Looking ahead to 2010: fired up and ready to go

Greetings and Salutations, gentle reader, a most Happy New Year to you, one and all. May 2010 be a year of renewal and growth, and prosperity. Nowhere to go but up, right?

2009 will surely be remembered as the year we were forced to defend ourselves as contributing citizens by our own government. Which made us furious (but not quite to the point of pitchforks and torches), but also forced us to take a good, hard look at our systems and infrastructure, and begin a real dialogue on the future of our industry. And the future of the companies that comprise it. It was the year that we truly came together as a tribe, albeit a tribe under siege. No change without crisis, as they say. 2010 will be a year of big decisions, no doubt about it. What’s next? Where do we go from here?

I guess the answer to this question has much to do with where you sit on the tree of the arts industry in BC. Some of us are in immediate danger. Some of us have been hit more obliquely. My work, for example, is self-produced and has never received the benefit of government funding. I’m personally more interested in establishing a small-business, entrepreneurial style of production. My work hasn’t been directly affected by the cuts at all. But the work of many of the companies that I love and rely on as part of my ecosystem have been, so that alone makes it my problem. And if that’s not enough, the cuts are nothing if not a barefaced declaration by the Liberals that the work I do and the industry that I am helping to build is meaningless. Inconsequential. A luxury.

I am sick to the teeth of defending Art as ‘necessary’. I’m so over it. I’m just going to keep making it and experiencing it. But I’ll quite happily keep telling my government that they need to get over it too, at least until our arts sector is raised back to the level of respect enjoyed by the rest of the country. So that’s on the 2010 to-do list.

What else does the coming year hold? For me there’s the matter of what to do with this here blog. It’s been going for a while, and it’s been received well by my city and industry, I think, and I hope it has provided a source of some discussion. Last year, 77 productions took advantage of my free Video Listing service here, which saw all of them accountably telling their potential audience why they felt we should spend our time and money on them. For that I am proud of them all, and grateful for their generosity and support. We’re getting much more savvy as businesspeople, and as marketers. I’m hoping this year will see great leaps forward in this regard, and in our dialogue as a community here on the net.

I’ve been talking about this with Mike and some others here recently, and basically getting down on my knees and begging theatre artists across Canada to engage more online. The great thing about that discussion is that it has brought back into focus how important I feel it is for us to commune together on a regular basis and share ideas and resources, debate, promote and all in all be a more informed and connected industry. (Thanks for that Mike.) To that end I am re-committing to The Next Stage and to my own blogging, I invite you to join me – here, or at your own sites this year. The theatrosphere has been incredibly vibrant of late, the conversation out here has been as healthy and progressive as it’s ever been, actually, and it’s proving a deep well of inspiration. (We’ll be taking a tour in the next post, it’s some great stuff.) It just needs more Canada. We need more of each other. Our audience needs more of us. Here’s to a kick-ass 2010 everyone, I can’t wait to hear about how you’re all doing.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user macastat

Blog this, Canada! A theatrospherical State of the Union – Round 3

This is the continuation of a conversation on the Canadian theatrosphere started by Michael Wheeler from Praxis Theatre in Toronto. Read Round 1 here, Round 2 here, and Round 2.5: a Kris Joseph Intermezzo here.

It always amazes me that the people who should be pioneers in this new media landscape are the ones bashing it.

Each tool should be thought of as an extension of the work. Not a replacement for it. It’s a chance to extend the story and allow people an entry point.

Each of these tools offers the opportunity to put control in the hands of the artists. Maybe that’s the scary part.

Then if it fails, who’s to blame?

It’s easier to complain about the way the things are.

Perhaps harder to forge new ground. But I seem to remember the best moments onstage coming from embracing the fear.

If the storytellers don’t take advantage of this now. I fear they’ll get left behind wondering where it all went wrong.

That’s not good.

Posts like this are uplifting. It boils down to sharing the work.

Then people get excited about it. They share it.

That’s good.

