How Much is Enough of an Audience?

When talk turns to low show attendance here in Vancouver, inevitably someone in the crowd is going to blame either the ‘Great Outdoors’ or our ‘Natural Beauty’ as the single greatest enemy in our fight to fill seats. This weekend’s long-awaited approximation of summer to the tune of 30+ degrees certainly put up a good argument in defence of that position. So holding a Saturday matinee at this time of year, and on a long weekend to boot, was some pretty ambitious and optimistic scheduling. Nevertheless, one local indie company did just that, and apparently the turnout wasn’t all that epic. It was, however, apparently just enough.

Now, I myself did not go to the play in question, although I have been meaning to; its reviews have been pretty solid, I love the work and its one of the first plays I ever did as a young actor. I couldn’t make this matinee because I had to work (although, truth be told, I would probably have been at the beach anyway). The night bartender that relieved me did see it however – this guy would pass up front row tickets to the Rapture for a half decent play – and he told me all about it, as he is wont to do. But what really interested me was how he launched his tale of the tape, indulge me as I share that shift change-over conversation…

As my relief tells it, he was the reason the play went on this particular afternoon. “?”, says I. “Well, they said they weren’t going to go up unless they had at least four people in the audience, and I was number four”. I pressed him as to whether the person dealing with the box office might have been kidding. “No, there were three people waiting in the foyer that couldn’t buy tickets until I’d bought mine. They looked pretty happy when I showed up. It was a little feeling of power, really.” (He’s Welsh.) So, as the play was a three-hander, we can assume that someone involved with the production had decreed that they would not take the stage until there were more people in the house than there were on the stage. My bartender was their tipping point.

I’m completely flummoxed by this. Is this an old theatre custom that I’m unaware of? Are there financial considerations here that are beyond my grasp? Surely if you advertise a product and even one person goes out of their way to take you up on your offer you have a responsibility to give them their time and their money’s worth. Are we at a stage in our evolution as entrepreneurs that we can be enforcing mandatory minimums of our clientele? Or is it unfair to the performers to have to play to a crowd numbering less than their own? What do you guys think?

Updated: Rebecca at Terroristic Optimism responds with her thoughts, and a proclamation to her own company on the subject.

On the Difference Between a Critic and a Reviewer

Terrific article by Chris Dupuis over at his newly re-christened site Time and Space, in which he offers a modest proposal for a new model of responsibility for our critics. It’s a great contexualization of the actual job, and the post itself follows the very guidelines that he propounds within it.

Chris puts some responsibility back on the artists as well, which struck a real chord for me. He suggests that we should be taking greater initiative in engaging with the critics that we invite to our shows, and beginning the dialogue with them even before the start of the run.

Rather than hate the reviewers, try to work with them by providing them with as much information as possible about your work and the context in which you are working, assuming they haven’t gone to the trouble to do this themselves.

If this kind of effort continues to be made towards the delibration of the art amongst the practitioners ourselves and with the invested critics, it just might compel a new benchmark for the tradition of arts critisicm and discussion in Canada. Great stuff. Click here to read the full essay.

The Art of the Business Part 6: Managing your Flow…

For a downloadable or streaming audio podcast of this article, click here.

A bunch of years ago, when Julia Cameron first published her book The Artist’s Way, I, like most other artists I knew, went out and bought a copy, and started working my way through it. I loved it; I was doing my exercises, my morning pages, my artist dates. And then I came to Chapter 6, and hit the wall. It took me seven months to get through “Recovering a Sense of Abundance.” Why? It was a chapter on money.

In a previous column, I talked about putting a value on your work. Sometimes, as artists, that’s hard to do—there is tons of competition out there, first off, always someone who’s willing to sell their stuff at a lower price to get the sale. Also, there is a kind of attitude in the world that, because we as artists get intrinsic value from our work, we don’t need to be compensated financially. Plus, it’s boring. And administrative. And not creative. Add to that the whole romantic notion of “the starving artist” (Moulin Rouge, anyone?), and no wonder we are often a mess when it comes to matters of money.

But if you want to feel like a professional and have others perceive you as such, you need to take some control of your cash flow. This month’s column is dedicated to some tips about just that.

