000. More to the point: if that many tickets are given away during a popular play, what happens when tickets aren’t moving?

Most Toronto theatres offer “industry” discount tickets to people working in theatre, as do many indie companies. But discounts are a neutral gesture; a loyalty program aimed at creatives would have much more potential. A paid membership could offer a range of perks. Why stop with discounted tickets? Why not add a season launch party? An invitation to attend the annual general meeting? Opportunities to discuss the dramatic arts with the board of directors?

The free-ticket syndrome, while it might appear generous, actually keeps people at a  distance. It signals an entrenched feudal system: the reigning king or queen confers perks on a lucky few, chosen from the hordes of starving artists. The way forward is to treat creative types as stakeholders, to cultivate a sense of belonging and participation, to ask for their support.

8. Open up to books. Whenever the novelist Louise Penny publishes a new mystery, it sits comfortably on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks. She’s just one of many Quebec writers working in English — all part of a lively Anglo literary scene celebrated by an annual awards gala organized by the Quebec Writers’ Federation (with its 780 members) and the multilingual Blue Metropolis literary festival, launched by the writer turned publisher Linda Leith in 1999. Still, Anglo Quebec authors and their publishers face the number-one problem confronting the book industry everywhere: how to get copies in front of potential readers.

Last year, Centaur spent $373,123 on publicity to get a few thousand people into the building, coats off, and seated. Why not offer these same people an opportunity to arrive early and browse through a Quebec-themed bookshop? If Centaur management can’t handle the burden of becoming a bookseller, surely the local literary types could make this modest proposal happen. Even if the effort doesn’t contribute significantly to theatre revenues, it would help attract the attention of smart readers and writers, who otherwise might not consider going to a play.

9. Reach out to music. The Anglo Montreal music scene is often cited internationally for its originality and vitality. Cheap rents no doubt played a role in creating this incubation hub, and while those days are fading fast, a slew of established musicians live here. Music, of course, is one of the art forms hardest hit by the destabilizing power of the internet, yet creative types have found ways to build revenue streams by touring and giving concerts in large venues. They’ve become masters at building their fan base through social media and internal organization. Theatre can — and must — learn from this sector.

At the same time, commissioning these amazing local talents to compose scores for Centaur productions is an excellent way to give plays a palpable Montreal feel, while tapping into their considerable followings. I also know this from experience: threading Patrick Watson’s music throughout Triplex Nervosa led to considerable attention among his multi-generational fans.

10. Create buzz through conversation. The days of the Olympian critic are over. Most remaining theatre reviewers are struggling freelancers, and sharing economic fragility with the medium you cover does not exactly inspire trenchant commentary. Across the arts, the gatekeeper role has shifted to the juries who award lucrative prizes. This arrangement may work for books, which remain on sale well after publication, but most plays have long since closed when the awards are handed out. In the absence of comment in the press, some theatres blow their own horns, but who believes self-praise?

In our fragmented world, no single voice can judge the merit of a work of art or steer the myriad of potential publics toward something they might actually enjoy. So creating conversation should become part of a theatre’s outreach effort: recruit a panel of avid theatregoers that represents different ages, backgrounds, tastes, and genders. Post their bios online. Invite them to see the plays. Record moderated conversations. Publicize it all widely. This theatrical version of the CBC’s “At Issue” panel could end up creating more buzz than yet another blizzard of self-regarding tweets from management.

Traditional theatregoing is a passive activity. As the explosion of Zoom meetings has shown, listeners crave interaction — a chance to voice their opinions and hear what others think. An official comment panel is only the beginning of what could become an ongoing conversation between audience and creators. Post-show talkbacks are old school. What’s needed today is an app that allows patrons to comment instantly and that aggregates those comments for a range of promotional purposes.

11. Get a bus. Montreal’s francophone scene is so much larger and more varied than Anglo Montreal that comparisons are rarely useful. But there is one practice on the French side that could open up considerable potential for growth: touring the Island of Montreal, and possibly further afield in the province. Francophone Quebec theatre has a well-developed circuit, where hit plays from Montreal stages can have a hundred or more performances before returning to the city for a second run.

