A little over a month ago, I made a pledge to attend the theatre more often, and I am pleased to announce that I stuck to my guns. More or less. I also agreed to work three evenings a week at Harbourfront Centre during theatre prime time, which put a bit of a damper on my ambitions, but I did indeed attend more theatre in the past month than I have in quite a while. And I still didn’t get to see everything I wanted to see. Oh, and I did not go broke. So I feel as if I’ve accomplished something!
Now, I could tell you about everything I saw…but I don’t really want to. Because, on this beautiful Monday, it seems that it would be a bit book report-ish. No. I only want to tell you about one show, the last one I went to see, especially in light of Trisha Mead’s post at 2amtheatre about how NOT to build younger audiences…Think of this as a case study…
This past Friday night, Canadian Stage hosted a late night sort-of opening party for Catalyst Theatre’s Frankenstein, currently playing at the Bluma. The party started at 9pm and the show began at midnight (and was 2 hours long plus a 20 minute intermission, meaning I was actually still at the theatre at 2am) and the whole thing seemed largely aimed at the younger crowd, with invitations having largely gone out to GYM members, a group for young emerging artists run by CanStage.
The party was, I think, an interesting failure. I admittedly missed most of it as I was sucked into TLC’s Friday night wedding shows (pretty dresses! flowers! sparkly things!). By the time I arrived, around 11:30pm, it basically looked like a rave. There was a DJ playing some kind of techno noise (in my opinion) and several people in Goth attire and all white–Goth for the traditional Frankenstein look and all white because this particular production uses white paper costumes/sets and blacklight. It looked like everyone had been having fun, but after three hours, they also seemed ready for the show to start and, let’s face it, not everyone loves techno…
Tickets for the party/show were $10, which is a huge steal for a show at the Bluma, thus the dragging of my butt off the couch at such a late hour. Plus, there was free food (allegedly, I saw none of it but I’ll extend the benefit of the doubt and say that maybe this was due to my late arrival) and if you wore all white you got a free drink. Except that you didn’t. A few people in our group were refused their free drinks–one girl was in a white dress but had on brown shoes and thus did not qualify. Apparently we were meant to spend the $64 saved on each ticket to buy white shoes. Which some of the older patrons clearly did (seriously, the gentleman seated next to me was in a full three piece white suit with white patent leather shoes. He was also over 50). Note: CanStage, the younger crowd was not impressed by this. Granted, we got $10 tickets and fabulous seats to a fantastic show, so we really don’t have any major complaints, but if you advertise a free drink for wearing all white, you should probably follow through. And if you aim those advertisements at young adults, be realistic in your expectations and appreciate the people who made a genuine effort. We probably don’t have the funds to go out and buy a whole new outfit for this one thing.
But my group of young emerging artists wasn’t the only demographic represented at this event. While the audience certainly skewed younger, there were also several older patrons, CanStage regulars most likely, in attendance. And quite a few goth teenagers. As well as a whole slew of 18-20somethings who did not seem to be regular theatre-goers. Which was fantastic to see. It was actually quite a diverse audience. Which is what made the whole event interesting (I mean, aside from the show itself). This was a group of people not normally seen at the theatre together and it was fun to share this particular experience with all of them.
Now, back to that post at 2amtheatre: Trisha Mead writes that these kinds of parties don’t really work for expanding a theatre’s subscription base, board, or audience and that, ultimately, “You spend an extraordinary amount of time and resources to find food, booze, etc….Your art form is an afterthought. The percentage of new patrons gained in your target demographic does not even remotely compensate for the staff time, organizational energy and resource gathering it takes to carry this off.” And, frankly, she’s mostly right. While it was fabulous to see such a diverse audience at a $10 midnight show at CanStage and the party was a nice touch, free drinks or not, the reality is that this is not sustainable. Most shows at CanStage are not $10. In fact, most CanStage shows at the Bluma are prohibitively expensive for the younger demographic. And most shows at CanStage do not appeal to younger audiences (although perhaps this is going to change under Matthew Jocelyn, their new Artistic Director). Which is really disappointing to me personally because CanStage supports young artists and I really want to support them in return, but I really can’t afford to attend. And how many theme parties can you really throw? Eventually, this model gets old.
However, I said that I thought the party was an interesting failure. In Mead’s version of these events the “art form is an afterthought,” which I agree is frequently the case, but on Friday night at CanStage, the art form and not the free food or booze was the reason to attend. People came for the opportunity to see a much-anticipated, exciting, innovative show that they would otherwise have been unable to afford. Of course, it’s possible some of them could have or would have shelled out the $74 per ticket, so perhaps the reason they showed up is that this was an opportunity to see CanStage in a different context, more relaxed and less restrained. They are one of the largest theatre institutions in Toronto and have a somewhat stuffy reputation, particularly for productions at the Bluma. I hope this newer, freer attitude is something they will continue to embrace because I think it is central to getting younger audiences to show up at the theatre. Theatre should be accessible: the price should be affordable, the art should be of interest to people in that target demographic, and the atmosphere should be one that embraces both younger and older audience members. If you can do this, you won’t need to worry about the party or the food or the booze.
As for the show itself, it was pretty amazing. And serious props to all of the performers for giving incredible performances well into the wee hours of the morning, their commitment and energy was absolutely phenomenal. I think there are still some things that need to be tweaked (too many set changes and a lot of the music sounds the same) but this is definitely stylized theatre at its best and is worth the $74 a seat. It’s brave, innovative, thoughtful, and definitely entertaining.