Indie Artist Marketing Strategist Dave Charest, from the comments section of Round 2.5

I now know an enormous amount about theatre and what it means to be a theatre artist that I owe directly to my time spent out on the theatrosphere. It has provided an education that could fill a book (hmm…), never mind a blog post or two. I have a head full of practical theory that I am quite sure is taught in no academic theatre program in North America. Effective marketing. Resource management. Inclusive audience building. Critical perspective and perspective on the critics. Fundamental responsibility to the community. Diversity consideration. Creative fundraising. Nightly audience care. Cost vs. component. Realism vs. theatricality. (I could go on. And on.) Chapters all, and the book is continuously being written, post by post by comment by response. The blogosphere is nothing short of a revolution in resource accessibility, all that is required to navigate it is an open mind and the ability to parse opinion. I am incredulous as to why its growth here in Canada continues at a snail’s pace.

Does our theatre not want to evolve? Is it so bound up in the traditions and forms of the past that it feels its future has already been bought and guaranteed? Or worse, unconsidered? And in the face of evaporating funding and audiences? If there is an art form with a more blinkered sense of entitlement I can’t imagine what it could be. We need to unite as a progressive industry and nurture the neophytes or remain hobbyists, largely ignored by our communities. We need to ask each other for help. We need to make our proudly held opinions available to each other. We’re too quiet, we need to get loud. The internet is a mighty big megaphone.

I make such a pointed sales pitch for the theatrosphere here for a specific reason; to address the number one, all time, top reason I keep hearing from my peers for not becoming part of the conversation on-line. It isn’t that most theatreists don’t get it, or that they’re timid, or they think those of us that do it are weird. The top reason for the industry’s reluctance to blog is that they’re concerned about the time factor. That they don’t even have time to deal with the myriad of tasks that already sit on their plate. So the biggest roadblock standing in the way of a true ongoing national forum on theatre is the one thing that everyone on the planet – especially those running businesses – can get better at: time management. All I can say to that is this: as the forces aligning against us continue to strengthen, as funding diminishes and entertainment options grow, the everyone-for-themselves school of theatre business is no longer viable. Being a part of the discussion is no longer optional. You can do it. You need to do it. Theatre needs you to do it, it’s vital that we have a bigger virtual room in which we can strategize, disagree and share stuff, a space that we can ask for and offer assistance in. I say this from the perspective of a guy who has been immersed in it long enough to be able to report back on the power and effectiveness of the theatrosphere, someone who has no other agenda but to live to see nothing less than a rebirth of the particular brand of storytelling that he loves, and profit for its practitioners.

I am done bitching in bars. I am pushing my stakes on the table publicly, here and now, and I encourage my colleagues in theatre to do the same. Our stock-in-trade is dialogue. Let’s employ its power to discover the way forward towards a world class theatre in Seattle.

Paul Mullin’s introduction to his brand new blog Just Wrought

So here’s what I’m suggesting: open yourself a blog account. Choose a cool template. Start your first post by answering the question “what is the current state of my theatre industry?”. You’ll be amazed at what that will make you want to write about later. Then start a feed reader account and subscribe to some great theatre blogs to read over your morning coffee. (The sidebar on the right is a good place to start exploring.) And when you read something that resonates, comment on it, or even better, write about it and link to it. And keep writing about the stuff that moves you, that frustrates the hell out of you, that makes you crazy, people will find you and respond to you when you talk to them, I guarantee it. Reorganize your schedule so you have about 2 hours a week to spend on your blog and give it a shot, and start meeting other theatre types. You might be surprised at how thrilling connecting with people with like minds and problems can be. If you hate it, stop, by all means. But please go into the party with an open mind and carve out your own corner with your own voice.

I’m confident that once it’s proven its worth to you and your organization you’ll want to increase your social media presence. You can expand your reach and influence literally as far as you can imagine. In an ideal world, as Mike suggests in the last round of comments, our companies will have someone on staff to handle the social media/marketing of our brand and vision (Some of us already do), so that the directors can direct and the actors can act. We must move our process out of its little dark rooms and into the world where it can be seen, felt and explored. There is no time left for individualism in the selling of theatre art, we simply have too much work ahead of us. So please, open up and let us in.

Blog this, Canada: a theatrospherical State of the Union – Kris Joseph Intermezzo

I’ll be posting the next round of the cross-country back-and-forth between us and Praxis Theatre soon, for now there’s a comment on the last entry left by Ottawa actor/blogger/bon vivante Kris Joseph that demands its own post. Because it manages to be hilarious and bang-on topic simultaneously.

