Toronto’s theatre scene must stop functioning like a colder, lamer cultural annex of the United States.
When Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus opens next week, audience members will take their seats on the stage of the Royal Alexandra Theatre and watch the play against a backdrop of plush, empty seats. For many ticketholders, this will be an exciting new perspective—even a selling point. But empty seats are an all too familiar sight for many theatre producers. This is especially true, it seems, for Mirvish.
In the ’80s and ’90s, Toronto earned the moniker “Broadway North,” with a thriving commercial-theatre industry presided over by two competitors: Mirvish Productions and Livent Inc. Tourism was high, theatres were being built, and shows ran for a decade. These companies established Toronto as the third-largest English-speaking theatre capital in the world, after New York and London. Though we can still lay claim to that title, it’s obvious that that period of ambitious growth was short-lived.
Before the end of the millennium, Livent was gone. The company that tried to fill its void, Dancap Productions, lasted only five years before head honcho Aubrey Dan ran out of money and announced last spring that the operation would be taking an indefinite hiatus.
Mirvish, the last commercial-theatre producer standing, is suffering from shorter life expectancies for its shows (War Horse will close on January 6 after a run of less than a year); they have also acknowledged that their four properties far exceed the demand for seats. And as has already been well publicized, it appears that the Princess of Wales will be sacrificed in the interest of founder David Mirvish’s long-term development plans.
Today, the relationship between Canadian and American theatre feels more like we’re on the losing end of a tawdry import-export business. Many think that because Les Miz and Phantom of the Opera are no longer running in this city that Torontonians have to “settle” for theatre that isn’t world class. Personally, I’m tired of “settling” to be a colder, lamer cultural annex of the United States. If Toronto is Broadway North, then we might as well give in and declare Canada “America North.” That’s not to say we haven’t had wonderful commercial theatre productions travel through Toronto. But theatre tourism here just isn’t what it used to be. It simply doesn’t make sense to focus on pleasing tourists instead of locals.
Even David Mirvish, an avid supporter of independent theatre, seems to agree. He’s filling otherwise empty theatres with the inaugural Off-Mirvish series of four indie hits, including Terminus. Two are local, three are Canadian; the fourth stars Mark from Rent. It’s an unprecedented shot in the arm for independent shows that sell out smaller venues but lack the resources for a bigger remount.
Take the Cinderella story of Terminus and its promising young director, Mitchell Cushman. It’s a twisted nightmare of a show and was the biggest hit at the 2012 SummerWorks festival. Sending Terminus straight to Mirvish after its successful indie run gives the show’s cast and crew more exposure, as well as giving SummerWorks due credit. That’s important for a growing festival that relies on proving its legitimacy to receive government grants. Not only did two shows get picked up out of SummerWorks 2012, but the festival drew 25,000 attendees—and for the first time, 12 per cent of advance ticket buyers were tourists.
Toronto’s theatre scene doesn’t draw New York City–sized crowds. Partly in response to that, our theatres are, as The Globe and Mail put it, “right-sizing.” That means theatre companies are consciously scaling back to be both financially stable and artistically relevant. The best example of this is Canadian Stage, which has struggled to fill the 876-seat Bluma Appel Theatre—one of three city-owned large-scale venues that were in danger of being sold. As it turns out, nobody knows what to do with them, and consequently, nobody wanted to buy them.
But thinking small in size doesn’t mean thinking small in ideas. Canadian Stage has arguably never been more exciting. Soulpepper Theatre just announced its most artistically ambitious season yet for 2013, and its largest performance space holds only 315 seats. Our arts festivals are thriving, and will continue to do so with initiatives like the Off-Mirvish series, which give some of our best indie productions the pedestal they deserve. It’s time to let Broadway be Broadway, and let Toronto be whatever it needs to be.