Skip To Content

Future of Ottawa: Fear and hope for our theatre scene

By Apartment613 on April 21, 2015

This is part two in our week-long series The Future of Ottawa (arts and culture edition).  In this guest column, Eric Coates, the artistic director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company, offers his insights on our city’s theatre community.  Twitter users: use hashtag #futott if you want to discuss this series on Twitter.

When I was asked to write about the future of Ottawa’s theatre scene, I was first struck by the impossibility of the task.  I can no more predict the future of Ottawa theatre than I can predict the next wave of fashion or computing.  The variables are too much for one brain.  Instead, I can offer an overview of my own fears, hopes and expectations of the years ahead.

Fear

Given its pervasive  – sometimes insidious – influence on nearly everything, I will give fear pride of place here.  My fear is that Ottawa’s theatre scene will continue to comprise a wealth of independent producers and a dearth of venue-based companies.  A healthy theatre environment requires a variety of work from both sectors, providing a broad palette of theatre for our increasingly diverse population. I do not like the thought that the Great Canadian Theatre Company may continue to be the sole professional company with a permanent home in Ottawa. (Funded directly by Heritage Canada, with a mandate to represent the entire country, the NAC is not included in my inventory of local practice).

Out of Gas - Nov. 2013 - at Short New Play Festival.  Photo by Andrew Alexander.

Eric Craig (Gorilla) in Top Job and Colleen Sutton (Tammy) in Out of Gas. All photos by Andrew Alexander (Nov. 2013 – Short New Play Festival).

I fear that in the absence of well-resourced companies, we will see more and more emerging artists hurl themselves into the self-producing model, with a mandate to create work for themselves.  All too often, these projects lead to life on the hamster wheel of exhaustion and heartbreak for the young artist who simply wants to be an actor.  They aim for artistic excellence, but cannot secure the resources to achieve it.

I fear that people will continue to conflate the development of technology and the decline of live theatre attendance. I fear that artists will incorporate high-technology at the expense of a solid narrative while in pursuit of a younger audience. Finally, I fear that professional arts criticism across Canada will disappear, leaving the job entirely to volunteers who may not have the credentials to cover theatre with the requisite understanding of the form.

Hope

I would not have survived in professional theatre for 30 years if not for an alarming capacity to hope.  I hope that The Gladstone becomes home to a well-resourced company that can produce a full season of work on the same cycle as GCTC, thereby providing more opportunities for professional artists to live and work in Ottawa.

In my fondest dreams, we create a unified voice to advocate for our work.  This, of course, requires a quantum shift: instead of asking the funders to redistribute the existing pie, we launch a successful campaign to make a bigger pie.  I hope that people will recognize that protesting against the success of another company is tantamount to asking for a funding cut across the board.  The anti-arts faction loves nothing more than division in our ranks and they pounce on it as justification to cut funding.  I hope that Kitchissippi’s new city councilor, Jeff Leiper, lives up to his campaign promise to support the arts.  He is an ardent supporter of music, but we need him to champion the value of both established and emerging theatre practice in his ward.

LR: Amy Lee (Jasp) and Heather Marie Annis (Morro) from Morro and Jasp Do Puberty. Courtesy of the GCTC. (February 2014).

L-R: Amy Lee (Jasp) and Heather Marie Annis (Morro) from Morro and Jasp Do Puberty. Courtesy of the GCTC (February 2014).

I hope that younger audiences do, indeed, flock to our work but I hope just as fervently that our emerging artists will value the existing audience. For the first time in the history of Canada, there are more people retiring from the work force than entering it.  The current crop of 50 year-old theatre patrons will be the single largest demographic in the audience for the next 20 years.  It is easy to lose sight of this truth in our eagerness to convince a recent college graduate to pay $35 for a theatre ticket.  The grey haired brigade is our ally – and an essential tool in our campaign to bring youth to theatre of all stripes.

I hope that we respond to the evisceration of arts coverage in the mainstream media by providing a vibrant scene that cannot be ignored.  Further to that, I hope that our reviewers grow along with us and expand their practice beyond Ottawa’s city limits.  This is the “hope” section, remember, so I will aim for the sky: I hope that our critics find the resources to see work in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Calgary and Saskatoon. The scene in each city is radically different and I believe it’s essential that arts reviewers understand our role in context of the whole country.

Expectation

Chamber Theatre Hintonburg cast in rehearsal for Death of a Salesman - March 2014 . Photo by Jen Vawer

Chamber Theatre Hintonburg cast in rehearsal for Death of a Salesman. Photo by Jen Vawer (March 2014).

Like sleet on a miserable morning, expectation slaps me from my hopeful haze and brings me back to reality.  My expectation is that Ottawa’s theatre scene will struggle as long as we have a wealth of artists eager to work, but not enough activity to provide a real income.  This is not unique to Ottawa: as artists become frustrated by the lack of local opportunity, they respond by creating new companies rather than investing in the bigger picture of professional development and national networking.

As long as our artists focus heavily on local practice, it is incumbent upon them to create their own professional development opportunities.  All too often, the emerging actors in Ottawa arrive at GCTC auditions unprepared and ill-equipped for the rigors of a professional audition.  Sadly, I do not expect this to change until our local artists expand their territories.

I expect that the mantra for increased funding will take time to find a unified voice, but I believe that it will happen as the energetic young crop of theatre artists and administrators gain more experience.  In that vein, I expect that the recent arrival of Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Theatre, along with the success of the Acting Company and its measured approach to professional development, will be instrumental to the health and growth of Ottawa theatre.

