Toronto Theatre – Is it just a bunch of friends playing together?

By Megan Mooney

So, it’s no secret that I wish theatre could reach a wider audience.  In fact, that’s some of what prompted me to start this blog.  Of course, it has no doubt become just another place where people already involved in theatre come, I’m not that delusional…  In fact, if I were being honest with myself, I’d have to note that really, this whole post assumes people know about the Toronto Theatre scene.  But we can just ignore that for now…

I know people who are not involved in theatre who feel like they can’t go to shows other than mega shows.  They aren’t comfortable going to a place like Theatre Passe Muraille, or Factory Theatre, or Buddies and so on and so on.  They can make their way to a Mirvish production, but at $70 a ticket, it’s a once a year at most endeavour.  Stratford and Shaw, sure they’ll go there, but usually that’s not even once a year, given that for most people it’s a day trip.  Well, unless you live in Stratford or Niagara-on-the-Lake I guess.

Anyway, the bottom line is that people tend to feel self-conscious in smaller theatres.  I remember one person telling me that they didn’t know enough about theatre to go to a show at a place like Theatre Passe Muraille.  It confused the hell out of me.  I asked what they meant and they said that they were afraid they’d feel dumb and wouldn’t understand the show.

I explained that experience and education in theatre doesn’t suddenly give you a free ‘I get it’ pass.  All it does is possibly give you different ways to look at it.  Different experiences to draw from, to provide context.  It certainly doesn’t mean that a theatre person’s experience of the piece is any more valid than that of someone who isn’t as familiar with theatre, or heck, even someone who has never seen a piece of theatre before this one.  And trust me, from a personal perspective, let me tell you that just because you have training and experience in theatre, it doesn’t for a second mean that you never leave a theatre baffled.  Trust me, I am often baffled.  A piece is just what you make of it.  Someone might sneer at you if you tell them that CATS is your all-time favourite theatre piece, but fuck ’em.  Let them  sneer.  The hope is just that you have decided that CATS is your all time favourite because you’ve seen other things, in a variety of types of theatres, and that’s the one that you connected with.  Plus, just ’cause it’s your favourite, doesn’t mean you’re not going to like a good production of The Drawer Boy too.

So, what brings on this semi-rant?  Well, as I mentioned in my last post, there is much drama in the Toronto theatre community over some Summerworks promotional videos, and there was a very very very interesting comment that I read today.

Marshall writes:

I guess this one made me smile… ?

And I see that these clips are getting people to talk about the festival… which is good… ?

I do have to say though. I have come to a few summerworks shows over the years and feel like I am an outsider at someone else’s party. This is inevitable at any festival; friends greeting friends after a show well done (or not so much), etc.

These clips however make me feel even more removed as a general public audience member. Playwright pillow fights, and what looks like a group of old Frat Boys participating in an improv “inside joke” (with uninteresting meaning that doesn’t connect with anything that impacts my life) doesn’t bring me to understand the world of the festival or my experience as an audience member who visits your little shin-dig. Perhaps something more welcoming for the next instalment. Who am I to criticize, I know. But considering that you are reaching a much wider market than your own circle of friends, why not charm your current and prospective audience with something a little more friendly.

I can’t tell you how much I loved Marshall’s comment.  LOVED IT.  Because s/he is right, this is exactly what is wrong with this kind of thing.  And, not just the way Summerworks is being marketed, but the way ‘alternative’ (alternative to what?  Mirvish? Dancap? Canstage? Soulpepper? ’cause other than that, I’m not sure what there is to be alternative to) theatre seems to be presented to the masses.  I don’t have an answer to this, I suspect it’s a bunch of little things.  What I do know though is that in this age of oh-so-many distractions, it’s about time we dug our heads out of the sand as a theatre community and found a way to reach out to broad audiences.

0 thoughts on “Toronto Theatre – Is it just a bunch of friends playing together?”

  1. This is an interesting question, of course, and something we all think about. I think it is impossible, however, to say that this is some sort of unsuccessful attempt to draw in other audiences.

    How do you know?