For you consideration:

I certainly don’t mean to imply that having staff to support the activity of a theatre company has no value — certainly not, and I can bend your ear with great stories of how my new-media-exploits on my current contract are being supported and facilitated by staff people. I do think the “silo” approach to theatre is inefficient, though. But that’s a little off-topic, so I’ll just point you at one of Chad Bauman’s great blog posts on the subject, here: http://arts-marketing.blogspot.com/2009/09/problem-of-silos.html

I think there’s great value in referring back to Simon’s metaphor of the theatrosphere as a ongoing cocktail party. Right now there are a growing number of people who’ve heard there’s a cocktail party going on. “Some cool people are there,” they think, “and cocktail parties seem like a really good idea. But I have to be up early in the morning, and I’m really not sure what I want to get OUT of the cocktail party, so maybe this isn’t the right time. It’s not the kind of cocktail party I like, anyway — the music is loud, and let’s be honest: I prefer the kind of party where everyone is sitting politely in the dark with their cell-phones off watching important people play charades and reflecting on how awesome the experience is. Besides, I think it’s really important that we have a vision for what OUR Cocktail Party Experience should be before we go rushing off to just any old party. Is this party using industry-proven Best Party Practices? Because unless I can prove to my friends that I met at least Six Valuable People, which is a Clearly-Defined Goal for my Planned Party-Going Experience, the whole thing will be a waste of my time! And if I DO go, we’ll have to have a Party Post-Mortem tomorrow to figure out if the party was a good idea, and whether or not we should go to the next one.” Well… in the meantime, the party’s going on without those people. And the people AT the party are meeting other people, sometimes connecting and MANY times not connecting. Success ISN’T guaranteed — life sucks that way — but you have to be present, at least, to get any benefit.

So COME ON, people. Just put on a clean shirt and GO TO THE PARTY. Leave yourself open to who you might meet and what you might talk about once you’re there. You can test the waters by DOING, or you can plan too much, and miss the party altogether. I don’t care how much I get teased for it: snapping a quick pic and tweeting a caption only takes a few seconds, and costs nothing. MAYBE nobody will like it. Maybe everybody will. I may be sick of rehearsing Scene Four for 30 hours, but to somebody who never rehearses anything (read: someone who normally doesn’t ATTEND THEATRE), this could be cool and interesting stuff they’ve never heard before. Or maybe the ONE person who has a wig fitting fetish and loves my twitpic is also a patron, or a media person, or a philanthropist, or a historian, or a playwright, and that person responds, which starts a relationship that can bear an infinite variety of fruit over time.

ARTISTS, I firmly believe, need to start looking at this stuff with the same level of priority they give to things like keeping their resume up-to-date and keeping on top of audition postings and agent relationships. It’s a critical part of the business and, Manda, your job will get EASIER once you have artists around you who come to YOU and say “how can I help?”. Right now, the average theatre artists’ response to technology like this is like the marketing director asking for cast headshots and hearing “oh, I don’t HAVE one of those. Is that important?” in response.

And I want to talk about the issue with permissions, as well, because it is a constant source of frustration for me. We live in a world where average, normal people are using these tools ALL THE TIME: my neighbours have their own channel on YouTube. My buddy updates his Flickr stream constantly. Some kid at MIT has a Twitter account for his FLOWER GARDEN. Students half my age are shooting great-looking and creative videos, using their iPhones, on their weekends. And WE have a bunch of guilds and unions — everyone from Equity to ACTRA to IATSE — reacting in varying degrees with the same kind of outdated, protectionist claptrap that is killing the traditional broadcast and recording industries. They are (back to the metaphor) standing OUTSIDE the cocktail party, peeking in the window between bouts of navel-gazing, fretting about how going to the party will affect their income and the livelihood of old codgers who never liked parties in the first place. The problem definitely lies in their court, but folks who are making headway in this area need to throw that window open, show them the air is fertile rather than toxic, and invite them in.

Sometimes — I’ll freely admit it — I break the rules ON PURPOSE, just to prove that nobody has to go on the dole because I shot a 30-second clip of a lit set. In fact, these things sell tickets; they raise the profile of the work; they connect artists to one another. Hell, sometimes they do NONE of those things — but they DON’T HURT and I challenge anyone to prove otherwise.