1. You are a small business. If you are selling CDs, paintings, or working as a Production Assistant on a movie, you are self-employed. What that means is, your income taxes and CPP (Canada Pension Plan) payments don’t come off your cheque. If you bill the client for $1000, they give you a cheque (hopefully!) for $1000. It’s your responsibility to pay the taxes on that income. However, as a small business, you also get certain tax breaks (yay!—more on that later).

2. Set yourself up a separate bank account for your business transactions. Go for a credit union as opposed to one of the bigger banks, they will charge you less fees. Funnel all your business expenses and income though that account.

3. Taxes. It’s a good idea to take 20-25% of everything you earn and put it in a separate account from your regular business account. This money is earmarked for income taxes at the end of the year.

4. GST (Goods and Services Tax—5%): In Canada, you can make up to $30,000 in one year from your self-employment without having to charge your clients GST. However, once you hit that mark, you have to start. You can get a GST number from the Canada Revenue Agency. Many small businesses like to charge GST, despite the fact that they may not be at the $30,000 mark yet, and despite the added administration work of figuring it out (you get to write off all the GST you spend on your business), because it gives them the impression of being bigger than they are. You know, fake it till you make $30,000.

5. Set up a System Part 1. You can buy a small business software package like Simply Accounting or Quickbooks, or you can just use an Excel spreadsheet to track your income each month. You need to know two things: how much you have billed in any month (meaning, you send the invoices, but are still waiting for payment, like they owe you credit) and how much actual income you had that month (when people actually paid you and you cashed the cheque. Again, yay!). This spreadsheet, which shows both your income and expenses each month, is called a Cash Flow Statement. The goal is to keep it in the black, although this doesn’t always happen!

6. Expenses: When you go to file your income tax return at the end of the year, you can write off any expenses that are related to the cost of your doing business. For example, as an actor, you can write off headshots, acting classes, postage for mailing submissions, office supplies, books/plays, Casting Workbook, and even a portion of your rent, telephone, internet and car expenses. The list is extensive. Talk to someone at your local union office, or CARFAC (Canadian Artists Representation) if you are a visual artist, and they will often have a comprehensive list.

7. Set up a System Part 2: Part 1 was about tracking income, Part 2 is about tracking expenses. It is imperative to save your receipts for anything you think might be a business expense. Write on the receipt what it is related to, if it’s not obvious. Then clean out your wallet once a week or so, and dump all the receipts into a shoebox or a container someplace accessable. Once a month, go through the receipts, and enter them into your spreadsheet. You may want to break the spreadsheet down into categories, like Transportation, Meals & Entertainment, Books, Marketing, Bank Fees, etc. If you have a lot of expenses, you may need to do this more often than once a month.

8. Hire a professional. If you are totally lost with this stuff, or you are in a place where it is getting to be too much for you to handle yourself, you might want to hire a professional. An accountant can actually save you money, because they may know of hidden deductions that you were unaware of. A professional organizer can help you to create a system for your paperwork and for your computer.

Okay, so I’ll be the first to admit that all this talk of Cash Flow Statements and taxes and accounting is not the sexiest or most exciting topic in the world. However, getting a handle on your finances and setting up systems to deal with money can actually take a great deal of stress off, because you know exactly where you are financially, all the time. And that allows you more time to be creative, and to make a living at what you love to do. How awesome is that?

Finally, I’d like to give a plug to the Prosperous Artists blog and podcast. Dean and Rosh are based out of Michigan, and they have fantastic tips for the business side of being an artist. Coincidentally, the topic of their most current podcast is also cash flow.

So, until next time, here’s to bums in seats everywhere…

Rebecca is a contributing columnist and founder of Titania Productions, a Vancouver Marketing and Public Relations Company.

Praxis Service Announcement

Dear Gentle Reader:

We’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for taking the time to stop by and visit the site. Readership has been steadily increasing for the last little while, and the number of you that are checking us out regularly is both humbling and exciting. We are most appreciative and would welcome any comments or feedback on the site and what you’d like to see more (or less) of in the future.

And if you like what you encounter down here at The ol’ Next Stage, may I modestly suggest stopping by the sites of some other good Canadian folk blogging away across the country, working hard to stimulate good conversation on the progressive world of theatre.

