On Theatre

Why I’ve Decided to STOP Making My Own Work

Jumping in half blind was the smartest thing I ever did. I’m glad I did it. But now, a few years later, I see things differently.

white-flag-1024x682I’ve spent the better part of 5 years encouraging my peers to make their own work, produce showcases, fringe shows, one acts, pie-in-the-sky park performances, subway scenework, one man shows for their reluctant audience/roommate.  An important teacher pushed us, begged us to make our own work.   “Create.  Take the reigns of your career and stop waiting for it to come to you.” The idea stuck and worked hard at it. So I was when suddenly I decided:Stop it.

When Caleb and I started Mnemonic Theatre three years ago, it was to pursue our own work.  Fresh out of school we wanted to hit the ground running, so we invested a lot of money and even more manpower to make WOLFBOY happen.  With the help of three actors, a lighting designer, and a stage manager, we got through it, barely.  We could never have done so without the gracious help and immense talent of everyone involved.  We were grateful, but exhausted.

In hindsight, my naïveté was the only reason I survived that first show.  Without it, it’s likely I would’ve never taken one step down the treacherous, torturous, tumultuous road that producing is.  Invested as I was, I had to grin and bare it.  It stung… hell, it hurt for a long time, but I’ll never forget it.

Since that fateful summer I’ve watched as ambitious young actors assemble companies to produce their own work, some of it risky and provoking, some of it not, but all of it the result of pursuing their goals actively and without apology.

Jumping in half blind was the smartest thing I ever did. I’m glad I did it.  But now, a few years later, I see things differently.

“It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God-given right to have it.”

Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

There are scores of artists with drive and dedication and passion in the world…but there are also a lot of theatre companies, a lot of ultra low budget festival shows, a lot of people doing the best they can with what they have.  I’ve been there.  It’s exhilarating, and getting it done is something to be proud of…but I’m not yet satisfied.

The seed of that dissatisfaction was planted last year after reading a series of wonderfully articulate and direct blog posts on dispositio.net.  Holger Styme wrote a post detailing 5 areas of contention in Toronto theatre (though I think a lot of it can be extrapolated to Canadian theatre in general), sparking a number of intelligent responses, both agreeing and dissenting.  That one post (read it here now) started a beautifully diverse, sometimes heated but always enlightening conversation.  A conversation that desperately needed to be had.  I think if you care about this stuff, you should take the time to read it all…and there’s a lot.  The issues tackled are pretty big, and most are above my pay grade, but what stayed with me has changed my ideas about independent theatre drastically.  I’ve decided that the current model can’t be the most effective.  There must be an alternative.

Styme makes the London-Toronto comparison a few times, always prefaced with the necessary caveats, and typically I’d say the two aren’t comparably.  But it was one statistic that weaseled its way into my head:

“5. Money isn’t doing what money should be doing

In the current funding cycle, which I’m going to assume is more or less representative (it certainly doesn’t look extraordinary as far as I can tell from spot checks), the three main funding bodies for the arts — Canada Council, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Toronto Arts Council — spent about $10.8 million on 125 Toronto theatre companies and projects. That’s an average of $86,153 per company, which may not sound terrible. However, the median amount of funding (sorry for the numbers talk, but I can’t avoid it here) was only $11,500, which is to say half the successful applicants received less than $12,000 each in support. Of the remaining 62 companies, 23 were awarded over $100,000 — probably about the minimum subsidy required to support a permanent staff of some sort and stage a single production with a paid crew, cast, and creative team. The smaller a show’s cast is and the more tasks a single person is responsible for, the smaller the necessary budget, of course, which explains the sheer number of one-person shows and two-handers in our repertory — they’re the easiest production to pull off while surviving on the job. But again, that’s a development driven by economic consideration, not by artistic or aesthetic ones.

London once more makes for instructive (if, yes, yes, unfair) comparison. Leaving out the National Theatre, which with its £18 million subsidy skews all the figures, England’s Arts Council supports 87 London-based theatre companies to the tune of £26 million — an average of £299,800 (with a median support level of £166,000). 63 companies receive more than £100,000, 16 more than £500,000. This, too, explains the difference between theatre culture in the UK and in Canada that Erin Shields describes. There are just far more companies in London that have the budgets to sustain productions with sizeable casts, written by authors who are mainly playwrights (or dead), directed by directors, produced by producers. And there are almost no companies that subsist on a few thousand pounds of government funding: if you get any at all, you get enough to actually make a difference (only one successful applicant received less than £40,000).

From a later post:

Toronto is smaller than London, and its theatregoing population is probably disproportionately smaller still. And yet, in Toronto, over a third more companies receive public funding than in London (125 vs. 87). Amazingly, the actual money available in both cities is pretty much the same (leaving out the National Theatre, which is beyond the pale, and assuming roughly equal purchasing power for Pound and Canadian Dollar, which seems realistic): London is over three times larger than Toronto, and spends £26 million on theatre; Toronto companies receive just under $11 million. If anything, one could argue that there is more public support available here than in England. The real difference is not in how much money there is, but in how that money is distributed (which is why Bobby Del Rio isn’t quite right in saying that “we don’t have the dollars to turn [the arts] into an ‘industry’ per se. Not really. While London and NYC are amazing cities … we simply don’t have the money or population to do what they’re doing”).

