Should Toronto Theatre Be Holding On to its Hat?

J. Kelly Nestruck at The Globe and Mail is getting a bit of a beating for an article that he wrote recently comparing Toronto’s theatrical season to that of Chicago and making the argument that there is much that Torontonians could learn from the Windy City. There are those that feel that Nestruck is unfairly bashing Toronto and its artists, but, regardless of your opinions either way, he has incited a discussion that I think is important for this community to have.
Nestruck quotes Tracy Letts, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of August: Osage County who says, “I can’t imagine, frankly, why an English-language playwright would want to live in any other city than Chicago or London.” This quote captures Letts’ pride in the city he’s lived in since he was twenty years old, the city where he has met with terrific success in the theatre and has been embraced by a community that he respects and admires. In 1999 Jeff Haslam the Artistic Director of Teatro La Quindicina in Edmonton was asked why he chose to stay there as opposed to moving to a larger theatre centre like Toronto or New York or Chicago and he said, “because of the community of artists who have become family. It’s an amazing world to be part of.” In the same way that Letts states that Chicago is “the place to be,” Haslam asserts that for him, Edmonton is a place that he will always actively choose. If George F. Walker and Judith Thompson and Brad Fraser did not want to be in Toronto, presumably they would not have written plays this season that made their world premieres at Factory Theatre or Theatre Passe Muraille. Walker, Thompson and Fraser are world-class playwrights, and their works are produced internationally. Therefore, there is obviously a reason that they choose to stay in Toronto. Toronto, like Chicago, has a community of artists who are fiercely proud to live and work here and who likely couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
As a matter of fact, there is some truth to what a lot of the critics of Nestruck’s article are saying: there is much to be proud of here and much to infuse us with hope for a glorious future. There is no inferiority complex here at TWISI. I recently saw two improvisers from Second City Chicago perform along with celebrity comedian Tim Meadows here in Toronto and I’m proud to report that our local performers were improvising circles around all of them. I enjoyed August: Osage County a lot but it didn’t leave me with the impression that Chicago playwrights in any way surpassed the work of our playwrights here in Toronto. But, the truth is that J. Kelly Nestruck isn’t trying to say that Torontonian artists are inferior to anyone, and he’s not trying to bash Toronto because he is from Montreal or because he has a certain distain for the largest city in the country. His article points out a series of obstacles that we face here at this moment and I think that these obstacles can and will be overcome because there is a strong community of artists here who are working diligently and passionately to ensure that Toronto’s theatre community is the best that it can be. In the meantime, though, I don’t think there is any harm in us looking to the successes of Chicago as a beacon of hope for some sense of what our glorious future may entail.
Nestruck is very right to point out that things here are not perfect because they are not. I think that the defensiveness that many feel toward him at the moment reflects the fact that we are not as confident as we could be about the state of theatre in our city. Nestruck quotes the City of Toronto`s website, which claims that it is the, “third-largest English-language theatre centre in the world” and he goes on to argue that such a declaration is embarrassing for the city because the assertion is no longer true. Upon reading this statement I was immediately reminded of a quote by Edmontonian playwright Stewart Lemoine where he says of Edmonton, “it has been labelled a cultural capital by some. It’s nice to have that acknowledged, but no one really knows what that means… This city has a great talent pool, and our audience here is incredible. People come here and say we’re unpretentious because the place is unremarkable, but we don’t worry about our status, we’re too busy thinking about other things.” In my experience, the Toronto community is much the same. The artists here are not going around heralding themselves the third-best in the world, the theatre companies here are not wasting their time publishing facts and figures in attempt to boast about who is the biggest, the best or the most successful or making any grand and general affirmations. Indeed, everyone is too busy thinking about other things, such as, which plays to produce for the upcoming season, who to cast in an upcoming play and how to effectively appeal to the citizens of Toronto so that they will choose to spend an evening at the theatre.
I think that it is a very exciting time to be an artist in Toronto because theatre companies are beginning to work together and the various branches of the theatre community are beginning to cross-pollinate their talents and their ideas with ardent enthusiasm. One only has to look at The New Bread and Circus Theatre to see a space that presents the work of a huge, wide array of artists (including theatre and musical theatre, cabaret, Improv, and independent music). The Bread and Circus is cultivating an audience that will attend and all of these various genres and it is helping to build bridges between the artists who work in each individual discipline. Soulpepper has embraced Cabaret and Musical Theatre in its hugely successful annual Canwest Cabaret Festival, while Theatre Passe Muraille and Theatre Aquarius are bringing Improv into their main and studio spaces by investing in Impromptu Splendor. Summerworks too has added a new Musical Works in Concert Series where it will present two evenings showcasing new pieces by artists working with musical theatre models in a concert format. It certainly seems as though there is a strong movement in the Canadian Theatre Community right now that unites us all and encourages us to work together in the way that Nestruck sees working so well for Chicago. Nestruck makes a strong case for the argument that Chicago is ahead of Toronto in this respect. Rather than stewing about this, I think we should look with enthusiasm and excitement to a city where the artists are reaping the fruits of their labours, in the knowledge that we here in Toronto, who are working just as ardently, will soon find ourselves in such a privileged position as well.