I expect that we will see some ambitious projects whither and die, triggering another exodus of some promising young artists to Toronto and points west. And I expect that, just as quickly as they leave, a new crop of theatre graduates will hurry to fill the void.  Finally, I expect that it is the current corps of young leaders in the community: people like Patrick Gauthier of the Fringe, Seth Gerry at GCTC, Bronwyn Steinberg, and others, who will do the heavy and sometimes painful lifting over the next decade.  It is up to all of us to lend support while the future takes shape.

Eric Coates is the artistic director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company.


  • Rachel Eugster

    Thanks for this! Good article, and valid insights. Here’s to hope’s winning over both fear and the expectations voiced here.

  • Lynn Cox

    Thanks for the wise words Eric. Your words have inspired me to add a few more hopes along the same lines:

    I hope that one day we will have an English Ottawa theatre organization like the French communities’ Théâtre Action, to unite and support us in our work and professional development.
    I hope that one day the Ottawa English Theatre community will fight and win funding equal to the Ottawa French Theatre community.
    I hope that the Ottawa English Theatre community will one day have a “United we stand. Divided we fall.” approach, like the Ottawa French Theatre community has traditionally maintained. Although the Ottawa French Theatre Community has its internal struggles, the majority put their differences aside to unite in an incredibly strong, organized voice to fight for funding and against cuts!
    I hope one day that the English Community will learn to value ALL of its members as much as the French community. Over the past decade the English community has become more focused on actors and directors. The French community has a long tradition of valuing and recognizing all of its team members as a family. On average, there are 5 or more people backstage, or in the office, for every person onstage. All team members are critical to creating artistic excellence and financially successful projects. English theatre in Ottawa has lost more artists and talent than just some good actors in the past years, and we need to work to create an environment that sustains a vibrant and holistic English Theatre family, so ALL of our family members will want to stay here.
    I hope that we, the English Theatre Community, do not stand idly by and loose The Gladstone space in the future, like we lost The Atelier and the new Arts Court Theatre.
    I hope that Ottawa English Theatre learns to embrace new technology and interdisciplinary integration with less fear. The French community is certainly taking the lead in this area, and we can learn much from them and how they do it and fund it. The Canada Council is now in the process of recognizing that the definition of artistic disciplines is changing, and it is a wake-up call we should heed.

    Thanks.
    Lynn Cox is a multi-skilled veteran of the Ottawa Theatre Community working in both French and English, for many many years.

  • Thank you Eric for your hope and expectation. And, thank you Lynn for throwing down the gauntlet again! The arts service organizations in Ottawa have a role to advocate for change and for the growing and sharing of resources. As a proud member of the Ottawa theatre community for the past 25 years and now leader of the AOE Arts Council, I officially extend the offer for us to collaborate and work together to build the kind of theatre community that we all want! We are in the process of redesigning the way that we work with the arts community to be more responsive and will soon be launching a ‘performing arts working group’ to identify and advance issues of common concern. It will be open to anyone who wished to join so watch for more information.

  • Thanks Eric, Lynn and Victoria for some excellent analysis. Victoria, I’m happy to share my thoughts while I’m still here. I think it will all come down to leadership. Only a truly united community will have the lobbying power and resources overcome the funding and audience development issues that hold us back. I challenge our community leaders to come together, set aside our differences be they Equity/non-equity, established/emerging, professional/non-professional, artistic/entertainment, non-profit/commercial, funded/unfunded and recognize that we’re all part of the theatre ecology, each of us with own own valuable part to play in revitalizing the community as a whole and achieving the common goals that alone we are ill equipped or under resourced to achieve. I agree with Lynn that to begin we need look no further than the French community for ideas and inspiration, and that folks like Sean Devine, yourself, and other recent imports from larger, better organized markets have much to teach us, but only if we’re willing to admit to ourselves that we still have much to learn.

  • Patrick Langston

    Re. Eric Coates: Future of Ottawa: Fear and hope for our theatre scene

    Thanks, Eric, for a balanced and necessary take on the situation. However, in pointing to the “the evisceration of arts coverage in the mainstream media,” you neglect to add a crucial corollary: If mainstream media has an unspoken obligation to support the arts, then the arts, and by extension the community at large, have a responsibility to support mainstream media.

    Without a vibrant readership, viewership and listenership, media shrivels. The reasons are well known: in the case of newspapers, for example, fewer eyes on pages means fewer advertising dollars means fewer resources to cover everything including the arts. If it’s a publicly owned medium like the CBC, merely grumbling as opposed to vociferously opposing cuts in government (ie., taxpayer) support leads to the same shrinking coverage.

    It’s a different scenario for media, primarily Internet-based, that operate with volunteer staff. And while some unpaid theatre reviewers, for example, do an outstanding job (especially those who were once paid but have since retired), others, as you point out, may not.

    A final point and one which some will say makes me a mere apologist for the Citizen where I am an arts freelancer: the paper does an exceptional job of covering an increasingly vital and diverse local arts scene. That’s especially true when you realize how drastic personnel cuts have been at the paper. From music to theatre to visual arts, the coverage is timely, considered and lively. At CBC Radio, meanwhile, Alan Neal in particular brings an understanding and love of the arts not just to his daily show but to off-hours involvement in everything from the Ottawa International Writers Festival to theatre productions by not-for-profit groups.

    We – audiences and artists alike – benefit from this mainstream attention despite media budgets that have become tighter than a whalebone corset and a blend of apparent public indifference and federal government hostility to both the arts and journalism.

    Imagine how much richer the coverage could be if we stopped expecting everything to be available gratis and if we afforded mainstream media the same support we assume it owes us.

    Patrick Langston