Praxis Theatre’s resident marketing guru Ian Mackenzie (know in the Canadian quadrant of the theatrosphere as the “Blogfather”) has, after exhaustive research, compiled a comprehensive list of Great White Northern theatre blogs on his site Theatre is Territory. Have a stroll around the list and hey, if you’re in any way inspired to start a theatre blog of your own, there’s lots of room in the pool…

Someday – and that day may never come – I will call upon you to do an interview for me…

This One Goes to Eleven: Peter Boychuk

Meet Peter Boychuk: Man of Many Hats. A young published playwright with a number of regional awards under his belt already, a Studio 58-trained actor who has performed on stages across Canada, and by turns director and dramaturg of mainly new works. And for his day job: arts administrator. Peter is the Director of Communications for the Alliance for Arts and Culture.

Our thanks to Peter for trying on our interviewee hat for eleven questions.

1. In one word, describe your present condition.

Primed.

2. Removing restrictions on word count, describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.

I trained in Vancouver, left for seven years, then moved back simply because I wanted to, so my perspective is not unlike that of someone who has just got back together with their ex. Lots of “this is different” mixed with “whatever happened to” but all topped with “why did I ever leave?” What’s fantastic is how well small companies like the Electric Company and neworld and Solo Collective have prospered. When I left, they were indie companies just starting out. Now they are the darlings of the Vancouver cultural scene, and have been instrumental in creating leading edge initiatives like See Seven and Hive.

3. Why is theatre important?

I find it interesting how often I ask myself this, or how often the theatre community asks this of itself. Why are we so preoccupied with whether what we do matters? I think it’s largely because – let’s face it – theatre is not a money-making enterprise, so in order to justify our existence to funders and audiences we tie ourselves in knots trying to justify our work. Theatre is important to me because many of the best moments of my life have been spent either making or viewing theatre. Full stop. I don’t think theatre is going to change the world and I don’t think watching a play makes me smarter and I don’t think people who go to theatre are better than other people. I just like it. And I think it’s important because it has had such a profound impact on my life and personal happiness.

4. What is it about playwrighting as a discipline that compels you?

The amazing opportunity to tell the kind of stories I want to tell the way I want to tell them, the thrill of seeing them made manifest by talented people, and the rush of sitting with an audience and watching them respond immediately to what we’ve created.

5. How important is a historical grounding in theatre to creating it?

It’s imperative, I think. It’s like the old adage: you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. However, that being said, I think the only real way to learn about theatre by doing it, be it at a community, professional or student level.

6. Stage directions: friend or foe?

My relationship with stage directions has evolved a great deal since I started writing. Unlike most writers, stage directions in my first plays were extremely scant (George enters. George kills Doug. Exit George.). My background was as an actor, so it didn’t seem to make sense to put a lot of energy into writing lyrical stage directions because no one was going to follow them anyway. When I was going to Studio 58, a common practice was to take a black marker and ink out everything that wasn’t a spoken line. It wasn’t until I started directing that I could see the benefits in stage directions again. I realized that, even if you don’t follow them, they can tell you a lot about the playwright’s intentions, and that knowledge is crucial to directing a piece well. So these days I like to have more fun with stage directions. I try to compose them in a way that fits with the tone of the scene. If the scene is funny, I try and make them funny. If the scene is bleak, they tend to be quite sparse.

7. What kinds of theatre would you like to see more of on our stages?

New plays. Which is the answer you would expect from a playwright, but there you go. I think it’s extremely unfortunate that we concentrate so much of our time, resources, and energy in this country on reinterpreting the classics. What are the two largest national theatre institutions? Stratford and Shaw. How do most of the regional theatres program their seasons? The latest Pulitzer prize-winning play followed by a big splashy (usually American) musical followed by one of the canon followed by a Special Holiday Presentation of Christmas Carol and/or Peter Pan, followed by… To their credit, the regionals usually throw something homegrown into the mix, often with the proviso that it be a two-hander or something with low production values because new plays usually don’t perform very well financially. But given that Joe Playwright’s new work is sandwiched between Romeo & Juliet and Miss Julie – plays so timeless that we study them in school, is it any wonder that it doesn’t perform well? Who can compete with that? (“Don’t worry Joe, so long as your play outperforms Hamlet, we’ll produce your next piece…”).