One final point, on inundation. Some people get DO annoyed by all the email and Facebook messages. And at that cocktail party — as Simon said — some folks are gentle and wise, and some are obnoxious and crass. There is work to be done in matching content to the right tool, and in terms of style and etiquette, but this comes with learning and experimentation — we can all participate here and learn together. In the early days of the web and email, people did all sorts of silly things, but we learn by doing and by sharing with other people who are doing. For example, I can tweet a pic of a wig fitting, but I dare not spend three hours writing a blog post about it, or an evening editing a video of a wig being put on my head. And NOBODY wants an email newsletter with “SEE A PIC OF MY WIG FITTING!” as a headline.

Some media — like email — is serial: people are expected to read every piece they get. Other media — like Twitter — is parallel: it’s like having 200 channels on my TV; I’m NEVER going to sit down and watch everything that was broadcast on every channel, but my friends tell me what shows they like, and once in a while I get told about something cool that I then choose to track down. Trepidation about getting into some forms of new media is sometimes a belief that the new thing is serial (like THEATRE — the thing we KNOW — AHA!), rather than parallel (the thing we’re afraid of).

Blog this, Canada: a theatrospherical State of the Union

Guest Post by Michael Wheeler of Toronto’s Praxis Theatrefirst in a series…

Simon Ogden and I are thoroughly 21st Century collaborators: I have directed one of Simon’s plays (twice), submitted another of his plays to SummerWorks (unsuccessfully), and we run parallel blogs in Toronto and Vancouver that have collaborated from early in their inception.

Simon and I have never met each other.

When Michael Rubenfeld asked me to write something for Works about “the internet, blogs and everything that’s going on in Canadian theatre” I was psyched, but immediately had misgivings: Why would a printed static document that contained my thoughts and observations be a good way to explore something that people are so interested in because of its ability to be dynamic, interactive and immediate? The solution comes in the form of a new collaboration between two people who have never met each other.

We’re going to have a conversation and we don’t know exactly where it’s going to go. The comments on this post will become a post on Praxis Theatre and the comments on that post will become a post on The Next Stage. In general we’re going to talk about what we’ve seen so far in the Canadian theatrosphere, where we think it’s going to go, and probably most importantly, what people haven’t figured out it can do. We’d like our readers to chime in too if you feel so inspired. Just be aware we reserve the right to print (or not print) your comments in the real world version of this online experiment in stocktaking.

Enough with the preamble!

This week in Toronto, NOW Magazine published its decade in review. Here’s what Jon Kaplan and Glenn Sumi had to say about performing arts and the interweb:

While the digital revolution hasn’t changed theatre much – sure, we can buy tickets online – it’s revolutionized comedy. Brampton’s Russell Peters increased his fan base exponentially thanks largely to social media sites, eventually becoming the first comic ever to sell out the Air Canada Centre. Today’s comics need a viral YouTube video.

What do you think? Have comics harnessed web technologies better than theatre artists? Is the fact that I am using “theatre artist” to describe ourselves part of the problem? Even if comics have used it better, I don’t agree that being able to buy tickets online is the only effect social media has had on theatre.

As blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media gain popularity they’re giving emerging artists a louder voice in terms of promoting both their work and the ideas that they represent. A $3000 publicist is not THE ONLY way to get your message out anymore. People often mistakenly refer to this as “free” marketing, which rests on the assumption that your own time is worth nothing, but it is certainly a new opportunity.

The other thing I think it has done is increase the sense of community that revolves around these tools. It’s easier to feel more of a part of things now: I can go to Daniel MacIvor’s website and see what he’s up to, I can go to the Event Page for a play I’m going to and see who else is going, I can debate the merits of Stephen Harper’s piano playing performance on the Tarragon Theatre Facebook Fan Page, and in general I can put more faces and personalities to names. The notorious “impossible to break into unless you went to NTS” inclusive theatre scene seems to be breaking down in the wake of all this unregulated interactivity

Over to you S.O.

(I have no idea if anyone ever calls you that.)