He’s talking, obviously, about government funding, which is its own beast…but the general argument makes me reevaluate the way I’ve been working for the past few years.  As I’ve said, there are a lot of theatre companies, with not a lot of resources doing they best they can with what they have.  But when I sit outside it all, and navigate my way out of my own ego, what seems obvious to me is that there could be a lot fewer theatre companies with immensely more resources.  And with resources comes not only the opportunity to present better work, and do so more often, but to build our own institutions, or own incubators.  I want desperately to give artists the opportunity I had; to try, fail, then try again and eventually to succeed, without it taking the shirt off their back.  I want desperately to discover my own ignorance by working with artists far outside my circle of friends, and training, and influences.  I want my world to be more diverse, more surprising.  I want to offer my resources and experiences to projects I would never have dreamed up myself.  And I want, more than anything, to create not just a social community, but a working community broader and more supportive (both artistically and financially) than anything that exists now.

So I’ve put a moratorium on my own work.  I’m going to pursue other people’s work.  I’m going to offer all my resources and man power and labour and passion to whoever will accept it.  I think that if I put my (sizeable) ego aside I can get more done, offer more to my community, and learn more than I ever could have otherwise.

I’m starting by producing a workshop of my friend and TheatreIsForSuckers contributor Colette Nichol’s play Swimming with Piranhas.  From there who knows, but I do know that I’m excited, that I’m changed, and that I can see more fully now than I could before what independent artists are potentially capable of.

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Jordan Dibe

Written by Jordan Dibe

Artistic Director of Mnemonic Theatre Productions

There is 1 comment

  • Justen says:

    An admirable step and I’m interested to see how it turns out. The London-Toronto comparison interests me, as I’ve just moved to Toronto from London and the scenes are so very different.

    The thing that sticks out to me with your thoughts is that, yes, there could be far fewer theatre companies here with more resources, but why are there so many theatre companies here in the first place? Because people want to make theatre and they want to make the theatre they want to make and they want to make it in the positions they want to be in (i.e. as a producer, director, playwright, etc.). Were there enough opportunities for people to do that in the first place, all these smaller companies wouldn’t have the need to exist. Without creating more resources (e.g. more government funding, more audience), stockpiling the existing resources into fewer theatres with larger budgets means even more competition for fewer opportunities. (And how much of those opportunities would genuinely be filled by ability rather than nepotism and other unpleasant but realistic factors?) And that’s another type of dysfunctional system, I suppose. Both have their merits and failings.

    As a director new to the city, for example, what are my options here in Toronto? Aside from attempting to produce my own work in order to have an opportunity to direct, how will I get to a place where others will pay me to direct their work? Or my work? Is it waiting for the (comparatively) small number of postings calling for a director for short plays in festivals and hoping I’ll be accepted based on a resume and reviews from other cities? I can’t expect many established theatres, if any, to be open to a relative unknown waltzing in to say ‘trust me with your entire production budget for a show,’ so if one is focusing on doing others’ work, how will you, in these cases, have the chance to advance yourself to be able to do that? This is not to criticize but to ask where in your thoughts these sorts of paths can exist, as I’m genuinely curious. I really do appreciate the idea of fewer productions, better productions, but how does that translate into building a career path for oneself to get to the point of doing the work you want to do? We don’t put ourselves through hell to mount a production on our own, doing jobs we don’t want to do and risking our financial safety because it’s fun and that’s how we want to live. Or at least I don’t. I do it because it means I get to do a show instead of doing nothing. Because I have something I want to share with an audience, with other individuals, and there’s an urgency and a beauty to that and how else can I do this? Because if someone who is lucky enough to be in a position to hire others to do a show may see it and see proof of my ability beyond a resume or a review and want to hire me. Because what other steps are there to help you cross that aching chasm between starting out to established to being able to share those things you want to share in the way you would love to share them?

    On another note, those figures that are quoted strike me as odd. It seems that either Syme is leaving out different types of funding that get awarded or something else is being missed. Smaller grants are given, too, than what he quotes (I was lucky enough to direct a play with an Arts Council grant that was certainly less than £40,000). So, if Arts Council funding is to fewer companies in London than in Toronto, as these numbers suggest, I’m trying to reconcile that with the sheer amount of theatre and opportunity in London, as there is certainly more. So, how do those companies do it? Is there a stream of funding he’s overlooked? London does have a tonne of small venues (~50 seats), including pub theatres, so is it a matter that they have more affordable venues? Or venues that are more willing to enter into cost-sharing agreements? Or just that because more people see theatre, you can risk more of a chance of a cost-share so funding isn’t needed as often? But I do hear the same stories of small houses in many instances. I also saw more opportunities being advertised beyond just acting roles (i.e. calls for directors, designers, technicians) so where are those coming from if funding goes to fewer companies? (Though perhaps those may exist here but Toronto seems to lack a similar sort of central notice board that’s commonly and popularly used for these things or I haven’t found it.)

    I guess I have a lot of questions and I want to find these answers and, like you (I think), I’m not necessarily satisfied with the current answers but I don’t quite know how to find a better answer but I want to. I’m glad you’re trying to find your own answer and I hope it works out for you and I would love to hear how it does go for you.

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