Now don’t get me wrong, I worship Shakespeare and Shaw, Scrooge is an important part of my Christmas, and the scripts for Proof, Doubt, and Frost/Nixon all knocked my socks off. But the sad fact is that theatre in this country simply does not exist without subsidy (Stratford receives almost a million dollars a year from the Canada Council alone), so why are we spending all of our money producing the work of writers from other countries, many of whom have been dead for hundreds of years? Taxpayers would think it was ludicrous if we started subsidizing The Gap. So why do we do it with theatre? The most common complaint about new work I’ve heard is that it doesn’t tend to be very good. And as someone who has seen a lot of new work, I think there’s some truth to that. But the only way that new work will get better is if we throw some resources at it. You don’t strike gold without mining hundreds of tons of rock. The theatre company I was just with programmed an entire season of new work, and you know what? Most of the shows had better than average box office returns. We have to develop a culture of new work in theatre. The film industry doesn’t have to convince their audiences to take a chance on an original script, so why do we? End of rant.

8. What do we as theatre artists need to be doing to convince a broader audience to dig on theatre?

Boy, if I knew that, I’d be a rich man, wouldn’t I? I think we need to stop thinking of theatre as something that is good for you. Theatre is entertainment, plain and simple. It needs to be created, produced and packaged as entertainment. And that doesn’t mean it has to be crap. Just look at Shakespeare’s plays. They were crowd-pleasers but they were brilliant. We also need to be playing to our strengths. Instead of whining about the fact that all people do is stay at home and watch CSI on their plasma TV, we need to think of what we have that sets us apart from that experience, and then market that.

9. Do you aspire to any particular theatre-creation model?

Write a good script. Find a fantastic director. Hire the best creative team you can find. Use everyone’s talents to beat the play into the most effective evening of theatre it can be. Repeat.

10. What are your top 3 theatre reads?

Because I think the best way to learn about playwriting is by reading great plays, I’m going to list plays. And because I think Canadian playwrights deserve more attention, I’m going to list three of my favourite Canadian plays.

Age of Arousal by Linda Griffith

Suburban Motel by George F. Walker (this is kind of cheating, because it’s actually six plays)

The Drawer Boy by Michael Healey

11. What’s next?

I’m starting up a company devoted to new play development. We will be debuting a pair of exciting new one-act plays on October 8-11, 2008 at the Havana Theatre. Details to come.

Canadian Critical Culture Called into Question

Now first off, I know a lot of you are thinking: “we have a culture of criticism?”. Well, apparently we in fact do, and the UK Guardian’s Andrew Haydon offers as proof the web site of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association. Now I know a lot of you are thinking: “we have a Canadian Theatre Critics Association?” We do, in fact; its headquarters is in Toronto, it has 43 members from across the nation, and a list of seven objectives, the seventh being to “promote a code of ethics for professional critics and their employers”. The code itself is built out of six tenets and exists to ensure that due respect is paid by reviewers to the artists whose work they sit in judgment upon. It is the very existence of this code and Canada’s slavish adherence to it that Mr. Haydon suggests gives Great Britain’s theatre reviewers the critical high ground.

He does concede that several of the CTCA’s rules are in standard practice by theatre reviewers in the UK, and suggests that these articles are just plain common sense, which they indeed are. The crucial difference, according to the article, is that over in Blighty these rules aren’t actually written down anywhere, which relieves them of institutional oppression; and thus British theatre critics are, unlike we strictly constrained Canucks, able to choose to follow their common sense or not, free from the yoke of any sort of tyrannical critical legislation. This, then, will render a “more adult state of affairs if criticism is a negotiation between grown-ups rather than a set of rules that ultimately leaves artist and public alike wondering what the critic really wanted to say”. Take that Colin Thomas, member of the CTCA!

