Arts: Don't cry for me?

More than ever, Canada’s arts sector is turning to popular fare — like Stratford’s Evita or Peter Pan — to win back audiences. Will it save them?

Evita is seldom mentioned among great works of theatre. The high-brow critics tend to dismiss it as schmaltz — a typical Andrew Lloyd Webber extravaganza of hummable tunes and lousy dialogue. At one level, it is. But it?s also a story about the power of glamour, and its limits. It?s a story of being torn between a higher calling and the cold realities of populism, politics and lean times.

?Show business kept us all alive,? the narrator sings bitterly in the first act. ?But the star has gone, the glamour?s worn thin / That?s a pretty bad state for a state to be in.?

Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that Evita would appeal to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, particularly to artistic director Des McAnuff, when planning the 2010 season. The story is an apt metaphor for the difficult position in which McAnuff finds himself. He came to Stratford in 2006 amid great fanfare from Broadway in order to chart a new path for North America?s largest non-profit theatre company. Like Eva Perón, he is trying to satisfy many masters. Along with general director Antoni Cimonlino, he must find his way forward, burdened by the weight of Stratford?s venerable history, the expectations placed upon institutions of high culture, and the need to remain popular and relevant.

All of that is difficult at the best of times, but the stakes have been raised dramatically by the dire North American economy. The recession wreaked havoc on ticket sales, donations and endowments for many of the country?s leading arts and cultural institutions, Stratford included. Fortunately, a federal government bailout program spread over two years helped prevent the damage from getting worse. But the degree of support in the future is an open question. Both federal and provincial governments are struggling with massive deficits. Cutting spending is a foregone conclusion.

Stratford has responded by injecting more populist fare — there are three musicals and a production of Peter Pan this season in an already slim roster of 12 shows — along with old-fashioned star power. Stratford has brought back festival legend Christopher Plummer, and next year will welcome Hollywood and Broadway veteran Brian Dennehy. Some critics are less than impressed. ?The desperation to get international names in at the expense of Canadians who have done brilliant direction at Stratford is galling,? according to Lynn Slotkin, theatre critic for CBC Radio One, adding the productions are ?flashy, superficial, shallow work for the most part.? But there is also recognition of the difficult position Stratford is in. ?There?s a pressure to fill seats, but there?s also a pressure to do worthy material,? says Toronto theatre critic Alec Scott. Other major institutions are under the same pressures, and similarly adjusting their programming to appeal to the masses in a tough market. The question is: Will it work? And if not, how much public support can the sector count on in the coming era of austerity?

In part due to the shrewd foresight of Cimolino, Stratford was perhaps better positioned than others to deal with the recession. Back in the 1990s, when Cimolino, formerly an actor and director at the festival, moved to the management side of the business, he was instrumental in establishing an endowment as well as a rainy-day fund to cope with future downturns. The fund grew to $5.6 million by 2008, when the festival was forced to tap into it for the first time to stay in the black.

The recession still hit Stratford hard. In the fall of 2008, people simply were not buying tickets for the upcoming season. Adjusting to such dramatic swings in the market is not easy for a theatre company. It has many fixed costs, and plans its budget and performance schedule well in advance of the time tickets go on sale. To cope, the organization asked employees to accept reduced hours, and eliminated a handful of full-time positions. The festival closed the 2008 season with a $2.6-million operating deficit — its first in 15 years — and reduced the number of plays in the following season to 12 from 16.

Other arts and cultural institutions faced the same challenges. The Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake saw ticket sales plummet by roughly 20% in late 2008, and was forced to lay off staff. The National Ballet of Canada?s endowment collapsed, delivering only half the amount for which the organization budgeted, while the Canadian Opera Company saw a drop in donations. ?When you look at the whole sector in North America, it is fragile,? says COC general director Alexander Neef.

As a result, Stratford is not the only one balancing artistic goals with audience favourites. The National Ballet, for example, added Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake to its past season. ?We know if we do Swan Lake, lots and lots of people will come,? says executive director Kevin Garland. The National Ballet could likely sell 25,000 seats for Swan Lake, but only about 17,000 for a mixed program of less famous works. Likewise, Ballet BC is performing The Nutcracker to help drive ticket sales. The company — which wants to differentiate itself by showcasing contemporary Canadian works — fell into receivership in 2008, and a new team has since resurrected it. ?I wouldn?t say Nutcrackers are the cash cows they once were,? says executive director Jay Rankin, ?but it?s going to help grow the size of the company.?

The attitude at the Canadian Opera Company is slightly different. ?The easy approach would be to just program a small group of operas that always sell,? says Neef. ?But the danger with that is you can?t sell a Carmen every year.? Nevertheless, the recession forced the organization to replace an expensive opera by Richard Strauss for an upcoming season with another by the same composer that was already in its repertoire, saving approximately $500,000.