    I think it IS fair to say that these ads are marketed at younger audiences, and I believe that, if you read through the blogs ads, that there are a few comments from outsiders who equally applaud the ads … people who are not a part of the community … who think the ads are successsful. So, why do you ignore that fact?

    While it may be true that this ad will not attract a certain type of theatre goer … the type who already comes anyways … or the over age, it is impossible for you to say these are not successful in attracting others. We’ve had over 3000 hits since putting them up. They are not all theatre goers. A good ad calls attention to something. That is what it does. Calls attention. People are not going to magically start coming to the theatre because of an ad. They may, however, realize that theatre is happening around them because of a good ad.

    That is the larger problem. Theatre is happening, and most people just have no clue. Younger generations of people would much rather go to something that pushes their buttons. Our tolerance for the subversive has gone WAY up, and theatre has NOT caught up. These ads are an attempt to let people know that the theatre can be subversive, or can question the lines of what is appropriate, and why.

    The theatre is a precious commodity, but it is also its preciousness–it’s pride–it’s belief that it is a high-art, that keeps people from coming. It is exclusive because for the most part, it is theatre that has nothing to do with what people are actually thinking about. That is not to say that we should start making theatre about being “hot” or our “wide asses”, but I think, to most of the generation Y or Z or whatever we’re at now, these ads represent things that are more relevant to people than alot of the theatre that is happening. That is a subversive idea, but after sitting on the dora-jury this year, I feel pretty sure that I can tell you why people don’t go to the theatre. The reality is that if you put an ad in the paper saying that two people were going to have sex for an hour on stage and we charged $20.00, we’d sell it out. That’s not what we should be doing, BUT, that is what people would rather see. So. What do we do? Do we make people see the theatre that they SHOULD want to see, or do we think about how to create theatre that people ACTUALLY want to see?

    And, If 3000 hits in three days is an usuccessful ad campaign that cost us ZERO dollars, then I am very curious to know what your idea of a successful one is.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to provide such a thorough comment.

    I just want to clarify a couple quick things.

    I haven’t stated that the campaing hasn’t worked. The only time I addressed that was in the comments, and what I said was that if it was me and I didn’t know what Summerworks was it wouldn’t pull me in enought to follow up and find out what Summerworks. I wasn’t saying whether it was successful or not, or even if I expected it to be sucessful or not.

    And this post was actually not prompted by the ads, but rather prompted by Marshall’s comment. What mostly struck a cord with me was “I do have to say though. I have come to a few summerworks shows over the years and feel like I am an outsider at someone else’s party.” So, really, this isn’t in response to the videos at all, just a place for me to talk about something that I’ve felt for a long long time and that I’m pretty passionate about.

    And I agree, an ad campaign is not going to change the situation either way.

    Like I said, I don’t have the answers, just the questions. *grin*

  3. Bravo to Summerworks for at the very very least taking a chance. The reality of “alternative” theatre these days is that within that community doing something alternative is quite normative, and doing something (ironically or not) mainstream is pretty out there. (What kind of poop-storm within the community would erupt if Tarragon did Cats? I shudder to think. Anyway, back to the comment)

    Getting the word out is absolutely the number one priority of an ad campaign, and the ad has absolutely been successful at getting the word out, for which I have to applaud everyone who took part in them (and in Summerworks in general). But I think something that is also vitally important is getting the RIGHT word out.

    I guess there’s the “any publicity is good publicity” theory, which I suppose is good, but don’t count any chickens before they’re out of the eggs. Do you know how many of those clicks translate to sold tickets? How many of those clicks are just people who are already within the community (who posted comments) refreshing the page to see if anyone replied to them? Heck, If you’re getting those numbers from YouTube how many of the views are from people in, say, Tulsa Oklahoma who just want to see hot chicks at a slumber party?

    But it would, I think, be an error to completely dismiss the criticism that the ads have generated. Each one is completely valid to the person that posted it, so at the very least listen to them.