Selling at the fringes

A new approach to theatre marketing from a Canadian sellout

By guest blogger Ian Mackenzie

I cringe when I hear theatre people say the word “marketing.” It’s like when you hear your grandma say “Facebook” – you know she’s heard of it, but you can be damn sure she’s got no idea how to use it.

I mean, here is a group of otherwise creative and talented people whose best idea for a marketing campaign is printing 1,000 postcards – 500 of which never get handed out. Or email “campaigns” that have the sole effect of guilting friends and family into coming to the show. And have you ever been to a theatre company’s website? Don’t bother. There’s nothing there for you except headshots, vanity copy and half-hearted mission statements.

How bad is theatre marketing? Theatre marketing is so bad it’s not even visible enough to be obnoxious.

There are three good reasons for this dismal state of affairs:

First and foremost is that most independent theatre companies are run by people who are primarily interesting in acting or directing, and those people generally went through acting and directing programs at school. Check out the performance curriculum for one of Canada’s most respected theatre schools, Humber. Lot’s of acting classes. But nothing about marketing or management. Certainly no course called, “Running your own independent theatre company – 101.”

What’s the thinking here? That all these actors are streaming out of these programs into high-paying theatre actor jobs? That ain’t happening. What is happening is that many of these actors and directors are graduating from school and in the absence of decent career opportunities in their fields, they are starting their own independent theatre companies – an undertaking for which they have absolutely no training. It’s a setup.

The second major problem is that artists have allowed themselves to be brainwashed into thinking that business = Walmart; that “business” is somehow fundamentally evil; and that the great artists throughout history existed on some astral plane above personal and professional finance.

And while that works fine while you’re still in school, romanticized notions of penniless playwrights fall apart when it comes time to pull together funding for your next show. So out come the complaints about lack of public funding. About how people don’t care about theatre. About how hard this industry is. About how there’s nowhere to rehearse and lights cost too much.

Here’s something they ought to teach at theatre school: If your business (i.e., your theatre company) doesn’t have enough money to make its product, then your business model is broken and you need to fix it.

Third – independent theatre companies are terrible at communicating their “big idea.” What’s the big idea behind your work? How do you feel about factory farming? HIV in Africa? Prison rape? Racism within families? Heroin? Ghosts? Flowers? Electricity? Cancer? Cotton candy? Blindness?

If you can’t tell me who the enemy is in a single sentence, you have lost my attention, and not even a marketing genius like Seth Godin is going to be able to help you sell me your product. How could he when you haven’t even figured out what it is you have to sell?

I’m not telling you how to be an artist . . . I am the proverbial parrot in the blender, and I see you there with your finger on the “purée” button. Stop. Step away from the blender. Take a deep breath. Let’s rethink this whole thing.

Here’s my three-step plan for independent theatre companies who want to make money and increase their influence:

1) Bring in the specialists.
It takes a team of specialists to run a successful theatre. Here, for example, are the staff positions at one of Toronto’s most successful independent theatre companies:

  • Artistic Director
  • General Manager
  • Administrator
  • Publicity & Marketing Director
  • Director of Development
  • Director of Education & Outreach
  • Literary Manager
  • Assistant to the Artistic Director
  • Outreach & Marketing Associate, Group Sales
  • House & Box Office Manager
  • Production Manager
  • Technical Director
  • Wardrobe Head
  • Props Head
  • Carpentry Head
  • Mainspace Technician
  • Extra Space Technician
  • Building Manager

Maybe your company doesn’t need all these positions filled, but it sure as hell needs some of them. Talk to people outside the actor/director circles and see if you can lure them to the job on the promise that theatre work will feed their soul. You might be surprised how many lawyers and accounts and marketers come running. Seriously. Once you’ve got them, hang on to them by keeping your natural flakiness in check – and let them help you grow your business.

2) Embrace capitalism.
Money is good – if you do good things with it. Business is good – if your business is focused on doing good things. And theatre is a good thing, right? “We need it to see ourselves.” That’s what Daniel MacIvor says.

This is about more than you and your world. Part of the reason capitalism has become such a clusterfuck is because artists have allowed themselves to be nudged out of positions of influence. Capitalism needs empowered artists working from the inside to help guide it. This notion that theatre is not a capitalist pursuit does a disservice to both capitalism and theatre – and by extension humanity and everything else under this sun. Reject this notion. Embrace capitalism. Make money. Build your theatre. It’s our only hope.