At Stratford, the reviews for Evita have been mixed so far, while Peter Pan has garnered more favourable impressions. The play is a clever programming choice for tough times, appealing to both adults and children the festival can hook on theatre. Even so, ticket sales, which make up 75% of the festival?s $60-million budget, have yet to fully recover. A few years ago, the festival sold 670,000 seats per season, and is now down to 510,000. Americans typically represent about one-third of Stratford?s audience, and account for the bulk of the decline. The recession is not entirely responsible for the drop (dollar fluctuations and border tie-ups have contributed, too), but the troubled U.S. economy has only exacerbated a tough situation.

?The casual attendance has probably gone,? Cimolino concedes, referring to those who lived near the border and would visit Stratford for the day. To compensate, the festival is using the money it received from the Marquee Tourism Events Program to attract more devoted theatre fans from American markets it hasn?t targeted before, such as Boston, Chicago and New York. Relying on a comeback in the American consumer is risky, given the economy is far from stable, and U.S. consumer confidence fell dramatically in June. But Cimolino credits the marketing effort in the U.S. to stopping the decline in American visitors.

Beyond the box office, the sector depends on enormous amounts of goodwill for revenue. The challenge for the COC, for example, is to find ways to increase donations. Fundraising accounts for approximately 40% of its $30-million budget. Opera connoisseurs continued to buy tickets throughout the recession, but skimped on donations. The COC developed a more aggressive campaign to solicit donations, which are recovering, but not quite to the level Neef would like. As a result, the COC is preparing to make a case to government to allow donors to write off a larger percentage of their gift from their tax returns.

The Shaw Festival, meanwhile, experienced good fortune in a major way last year when Mona Campbell, an elderly widow and long-time supporter of the arts in Canada, passed away and left the festival $2.5 million. ?That really saved our bacon,? says executive director Colleen Blake. Stratford also benefited from an unexpected donation this year when Ophelia Lazaridis, a board member at the organization and wife of Research In Motion co-CEO Mike Lazaridis, gave $5 million. ?My jaw hit the desk,? recalls Cimolino when he heard about the donation. But such large gifts are rare, and can?t always be relied upon when times are tough.

Though prudent management and goodwill helped avoid a complete meltdown in the sector, government support also played a key role in seeing arts and cultural institutions through. Back in 2008, Stratford conducted extensive consumer research to figure out why its usual visitors were not buying tickets. It found that many still intended to, but closer to the date of the performance they wanted to see. Others, such as the Shaw Festival, found similar buying habits with their clientele. The discovery meant an important shift in marketing: more advertising, for one, but also targeted campaigns to highlight individual performances, rather than the season as a whole. That kind of approach is expensive, and Stratford was not exactly awash in cash. Partly because of this sort of research, Ottawa announced the Marquee Tourism Events Program in the 2009 budget.

The program allotted $100 million for the sector over two years, and 107 events received funding. It was not without controversy. Many event organizers felt slighted when they were excluded, and opposition MPs are demanding more transparency in the process.

But those who did receive funds put the money to use immediately, and the effects were dramatic. Stratford obtained $3 million in 2009, and another $3 million last May, which it used to increase marketing. ?The results were amazing,? Cimolino says, who credits the first instalment of $3 million with generating an additional 70,000 ticket sales. The Shaw Festival also received $2.1 million from the program in 2009 and doubled its marketing budget. ?We sold a lot more tickets once that campaign was underway,? says Blake. The $2.6 million it was granted this year has been equally effective in driving sales.

The government has not yet signalled if it will renew the program, but given the ultimate goal of reducing deficits over the next few years, the prospects do not look good. ?If the program were to go away, that would make for some very tough choices,? Cimolino says. Last August, the government in British Columbia revealed what could be in the cards for the sector, when millions in funding previously promised to arts and cultural organizations was nixed. The funding was quickly restored after public outcry, but recent changes to the funding model have excluded arts and music festivals.

As much as arts and cultural institutions try to lessen their dependence on government through donations and box-office revenue, many of the proposals to strengthen the sector still rely on co-operation with government — the COC?s work on tax credits, for example. The Canadian Museums Association is urging the federal government to participate in a matching campaign to encourage more private donations. And Cimolino at Stratford hopes for an extension of the Marquee Tourism Events Program, or a similar program to provide funds for marketing. He can rattle off a long list of statistics demonstrating the benefits the program had for the festival, and by extension, the local economy.

But there is also recognition in the sector that demonstrating the economic benefits of the arts is in some ways impossible, because many of them are ineffable. Simon Brault, vice-chair of the Canada Council for the Arts and director general of the National Theatre School of Canada, recently published a manifesto of sorts titled No Culture, No Future. There have been many reports over the years that attempted to irrefutably demonstrate the validity and relevance of investment in the arts, according to Brault, but policy-makers are still skeptical. Instead of more reports, he argues, the sector needs to make the case that further investment ?can only improve creativity, free thinking, and citizens? ability to live together.? The sentiment may sound Pollyannaish, and whether it will resonate with politicians is unclear, but Cimolino is already thinking along those lines. ?The arts help us imagine solutions, help us to be empathetic and debate good ideas,? he says. ?All of those things are exactly the sorts of behaviours that a successful economy has.?