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In Defense of Indie Theatre

January 22, 2013

This blog is usually about work which I’m proud to have done, and I thought that given Sky Gilbert’s recent curmudgeonly blog about everyone in Toronto theatre DOING IT WRONG, I should provide a counterexample.

Myself and my friends Jeremy Knowles and Seth Drabinsky (a distant cousin of Garth’s) run a theatre company in Toronto. We met in 2009 working on another independent company’s production of Hedwig & The Angry Inch, a rock musical by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask. The play is loud, features boisterous gender-fucking characters, and is simply a total fun-blast to work on and go see. It appeals to downtowners and out-of-towners, young and old, rich and poor, straight and gay, because it’s a really great, great show that makes absolutely no apologies for its rawness.

Our company was purpose-built to tour this show after the 2009 production ended. As I write this now, we are heading into the third and final week of a Toronto remount at the Drake Hotel, which has seen packed houses, glowing reviews, and satisfied (if not shocked and awed) customers. If you missed buying tickets in advance, well, they’re mostly gone — but drop me a line and maybe I’ll see what I can do. No promises.

By closing night on January 27th, we will have played to a great many people, paid our costs, given those who worked for us their fair salary, and may even be able to look forward to a healthy share for ourselves to do with as we please. I will invest my portion into further developing my career as a Toronto-based Canadian theatre creator. Here are some of the lessons we learned, most purely by trial and error, which I hope may help illuminate your own path if you’re trying to make a living by doing something people maybe someday will buy a ticket to come and see.

We had no experience touring this kind of show before we decided to try it. All we knew about theatre production came from what we had learned by watching shows that others had put on, and applying whatever we could figure out ourselves. Jeremy had some relevant background from his career as a tour manager for rock bands, so we initially modeled the tour on that type of booking: secure an advance fee from a promoter, let them sell the tickets, and hope enough fish will bite to cover the costs. After a series of false starts we embarked in October 2010 with a trailer full of musical gear attached to Jeremy’s van that had all of us had piled up inside.

There were six performers, including Seth and Jeremy, plus myself (the technician/roadie) and our long-suffering Stage Manager Laura Cournoyea. We visited Ottawa, Thunder Bay, and even far-flung Winnipeg before ending the tour back home in Toronto on Halloween. The venues were generally rock clubs designed around bands playing, rather than traditional theatre performance spaces. We welcomed this challenge, and in fact part of the reason the Drake’s Underground stage works well for us is because it is more of a music venue than a theatre venue. They have a great sound system and just enough lighting to make our outside rental costs managable. You may or may not get a comfortable seat or any seat at all, but you will have the atmosphere of a fun rock show, albeit one in someone’s living room or basement.

Some nights of the tour were successful. Our performance (and attendance) in Winnipeg and Ottawa were good enough to warrant return bookings at the Capital Pride Festival, the Winnipeg Fringe and a glorious one-off at Le National in Montreal the next year. Other nights were not so great: the Thunder Bay and Toronto Halloween shows were particularly disastrous, and a Sudbury date was cancelled without notice, which left us in an awkward position. We were flat broke from over-reaching and failing to get any of the government assistance grants for which we had applied.

We had not relied on anyone except the venue’s promoters to advertise the show, and even they had scant notions of how to sell the rock concert/monologue hybrid to their usual crowds. We tried getting our friends to see the Toronto date, but given that it was Halloween, they were all partying elsewhere and seemed generally non-supportive of this whole crazy scheme; which was understandable, I suppose, because we didn’t really give the impression yet that we knew what on Earth we were doing.

This is where indie theatre usually has its first rude awakening: the realization that just having your friends come to your shows, although nice, is nowhere near enough of a crowd to make it worthwhile. I don’t care if you have 2,000 Facebook friends or how many of them confirmed attendance on the event page. Lesson one: you need to publicize the show and yes, dread horror, MARKET your product. For our current Toronto run, we hired ace publicist Peter McHugh to work any media contact he could find to get us covered in the press. It worked.

We reached out to the best people we could think of to design, perform, and promote the experience, not simply those who would do it for a favour. We came prepared with attractive press materials from previous iterations of the show, such as production photographs, positive press clippings, an attractive website and a few video clips. We didn’t go out of our way to do a whole social media blitz, but we paid attention to Facebook and particularly Twitter for generating a buzz and keeping people informed about our activities.

What was also of paramount importance, once those people arrived through the door, was keeping most of the ticket sales ourselves. The Drake was willing to let us rehearse in their Underground space relatively cheaply, which was nice, but best of all they gave us performance times that fit around their existing event programming schedule so that they were making money they wouldn’t have had otherwise from their bar being open during the show. That way, more of the money people were paying at the door went towards the show, rather than the space that housed the show.

We cross-promoted with another show at the Next Stage festival, which was happening during our first week of shows. We did interviews on the radio station PROUD FM, who also gave away tickets. We busked at cabarets and other live venues to get the word out. We partnered with online ticket retailer Brown Paper Tickets to make the online advance sales process as smooth as it could be. We kept track of our cash flow and made sure our budget was constantly up to date. We thanked people who did good work for us and made sure to pay them back.

Sure, we did it wrong for a while. Then we learned what we were doing wrong and did it right instead. The real problem with the Toronto indie theatre scene (and most of the rest of Canadian theatre, from what I can figure out) is a lack of continuity with the past, or absent mentorship. We could have avoided some painful lessons and more than a few discouraging slogs with a little extra support. I worked on a show with Sky Gilbert once, and though I was only the sound designer/tech director and he was a featured actor, he didn’t really seem to have many insights to offer us young people who were staying in Canada and producing original work, whom he now derides for being obsessed with getting out of Canada and producing unoriginal work.

Granted, Hedwig is not a new piece, but it ticks many of the other boxes Sky would approve, and it bears repeating. We and my other young friends who produce good original work didn’t get it to the stage through talent and luck alone. What this experience taught me is that to see success in the performing arts you constantly have to WORK for it, keep working, fall on your ass, get up and work some more until somewhere down the road conditions are right for your success. And let the naysayers go hang.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Vargo permalink
    January 22, 2013 7:07 pm

    Sky Gilbert is quite cranky. Has he ever heard of Opera and Film? People can and do sit in theatres for 2 hours (or more!) without intermission, and they don’t mind. In fact, he himself has sat in theatres to watch many of the films he’s reviewed, many of which were 2 or more hours long. Hypocrite or just out of touch? Both?

    • January 22, 2013 7:49 pm

      I have sympathy for that particular complaint; it does suck to be told a performance is a certain time and for it to run over. I feel most shows benefit from being divided into manageable chunks; however, two 45-minute halves isn’t really the standard, nor should it be.

      • Vargo permalink
        January 22, 2013 11:36 pm

        I guess for me if a show goes over in time it feels like a bonus. Most of the time the programme say “approx”, and if it doesn’t, it should. If I’m not enjoying my time, I’ll leave. It should, however, end around a decent time (say before 11pm) or start earlier (depending on the type of show). Most shows will take up your evening, so it’s not savvy to plan anything afterwards. Matinees are a different story – prepare and plan ahead. The intermission can be either beneficial or disruptive; it all depends on the show.

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