3) Know your enemy.
The elevator pitch is not a cliché. Why do you make theatre? Why did you start a theatre company? Why is your work important? What is your work about? Why should I care?

If you haven’t answered these questions clearly in your mind, your independent theatre company is dead in the water. I’m not telling you what the answer should be, just that – if you have any interest in selling your wares – you’d better have an answer.

That’s it. Three steps. Not all theatre companies are guilty of all of these inadequacies. But collectively we’re doing something very wrong. We are allowing ourselves to be pushed to the periphery of our own story. That’s bad. We are not victims. And theatre is not a charity case.

So who the fuck am I? I’m the guy with the $125 watch. I’m the guy with the soul job in theatre. I don’t know anything about acting, or directing. I don’t even know that much about marketing. But I do know bad news when I see it. And theatre marketing? Bad news.

I hope this helps.

Ian Mackenzie is a Toronto-based writer and Director of Marketing for Praxis Theatre.

…any questions?

“The revolution in theatre needs to happen at the business end of the stick: an army of Arts Admin rebels so furious with the injustice of the current creaking theatre apparatus that they lead the march to a new model. A model that empowers artists to ask the kinds of questions we need artists to be asking. And theatre can retake its rightful place as a valued moral compass for the communities it serves.” – Ian Mackenzie

There it is ladies and gentlemen, three sentences that answer any questions you may have regarding how to move ourselves forward. They are lifted from a Theatre is Territory comment thread discussing Praxis Theatre’s 101 Sentences About Theatre series. Please check out the rest of the comment here, Ian’s wisdom on our future is simply essential reading.

This One Goes to Eleven: Ian MacKenzie

Welcome to the inaugural edition of a continuing series on The Next Stage. When I started this blog back in March my intention was to offer a glimpse behind the curtain of a neophyte theatre company mounting its first production, a chronicle of our formative period to hopefully drum up some interest and inspire conversation of a kind that I had been looking for on the craft of stage art today. What I have found since is that there are a lot of people who want to join in that conversation; smart, talented, and passionate people with opinions that deserve to be heard. This interview series, then, is the natural evolution of this site’s objective, and its intention is to motivate even more discourse, debate, and enthusiasm for the contemporary theatre by hosting the ideas of artists devoted to its perpetuation.

The idea for these interviews is one that I borrowed (well, stole, actually). I was thrilled to discover that there are many other theatreists using this medium to communicate ideas, and they taught me a lot about its potential for cultivating a larger community of theatre ideologists. In this regard I owe an immense debt of gratitude to Theatre is Territory, the Praxis Theatre’s blog from Toronto, whose 10 Questions series became an immediate addiction for me and continues to provide illumination on the current state of theatre. It seems only fair that the author of the site and the inspiration for this series be the one to kick things off over here on the West coast edition. Ian MacKenzie is the director of marketing for The Room and a true man of letters.

Ian MacKenzie

1.) In one word, describe your present condition.
Hypoglycemic.

2.) In as many words as you’d like, describe the present condition of Toronto indie theatre.
There’s a tremendous sense of optimism among independent theatre makers in Toronto. Our peer group is starting to win more grants and awards, we’re making better work and securing prestigious internships. At the same time, many of the community’s ideas about theatre are maturing. We’re getting more access to resources. And it looks like we’re finally in a real position to start challenging the status quo. All signs that a new generation of theatre makers is coming in to its own.

One thing seems clear: what worked for the previous generation of theatre makers is not going to work for us. The golden era of Toronto arts funding is over. There’s more competition than ever for consumers’ arts-and-entertainment dollars. And there’s a brave new world at our doorstep that we need to try to make sense of in our work. There’s lots to be done, for sure. But I think people are doing a great job of responding to these challenges.

There’s also a trend toward inter-organizational collaboration. Toronto’s various independent theatre companies are sharing actors, resources, ideas. It feels like we’re listening to one another and developing a model for doing business that is relevant to the realities of our situation.

In terms of arts funding, Toronto is at the bottom of the barrel. (Toronto’s per capita contribution to arts is just $14.64. Compare this to Vancouver’s at $17.71 and San Francisco’s at $86.01.) But, whatever, we’d be fools to let that stop us.