    So, going back to the point of Marshal’s comment, the difficulty we might have is that the word the ad gives out is that the Toronto theatre community is a cliquey one that has inside jokes and is primarily by and for those within that community. Certainly that’s the way Marshal took it. Has that potential ticket sale been lost? Marshal would have to be asked. If so, that’s a person outside of the community that the ad – no matter how effective it was at getting the word out – has backfired.

    So then, we have to look at the people who just saw it as something funny. But going to Megan’s point from yesterday, even if it makes them laugh, will it open their wallets?

    So, I’ll be interested to see what it does to get new people to the theatre, (does Summerworks do surveys at shows to see what kind of people are coming and how they found out about it? It’d be cool if it did…) but we also can’t forget about the core audience!

    I don’t remember the exact number, or where I heard this, but I heard that it takes ten times as much money/resources to sell a new client on something than it does to just retain a current client. Given this, even if the ads do fulfill their intended purpose and bring some new people to the theatre, is it a success if it so pisses of the audiences that have sustained it for the last 16 years of its life that they decide not to come? I’d say probably not, and if the comments on the Summerworks blog are anything to go by, there’s a chance that at least some of those people won’t be coming.

    Anyway, short version: Yes, by all means try to get new people to the (alternative) theatre so that their one live show a year might be at Factory instead of the Canon, but by god do NOT WHATEVER YOU DO alienate the people who go to ten or thirty shows a year because they’re the ones that buy the most tickets (and rounds at the pub afterwords)

    Very short version: Marshal may have been lost because something different was tried. From an ‘artistic’ standpoint I applaud the bravery. From a sound communications plan/financial viability standpoint we’ll have to see where it ends up.

  4. “Do you know how many of those clicks translate to sold tickets? How many of those clicks are just people who are already within the community (who posted comments) refreshing the page to see if anyone replied to them?”

    To build on what John said, probably it would be hard to answer to the question of whether or not page views turn into tickets. I agree, number of hits does not measure the success of a an campaign, although it is still a useful thing to note.

    What would be more useful to know would be to see how many of the 3000 hits exit to the Summerworks website proper, how much have the hits of the site increased? That’s where people will learn about the festival and what it is. That would be the first measure of success of the campaign.

    Of course the ultimate measure of success would be festival attendance that could be clearly correlated to the ads (through things like a survey as John suggested)

  5. There are different kinds of ad campaigns to suit different purposes. Some campaigns are measured by how much they drive a consumer action. Some are measured by how much they dominate a particular media landscape. Some are measured by the awards the ads themselves win. In my experience, a given client can benefit from all of the above.

  6. I think the real issue is why people are taking the ad so seriously? When we created the ad we weren’t thinking “this will get people to the festival”. We were thinking “let’s have a laugh”, or “let’s see what this does”. If we’re going to think about things that are actually going to bring people into the festival, we have to look at the big picture. We’ve re-branded the festival, with a new logo and a new design. We’ve added a music series with an impressive line-up. We’ve added a performance gallery at the Gladstone. We’ve localized the festival. We’ve programmed according to our aesthetic. A 1 minute ad on our BLOG was meant only to say “hey, the festival’s almost here”. If anything, we created the ad as an internal joke to remind people that the festival is coming … mostly because every year, people are always surprised when it’s “here already?!”. So. Now, everyone knows when SummerWorks is, because it took on a life of its own. It became something it wasn’t intended to be, and now some people are calling upon us to take responsibility for it? At the end of the day, we created the ad because it was fun for us and we thought it was funny. It pissed a few people off, but its also lit a fire and excited others. Like any piece of art, it will please some and not others. The ad is a small FRACTION of the branding for this years festival, and frankly, if we geared all our branding towards pleasing the greatest amount of people, then we wouldn’t be serving the people this festival is for. The fact that we’re even amidst this conversation on a blog that is not even SummerWorks’, to me, means this is a success. WE are not SummerWorks. EVERYONE is SummerWorks. And to think that, somehow, that ad represents the entire festival, in my mind, is strange. Plus, trying to create an ad that sends the right message is absolutely impossible. The festival is SO diverse, that any ad would be mis-representing somebody in the festival. Last year’s top seller was A Thought In Three Parts. A play in which people took off their clothes and engaged in exploitative sexual acts. Is THAT the festival? I just think we are headed in a really scary direction if our goal is to try and please everyone with everything we do. We’re an indie-arts festival. We have work that ranges from the radically offensive, to the charming and beautiful. So, one could argue that a series of charming and beautiful women acting offensively is an absolutely accurate representation of the festival. Or one could argue against that. There is no answer to this. Just more questions. That’s why its a success. Because nobody can agree. That, to me, is much more interesting than a piece of pleasing artistic whatchamacallit. Let’s leave that sort of work for CanStage, shall we?