I think Nestruck has hit the nail on the head when he mentions that Chicago spends three times as much per capita than Toronto does, and that if Toronto wants to compete on the World-Stage our government has to find economically viable ways to invest and help promote the arts in this city. Here are the main obstacles that Toronto theatre faces from my perspective:
1. There is no reason why Mirvish should be the gigantic monolith that it is and that the city should pander so much of its resources to helping to promote the one theatre establishment which is already cemented in the consciousness of theatregoers across the country. It makes my heart hurt when I hear people unaffiliated with the arts in Toronto who mistakenly assume that we have two theatres here, Mirvish and Dancap. Yet, if you look at the banners flying on the street, the Sound of Music Tour Buses, and you see the commercials on television and on the radio, it is not difficult to understand why this misconception exists.
2. Mirvish and Dancap like to market the National Touring Company shows that make up a huge percentage of their seasons, as being “a bit of Broadway in our backyard”, when in reality it is rare for Toronto to see a National Touring Production that has even a quarter of the calibre one would expect from a show in New York. I respect the fact that Mirvish wants to bring in American theatre stars such as Harvey Fierstein in Fiddler on the Roof, Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp in Rent and Mandy Patinkin and Patti Lupone in their own concert. There is absolutely an audience for these shows in Toronto, and I think these sorts of production decisions make sense and are conducive to enriching the theatrical life of Toronto. However, the large majority of road shows that come in from the United States are second-rate and there is no reason why Mirvish and Dancap should be investing in buying these tours rather than investing in the creation of a resident Canadian cast of the hottest shows coming from Broadway. DanCap is massively successful with Jersey Boys, and it is frustrating that this is not becoming a more frequent phenomenon. From my perspective, the facts are simple: there are not enough jobs in Toronto for all of our immensely talented performers. This means that some of this city`s most promising musical theatre artists are milling about, bored and discouraged, continually toying with the idea of moving to New York, where opportunity seems more likely to shine on them. This is tragic, and I feel like we have a responsibility to ensure that we never drive our artists out because their job opportunities are being snatched by American actors with identical qualifications or reality television stars of inferior talent and training. In Mirvish`s defence, it is cheaper to buy the tours for a short stint rather than investing the time and money in helping to build an indigenous musical theatre industry of our own here that we can take pride in, but I would ask David Mirvish: does he want Toronto to be one big American Roadhouse or would he like it to be the Third-Largest English-Speaking Theatre Centre in the World?
3. In his article, Nestruck also mentions Toronto’s theatre space problem, which is absolutely an obstacle that theatre artists in this city must contend with. There are no mid-size venues available in Toronto, which makes it difficult for independent theatre companies to produce musical theatre because there are few venues appropriate for this type of show. At the same time, I think if Dancap is looking to buy theatre space downtown, their focus should be on the creation of a theatre where Canadians will perform and not simply another Vaudeville-style house we don’t need.
4. Corruption is everywhere, it is implicit in every industry and it is particularly difficult to weed out and to eradicate. That being said, however, I feel like there are certain incidences happening in the theatre industry in Toronto, and indeed across the country, that quite frankly, just bog down our own potential for success and create inane obstacles that thwart our own progress and render the ideas and strategies of inspired artists seeking improvements ultimately ineffectual. I wish there was a way that the artists in this city could unite and discuss these matters and to work together to rise above such obstructions and limitations, leaving the corruption in the dust.
5. I think it is important to examine the theatre critic’s role in fostering a city’s healthy vibrant theatrical scene and I think that in Toronto one of the most ineffectual habits of the theatre critic is, ironically, the constant comparisons between Toronto and American cities. I think that this article by J. Kelly Nestruck is a good example of a rare occasion where this type of comparison is valuable and relevant because he has done obvious and specific research and he is comparing Chicago and Toronto on fair, comparable grounds. Too often, however, I feel like theatre critics hold Canadian Theatre to a different standard than the theatre artists themselves. Many are guilty of using Broadway as the continual “measure for success,” when in fact, in my experience, Broadway is not something that many Canadian artists aspire to or a goal that they work toward at all. This is not because Canadian plays are not worthy of The Great White Way, but simply because producers, playwrights and directors here seem far more interested in disseminating shows across our country rather than taking them to New York. Whenever a theatre critic or an academic begins to measure our success by how many of our shows “have made it” to Broadway, or how many of our theatre artists have “made it to Broadway” or they give precedence to these Canadian artists as though this makes them somehow more established or more legitimate or superior than the dozens of Dora Award winning, Governor General Award winning, legends we have working and living here, he is doing the entire theatre community a massive disservice. It does come down to confidence. How can we feel like our city is truly proud of its theatre community, when the message so many are reading in the newspaper is that we’re inferior unless New York happens to say we’re not.
I commend J. Kelly Nestruck for igniting this vital and ongoing discussion and for opening up a dialogue between the theatre critic at The Globe and Mail, the theatre community and Toronto’s prospective audiences. I am fraught with hope because from where I sit, I see Toronto’s theatre community as being a shining example of incredible creativity and inspiring talent coupled with respect and admiration, affection, pride, support and staggering ambition. It is still beneficial for us to learn from our peers, and if we can implement some of what works so well in Chicago, to replace that which is not working so well here, Toronto will only benefit in the long run. I think we all want the same thing, ultimately, and discussing these issues with one another, passionately, even if there’s some fighting involved, is crucial for insuring that Toronto’s Theatre Scene is the absolute best it can be.

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