3.) What is the major obstacle in Toronto to the popularization of indie theatre?
A lack of specialization. We’re a group of generalists trying to sell our wares in an economy that privileges specialists. I can see how it happened. Theatre attracts artists – who are, by their nature, creative. We like to make things. So we make our own posters and programs, do our own marketing and PR, produce our own shows, throw fundraisers, do our own makeup and costumes, design our own sets, run our own lighting boards and video projectors . . . and pretty soon there’s no time left to focus on the tasks we were originally trained to do. The work suffers – the shows do poorly – and then we’re back at the beginning again, designing posters for the next show nobody outside the community is going to see. Sometimes it’s easier to do it all yourself than it is to run around finding trained specialists to cover your organization’s basic needs. But this is short-term thinking and it’s no way to run a business.

There is a host of reasons and explanations as to how we got into this predicament. And it’s probably well worth talking about them. But my primary interest is in figuring our way out of it. How do we attract accountants and trained marketers to our industry? Why do we assume that lawyers and producers aren’t interested in working in independent theatre? Have we tried talking to them recently? I think the onus is on us to answer these questions and to reverse our community’s drift toward professional generalization.

When we start to nail every aspect of the production cycle, we will win the full engagement of our communities – and a new legion of spectators and participants will follow.

4.) What is the role of the critics in the proliferation of a theatre movement?
From what I understand, theatre critics are writing for their readers, not the artists whose work they’re critiquing. So as far as theatre artists are concerned, the role of the critic is to market their show. It’s a shame that it’s come to that – and I think it’s become a more adversarial relationship than it needs to be. I hate the idea that the critics are going to make or break your show. It’s a straw man. Make a good show, market it well, and it will matter to you a whole lot less what the critics say.

On the other hand, mainstream theatre critics, generally, could be doing a better job of championing the little guy of independent theatre. We need reviews of our shows, sure, but we also need arts reporters to bring news of our other accomplishments and failures to a wider audience. Some critics do a great job of this. Others seem stuck in an outdated, review-based model of arts reporting.

Ultimately, it’s up to us to generate buzz surrounding our own work. Once we’ve assembled our armies, the critics will have no choice but to react and report back to their readers on the status of our staggering genius.

5.) What do we, as artists, owe to the theatre scene in terms of choice of content?
Art exists to challenge the status quo, I really believe that. So in developing content, art makers need to think about influence, we need to explore new ideas and, I think, the work needs to be guided by a sense of compassion. That’s why we don’t kill kittens on stage. You may be able to make an art argument for it, but it’s simply not a compassionate thing to do. So we find another way to say it.

If we’re challenging the status quo (whatever that means to you) and letting compassion be the tie-breaker on close artistic calls, we’re doing our jobs. It’s a form of pragmatism and I think we owe it to ourselves.

6.) What is the relationship, if any, between TV/film and theatre in Toronto?
That’s a huge question. I don’t have a cohesive answer for it. The production methods of these forms has some overlap, especially for actors. I know theatre actors get paid relatively well for appearing in television commercials. But I’m at a loss to come up with any unifying theories on this right now.

7.) Where will Toronto theatre be five years from now?
In the early bloom of its renaissance.

8.) The blogosphere is a potent new weapon in our battle for patronage. Discuss.
I hope so. Blogs can be an effective way of communicating complicated messages in an easily digestible format. The theatre community has fallen short in terms of really opening up theatre and theatre ideas to the general population. Look at film – everyone’s an armchair film theorist. But people who aren’t regular theatergoers simply don’t have the language to talk or even to think about theatre. This lack of language alienates them from the form. Blogs can deliver theatre language and ideas to a wider audience, which helps improve theatre literacy, generally, which, in turn, makes people more likely to come to our shows and give us their money.

9.) Through your immersion in the blogging community, what do you know about theatre now that you didn’t a year ago?
Pretty much everything. Praxis Theatre’s “10 questions” interview series gives me the opportunity to follow lines of inquiry that I simply did not have the resources (or the inclination, for that matter) to follow previously. So I ask my peers, “Do you think conservative, right-wing politics are somehow fundamentally at odds with the arts?”, for example. And I thank God they have an answer, because if you’d asked me that a year ago, I wouldn’t have had a clue.