  7. @Ian – point taken. I guess the question at this point is more about what the goals of the campaign were then.

    There has certainly been value to the campaign because it got some lively discussion going on within the community.

    Like I said though, the point of this post really wasn’t about the ad campaign at all. My comment about effectiveness of the ad campaign was more in response to John’s comment, but you’re absolutely right Ian, at the end of the day the only way to determine if something was effective or not, is to compare it against your goal.

    And useful is different than effective. Something may completely miss the point in terms of it’s intended goal, but still be useful.

  8. @Michael – I’ll admit that the intensity that people have reacted to these ads kind of bemuses me too. I have shared a giggle or two with friends over it, and am also kind of impressed to be reminded of the passion in the theatre community.

    For the record – I don’t really have an opinion one way or another about the videos. The first one didn’t really do anything for me, but it didn’t offend me, the second one made me laugh.

  9. Why don’t you have an opinion?

    Opinions are important towards a thriving culture landscape. If one has no opinion, and idea can never flourish.

    I often feel like Canadians choose to remain indifferent so as to avoid conflict. Its not conflict we’re after. Its discourse. Its discussion. Its taking an idea and evolving it.

    I don’t believe that you don’t have an opinion. My opinion of that is that you’re just trying to not get too involved.

    Have an opinion. It’s more interesting.

    (I’m just being an ass now. You can ignore me if you like.)

  10. @Michael – don’t worry, I’m an ass-(wo)man, so it’s all good. :P

    You’re right, of course I have an opinion, it’s impossible not to have an opinion. But my opinion is that there was nothing in the videos that moved me either way. They didn’t move me to defend them, they didn’t move me to defaim them.

    So, my opinion, I suppose, is “meh”.

    I have no problem with the idea of them being out there, I’m just not particularily excited by it either. So, you’re right I do have an opinion, it’s impossible not to, indifference is an opinion. I’m not doing it to avoid conflict, I’d say that there’s conflict here, and I’m partaking in it. (and yes, conflict does not equal bad) And I knew as soon as I posted this, and my comments on the video, that it would spark conflict. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and indifference is just indifference.

    What I’m interested in is the reaction the videos have gotten from the community.

    I’m also interested in the conversation that you and I are having.

    I like knowing the thinking behind the bits, and would argue that maybe they weren’t well done if it was so difficult to dissern those were the purposes of the pieces. Sometimes we can be a bit to oblique for our own good as humans.

    And I’m with John in saying bravo for going for it. I certainly don’t wish that these weren’t made, I’m loving following this.

  11. BTW Michael, I have no idea why your comments keep coming back to me for moderation, it’s supposed to just be the first time you comment and then it’s supposed to approve them automatically. So, if you comment and there is a lag in it showing up it’s ’cause I’ve taken a break from the computer (oh come on, it happens, sometimes, no, really, I’m not *always* at the computer – oh who am I kidding, you won’t experience any lag…)

  12. So, what would a “well done” video be? I’ve gotten a ton of people telling me they loved the video. And there are a ton telling me they hate it. We did them the way we wanted them to.

    I’m not particularly interested in most populist anything. (except cirque de soleil, because that’s just MAGIC!) I am, interested in what makes me laugh and what makes me cry and what makes me upset and I’m pretty sure that my job, as the Artistic Producer, is to find ways to share my aesthetic with the festival. There will be those who share my aesthetic, and those who don’t, and that is key. Norman Armour, who runs PuSH (in Vancouver) has created a festival that is wildly popular, mostly because of his devotion to what he loves. It is that devotion, it is that energy, that helps the festival live. We’re going to program or create stuff that some people love and some hate. We believe we’re successful as long as you’ve got an opinion about it.

