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Future of Ottawa: Fear and hope for our theatre scene

By Eric Coates 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.

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