Also, reading other theatre blogs has opened me up to whole new worlds of theatre-related discourse. I read about a dozen theatre blogs regularly and probably another dozen intermittently. So, if you detect a note of dogma in the tone of my writing, it’s probably because I’ve absorbed so many new ideas this year – I’ve had to find concrete ways of organizing them in my head.

10.) What are your top three must-reads right now?
I read for a living, so the idea of wading through pages and pages of long-form copy on my spare time doesn’t really turn me on. I do a lot of shorter-form reading online:

I. Scott Walters at his blog Theatre Ideas. He’s a drama professor at the University of North Carolina and one of the first theatre bloggers I came across. I’m a sucker for his professorial tone. Also, I didn’t go to school for theatre, so having access to a good drama professor is a real pleasure and a competitive edge. This quote from one of his recent posts sums up his offering nicely:

“Most theatre artists don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to graze in all kinds of books, and write, and ponder. They’re just trying to keep their heads above water! To my mind, academia ought to be the R&D for the theatre. We should be trying things out, coming up with ideas, documenting performances, and spreading the word about what is new and exciting. And we should be putting this into readable, accessible forms so that the exhausted artist can grasp the ideas easily (as opposed to the jargon and obscurity in academic journals, for instance). To me, blogging is a great way to do that.”

II. David Cote at his blog Histriomastix. It’s become a bit of a theatrosphere cliché to mention David Cote in the same breath as Scott Walters – they’ve publicly traded barbs on numerous occasions. But watching a couple of heavyweight, contemporary theatre thinkers going at it online is a sight of considerable spectacle. Sometimes I feel like Gilligan standing between the Skipper and the Professor while they’re arguing. I’m like, “He’s right. No, he’s right. Oh, you’re right, too.” And then the Skipper hits me with his hat and says they can’t both be right.

David Cote is a theatre critic at Time Out New York. His writing has a directness to it that has had a big effect on my own writing. I, like many young writers, started out with an abundance of confidence and a scarcity of skill. As the years passed – and I grew to more appreciate the challenges of being a good writer – my confidence waned, and the hollow tones of apologetic diplomacy crept in to my voice: “Here’s an idea, you know, but it’s not the final idea – I mean we could change it if you want.” Cote inspires me to reconnect with directness – and maybe to shelve the diplomacy every once in a while. His ideas about theatre are presented with clear-minded insight, creative flare and a sometimes-brutal honesty.

He’s also a question-heavy writer – “Where’s the political theatre?” – a trope I’ve shamelessly adapted for my own writer’s toolbox. Because, you know, questions are the answer.

I had the pleasure of interviewing both Walters and Cote recently, and in both cases, I was blown away by their generosity (of time and ideas), facility with language, and passion for theatre.

III. The letters section of my local arts weekly, Now Magazine. I don’t laugh much, but sometimes letters to the editor just make me howl. People are so clever!

11.) What’s next?
An aggressive campaign of compassionate localism. Whatever your battles are – the appalling practice of factory farming animals, declining theatre attendance, global warming, tasteless oranges – chances are they have something to do with the 20th century’s unprecedented centralization of power.

The debate between capitalism and communism is over. Capitalism won. The great political argument of our time is between centralization and decentralization – global and local, if you like (that’s John Livingston). This, incidentally, is why theatre is poised for its renaissance: It has a natural resistance to commodification, which prevented it from being centralized in the first place. (Unless, that is, you follow the argument that film is the natural evolution of theatre, in which case theatre has been successfully commodified and practitioners of its traditional methods are doomed.) So theatre, in many of its forms, remains a remarkably local pursuit.

I’m optimistic that theatre can be a major player in unifying communities and asserting a localist agenda in which average artists are recognized with fair compensation for their contributions to the local economy and the greater good.

So what’s next? We all need to step up, start buying locally manufactured goods when possible, stop commuting so much, stop letting geo-political borders determine our levels of compassion and engagement, and commit to making our communities as local as they can effectively be. It doesn’t mean turning our backs on the benefits of globalization, just making sure we fight tooth and nail in pursuit of the greater good.