    People don’t come to theatre when its boring. (not that theatre is ever boring. ever.)

    All we can try to be is “not boring”.

    Geez. And this is only my first year. Wait till next year! Then things will really start to get interesting :)

  13. Oh, by well done I don’t mean the esthetic at all. I mean achieving the goal of the piece. So, I think the challenge here is not that it didn’t meet it’s goals, but rather that the goals were unclear. People don’t seem to be seeing it as an ‘inside joke to remind people that the festival is coming’, they seem to have thought (as did I) that this was really meant as a piece of marketing. A piece of marketing (which, I would argue is very different than a piece of art, although it certainly has artistic elements)should have some clarity in what it’s trying to do and say. And I agree, there is no one ad that is everything to every one, but in my opinion (and it’s just that, there are no absolutes here) even if it’s marketing people hate, they should understand what it’s for.

    The pieces certainly did achieve the goals of “let’s have a laugh”, and “let’s see what this does” . No question there.

    “At the end of the day, we created the ad because it was fun for us and we thought it was funny. It pissed a few people off, but its also lit a fire and excited others. Like any piece of art, it will please some and not others.” – Then, if it was just about having fun, then absolutely it was a success and well done. And if it’s a piece of art, then more power to you. My commentary has only been about it as a marketing tool, and I think you’ve made it pretty clear that it really wasn’t about promotion. So, you know, good on ya, I’m always in favour of people having fun.

    Okay, now I’m late for an appointment. :P

  14. But that’s just it. Having Fun WAS the ad. That was the promotion. Come have fun at SummerWorks. It is marketing towards an aesthetic. Think of it like a music video, or a short. Talk to someone who thought the ad was very effective, and ask them why. I would still argue that it was really successfull. Its gotten alot of people excited about it. Alot of it is marketed internally. An inside joke. This one, anyways. If WE, as a community are excited about something, then other people will come. If someone in theatre has the attitude “SummerWorks .. whatever” nobody cares. If someone in theare has the attitude “SummerWorks? AWESOME!” or “SummerWorks. I HATE THEM!” either way, someone in our community having a strong opinion about what we are doing, which, in turn, will incite interest from other people. Mirvish became as popular he did, partly because he was so damn in love with the theatre, that people wanted to be a part of what he was doing. That’s the strategy. Have an opinion. Share it. Garner interest. That’s what’s happened. I can’t imagine these ads deterring someone from coming to a show. I mean … really? Sure. Boycott. “Are you going to SummerWorks this year?” “After those ads, no way!” … I mean, really? REALLY?

  15. I am enjoying the back and forth, but I think we’ve started going in circles, so I’ll wait for another opportunity to debate with you. *grin*

  16. @Michael –

    I know Megan said she’s cutting off the discussion but …
    Maybe I’m the only old person reading her blog right now.

    You lost me when you said “or the over age”.

    WTF is an overage theatre goer? I’m 58. Am I allowed to come to Summerworks?

    Based on your off-hand reference to the “over age” I suspect that if I do I’m going to feel like Marshall. “I do have to say though. I have come to a few summerworks shows over the years and feel like I am an outsider at someone else’s party.”

    And you know what? I’m not so keen on feeling like that. Paying money to feel like that makes no sense to me at all.

    It’s not your ads or videos – I haven’t seen them and therefore have no opinion – it’s your offhand dismissal of a large part of the populations – and of potential theatre goers – that bothers me.

    It’s theatre for god’s sake. As you said, it should be fun. For everyone. Losing the elitism would be a huge gift for everyone, players, producers, directors, authors, audience, everyone.

    C’mon. Even old people deserve theatre other than big main-stream shows.


  17. @Sam – I just meant I was cutting off the conversation between Michael and me, I’m more than happy to get a million more comments on this thread.

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