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Ready for an Encore

Calgary’s theatre industry weathers economic storm

According to Stafford Arima, Theatre Calgary’s new artistic director, reaching wider audiences starts with diversity and inclusivity on stage and backstage. Honour Beat is written by Indigenous playwright Tara Beacon, directed by Michelle Thrush, and features a full Indigenous cast, director and design team. Art by Andrea Ucini.

Airlines do it. So do hotels. And an increasing number of theatres are doing it too.

These businesses are adjusting their product prices in response to real-time supply and demand.

It’s called dynamic pricing. For example, increased demand for a last-minute Friday night flight to Las Vegas drives prices up while decreased demand for a Tuesday afternoon flight to Sarasota drives prices down. Similarly, if a Friday night theatre première has only four seats left, prices may go up. But if demand is lower for a Tuesday show, prices may come down.

Calgary’s mystery-based Vertigo Theatre transitioned to dynamic pricing approximately three years ago.

“Other theatres in Calgary have already implemented dynamic ticket pricing,” says Rose Brow, executive director at Vertigo Theatre. “Recent changes like this one allow us to ensure we are keeping up with industry best practices and offsetting shrinking corporate donations so that we can keep offering high-calibre artistic productions that patrons want to see. Dynamic pricing also incentivizes annual subscriptions since it allows patrons to lock in the best price, the best seat and more personalized service.”

According to Calgary Arts Development, corporate donations and sponsorship for theatre organizations have been trending down, decreasing 21 per cent from 2014 to 2017. Individual donations have remained almost flat during that time, decreasing and then increasing four per cent.

To help the local art scene stay afloat, the City of Calgary, in partnership with Calgary Arts Development, announced the creation of the Calgary Arts Emergency Resiliency Fund. In 2016, $1 million in funds were ​invested in 34 arts organizations. The fund was reinstated in 2017.

“There appears to be a permanent change in the industry,” explains Emiko Muraki, director of community investment and impact at Calgary Arts Development. “The fund provided temporary relief, giving organizations a bit of time to rethink how they make up their revenue.”

While most of Calgary’s theatre companies are reviewing their revenue streams, others, like Theatre Calgary, the city’s oldest professional theatre, have been able to weather the storm thanks to forward thinking. Unlike many theatres, it has seen individual giving go up in the last few years thanks to in-house initiatives like the Artistic Champions which allows members to receive exclusive opportunities to meet the artists, go behind the scenes and enjoy an on-stage dinner with artistic directors.

“We started the Artistic Champions campaign three years ago now,” explains Lisa Mackay, director of marketing and audience development at Theatre Calgary. “This now brings in more than 20 per cent of our fundraising revenue.”

Similarly, Vertigo Theatre recognizes the importance of loyal patrons. It launched the Royal Mystery Society in 2017, a behind-the-scenes experience that invites members to unique theatre events throughout the season.

“We realize the importance of nurturing the relationship we have with our most loyal theatregoers,” explains Brow. “This is why Vertigo is developing programs and offerings that deepen the relationship we have with our patrons and the larger Calgary community. By asking our stakeholders what matters most to them, we are better able to provide excellent artistic experiences, maintain sustainable operations and contribute to a vibrant, creative life for Calgarians.”

Vertigo Theatre isn’t alone in these efforts. According to Muraki, Calgary’s theatre industry has been going to great lengths to provide experiences that resonate with the city’s diverse audiences.

“Over the last decade, I’d say there has been a desire to make theatre more broadly available to all Calgarians,” says Muraki. “Theatre companies are creating more inclusive spaces for audiences. They are telling stories that Calgarians want to hear, in a way they want to hear it.”

Col Cseke has been the artistic director at Inside Out Theatre for five years. The organization produces and presents plays created by artists with disabilities.

“One of the positive things happening in theatre right now,” says Cseke, “is that there has been a larger interest in work created by artists and companies and communities that have historically been marginalized. I’d argue there is more interest now in disability-identified theatre than there ever has been.”

This interest can in part be attributed to a recent project launched by Inside Out Theatre called the Good Host Program.

“The Good Host Program makes theatre more accessible for people of all abilities by offering services such as American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, audio description and relaxed performances for those with sensory concerns, autism spectrum disorders, learning disorders, dementia or even parents with small babies,” explains Cseke. “Inside Out Theatre runs the program and helps theatre companies throughout Calgary interested in offering these services.”

The program, which launched in 2017, was quickly embraced by the industry. In this past year, 12 organizations partnered with Inside Out Theatre to offer ASL interpreters, audio description or relaxed performances at over 40 events. As of last year, Theatre Calgary offers ASL-translated performances for every main-stage production and offers an ASL subscription, the first of its kind in Canada. 

Theatre Calgary has also made theatre more broadly available to Calgarians thanks to Shakespeare by the Bow, an initiative first started in 2012. Performances are non-ticketed and are pay-what-you-will by donation.

“Shakespeare by the Bow is about creating an experience that everyone can enjoy,” says Mackay. “By performing the plays outside on Prince’s Island Park, we’re able to remove the hesitation factor that one might get from attending a play in a theatre and reach a much wider audience.”

But as Stafford Arima, Theatre Calgary’s new artistic director, explains, “Reaching a wider audience isn’t just about who is sitting in the seats. It starts with diversity and inclusivity on stage and backstage. It’s about bringing together writers, directors, designers and actors from different backgrounds who can produce quality works that Calgarians want to see.”

Case in point, Theatre Calgary is curating three world premières including Honour Beat, the story of two grown sisters who face off over their mother’s deathbed. Written by indigenous playwright Tara Beagan and directed by Michelle Thrush, Honour Beat features a full indigenous cast, director and design team.

As Calgary’s theatre scene evolves, an increasing number of artists are pursuing their passion in the industry. According to Calgary Arts Development, the number of artists hired has gone up 48 per cent from 2014 to 2017 and public activities (i.e. performances, exhibitions, films, video or media screenings and/or community arts projects) increased 51 per cent from 2014. However, with full-time staff decreasing by three per cent since 2014 (162 FTE), it is likely productions are getting smaller.

That’s not the approach Vertigo Theatre wants to take.

“It seems somewhat counter-intuitive,” explains Brow, “but even in times of economic downturns, we try to ensure that our plays maintain high-production values. Instead of making productions smaller, we share resources with theatre companies across Canada to offer our patrons a larger-scale production that we might not otherwise be able to create on our own.”

In 2017, the organization collaborated with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and Gateway Theatre to produce Nine Dragons written by Jovanni Sy. This year, Vertigo Theatre is partnering with Persephone Theatre to produce The Thin Man by Lucia Frangione. The organization is also collaborating with Calgary’s Shakespeare Company to bring different styles of work and new audiences to Vertigo Theatre.

Amidst Calgary’s economic downturn, many theatre companies have struggled to stay afloat. But for Theatre Calgary, Vertigo Theatre and Inside Out Theatre, investments in industry-best practices, strong donor relations, industry collaborations and a focus on audience needs has positioned them to return for an encore.