The francophone path has been decades in the making, but surely Centaur could start on a modest scale. Both Geordie Theatre and Youtheatre have developed touring circuits that account for the bulk of their revenues. It’s hard to imagine that the mid-winter Wildside Festival brings in new theatregoers or advances anyone’s career. These shows could easily be sent on tour instead — paving the way for larger works from the main stage. Touring would enhance the Centaur brand outside the downtown core and provide more exposure for Montreal actors.

12. Go public. The single greatest threat to the non-profit scene is the dreaded founder’s syndrome. Many companies were willed into existence by visionary leaders, aided by waves of hard-working supporters (girlfriends, wives, ex‑wives, philanthropists), and these founders made sure their boards were composed of loyalists. After a founder’s departure, boards might drift or seize control, but mainly they stay invisible — and become unapproachable.

Non-profit boards are responsible for governance. But how does a citizen taxpayer go about speaking truth to power? Who even is the power? As far as I can establish, the fourteen men and women on Centaur’s board of directors recognize two duties: to choose the artistic director when the job is open (by way of an Ottawa-based headhunter, most recently) and to fundraise. The AD then works for the board in what, from the outside, appears to be a closed circle, a Vatican-style structure. This airtight relationship sets the tone for everything that happens at Centaur, by ensuring the governors remain isolated from the environment in which the theatre must live.

Consider another paradigm: the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. When the board chair recently undertook to fire the director general and chief curator, Nathalie Bondil, a public outcry ensued. At a subsequent meeting, a slate of four powerful women ran for positions; three were elected by a paid‑up membership, and the ex-chair was voted off the board. Clearly, a feudal system is not the only way to govern a publicly funded arts organization.

13. Revise the CEO job description. Traditionally, combining the roles of artistic and executive directors has been considered necessary to prevent messy clashes between the artistic vision and financial responsibility. In changing times, however, running a building-based theatre has become hugely complicated; it’s unreasonable to expect that any one individual could have expertise or interest in all of the wide range of tasks required to keep an arts organization afloat — especially a working artist with an eye on his or her own creative career. (Indeed, since Podbrey’s retirement, in 1997, his three successors have each taken time away from their $100,000-plus jobs, and from Montreal, to direct plays elsewhere.) Many theatres, such as Toronto’s Canadian Stage, have acknowledged the burden by dividing the job in two, handing over the business side to an executive director. In reality, this division can simply mean giving the general manager a new title.

It’s time to recognize that theatre management is itself a creative challenge, one that requires diverse skills, a deep knowledge of institutional context, and an intimate awareness of how a very particular research-and-development-based organization works. To move forward, Centaur needs a creative director, tasked with reimagining how the theatre could play a more effective role in the community while taking into account the city’s particularities and history.

14. Learn to know and embrace virtual space. The eternal beauty of theatre resides in fundamentals that have not changed since at least the Greeks. People gather around, one person stands to tell a story, another chimes in, and it’s a play. Each performance is a unique transitory experience, living on only in human memory. It’s this simplicity that draws talented people to invest vast chunks of their lives in the making of theatre.

It’s also what blinds those makers to the ongoing revolution in communication technologies, which are key to the survival and importance of the art form. Devising a comprehensive digital strategy is essential. Marketing is not only or even primarily about selling tickets; it’s about standing out, engaging audiences, setting up transactional experiences that will prompt people to reveal themselves and commit. The purpose of a digital marketing strategy, and indeed the goal of creative management, should be to create better theatregoing experiences, expand revenue streams, and stimulate growth.

Convincing people to sit quietly in the dark while actors speak should be considered but a pause in the larger conversation between theatre and its public. Otherwise, exit stage left to the catacombs.

For legacy theatres such as Centaur, the time has come to acknowledge that every state-funded theatre is a public institution that exists within a democratic social system, a marketplace, and a particular community. After the pandemic, the way forward begins with demolishing old feudal habits and structures. It’s time to lower the drawbridge, open the gates, and air the place out.