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.