“The Canadians” critique objectively. The British critique subjectively. Excuse me, “completely subjectively”. So there. Allrighty then. But regardless of the outsized brush with which Mr. Haydon paints the critical community of our little nation, the point of the article is well taken: critics are answerable to their readership. And now that anyone with access to a computer connected to these here internets can publicly announce their opinion on last night’s play there is increased pressure on the professionals to remain just that, professional. And if criticism is your vocation of choice you shouldn’t have to be told by anyone else but your readership and your own conscience what’s fair and unfair. But really what it all comes down to is that malevolent or ill-informed reviewers tend to inevitably fall out of orbit under the sheer weight of their own disagreeability anyway, whether they hold a membership card to a non-profit critics coffee klatch or to Costco. But that’s just my opinion, eh?

Your City and You: When Ambitions Collide

What influence does your city have on you as an artist? And I’m not talking about the personal components that make up your particular chunk of the city; your friends and teachers and peers and whatnot, I mean the city as a unique entity, with a personality and a look and ambitions all its own, set within the context of its own community; its country, and then the larger one of the planet. Vancouver actor and Next Stage reader Miranda Duffy sent me a terrific essay by Paul Graham, and it’s a great read, hop on over and read it now if you have a few minutes, then hop back and we’ll talk about it. I want to ask you a couple of questions.

Interlude.

Welcome back. So, what’d you think? I found it to be tremendous food for thought, and it got me to thinking – about how we define ourselves as a city, and especially about how we go about selling our theatre to each other. How should we direct our choice of material and our marketing as we move forward, in order to tap into what it is that the city at large wants to be?

Allow me to pass on Miranda’s query:

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts, if any, and/or those of your readership, on what you think Vancouver’s ambition is; and if there is a way for us as creators to connect to that ambition. Maybe growing our audiences/raising our collective profile is less about finding dollars for conventional advertising, but somehow something more intangible, like plugging into that ambition, whatever it is, and articulating our responses to it through our work? And thereby “nourishing” a city in a way it couldn’t have articulated its need for such nourishment?

…plugging into that ambition, whatever it is, and articulating our responses to it through our work.” This to me is a tremendously exciting perspective to consider. I do understand, however, that there is an army of theatre artists out there that will decry this as a philosophy that interferes with their process, that as an artist they have an inalienable right to put forth whatever they damn well please, simply because it speaks to them, and to their experience. And that’s an argument I can’t really disagree with, after all, they are themselves a part of this community, and as such what speaks to them is a valid point of art, and should be expressed to whomever would hear them. But I think that in the interests of longevity there is value in considering (just for a moment, maybe a little longer), what it is that the rest of the city – the potential audience – might respond to.

Out of Mr. Graham’s list of city ambitions, these are the ones that, in my opinion and my own order, speak to my home town of Vancouver: hipness, quality of life, wealth, physical attractiveness, style and, to some extent, fame. How do you mainline your theatre marketing into that? Again, these are not necessarily defining qualities of all members of the population (certainly not us theatre types, n’est pas?), just the actively ambitious ones; those who play the largest part in establishing the overarching ambition of the city. They may not define a gestalt, per se, but they certainly play the biggest part in the economic drive and media-magnified growth that we are currently undergoing. There is no doubt that we are heading relentlessly towards a cultural water-mark of some kind, how badly do we want theatre to be a part of that? And can we even go so far as to call that ambition a responsibility? I mean, what’s the point in challenging the status quo through your art if the people you want to challenge never even know, or for that matter care, that you even exist?

Miranda hit the nail on the head. Just because a culture is unaware of the nourishment an art form can provide doesn’t mean it doesn’t want it or, dare I say, need it. We’re the artists, we’re supposed to get it. And then we’re supposed to give it, to the people that need it the most. Who in this case refers to the young urbanites here that are targeted by the American TV and film (that our own popular media seems to think is the bible of all things hip), but who are sharp enough and cagey enough to want to be challenged, emotionally and intellectually, by their entertainment, yet are too busy to do the work required to get out and hunt down the elusive independent artist. Which means we have to become better salespeople. Because there’s more at stake than just the current box office returns and your latest review. There’s a city that needs its cultural growth bolstered to catch up with its economic growth. Art should be on par with commerce in a healthy and thriving city, and to achieve that parity – to even come close to it – we have to put our shoulders behind our own ambition if we want to stake a claim in the ambition of the city as a whole.

So what do you think about the questions Miranda poses? What is it that your city wants to be? And is there a different model for establishing ourselves in the untapped market that exists within it?