Trouble for CanStage, Trouble for Toronto?

It's one week to the day since the axe fell at the Canadian Stage Company: nine employees gone in the face of a $694,000 two season loss and a total debt load of $1 million. Bad, if not catastrophic, news for CanStage. But does the plight of Toronto's largest non-profit theatre say anything about the state of theatre in Toronto?

Probably. And the the prognosis isn't altogether promising.

So how does it happen? How does a theatre company with a 50 year history lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in two years? The answer, I think, has to do with a kind of identity crisis. Sure, there are a host of external factors. September 11th, SARS and a strong Canadian dollar have wiped out much of the American audience that used to drive big-budget shows in the city. But CanStage seems to not really know what it is anymore. Just look at this season's offerings: of the eight shows, five are by American authors. One is a 26 year-old musical based on a 48 year-old movie. Another is an adaptation of a Stephen King novel. The rest, while interesting, don't fit together. It's a long walk from the brutal darkness of Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman to a musical inspired by Jerry Lee Lewis. It's a scattershot slate of plays, one that leaves Toronto theatregoers a little confused.

CanStage's 2007-08 season seemed calculated to appeal to the widest possible audience and take a stab at Mirvish Production's dominance of the 'big show' market. And if there's anything close to an inviolable law in Toronto theatre, it's this: you can't out-Mirvish Mirvish. Even Mirvish can't out-Mirvish Mirvish, as demonstrated by a spate of ambitious but flawed projects. Lord of the Rings. The Musical. That's all I'm saying.

Leave the Les Miz and Phantom remounts to the Princess of Wales and Royal Alex. Concentrate on putting together an artisticly coherent season that appeals to the small, but loyal, theatre crowd in Toronto. It's a formula that continues to work well for the Tarragon and Factory Theatres, and something Canstage seems to have forgotten.

Nevertheless, as Toronto's biggest non-profit, CanStage is a barometer for Toronto's entire theatre community. Weakness there points to weakness everywhere. I'd tend to be a little more cheery about the Toronto theatre scene if CanStage was an isolated case. But last year, once-venerable Theatre Passe Muraille needed a $1.2 million bailout from the City of Toronto to ward of its creditors. And CanStage is going a similar route, asking the city to act as a guarantor on its $800,000 line of credit. Torontonians love their theatre, but not when it adds another liability to the city's already razor-thin financial margins. The city simply doesn't have the capability to carry its theatres, and milking City Hall is not a viable funding strategy.

Without putting too fine a point on it, the lesson of CanStage seems to be this: it's hard to produce theatre in Toronto, and it's probably going to get harder. To survive, careful artistic and financial planning is needed. And one key question needs to be asked: "what do we offer Toronto audiences that no one else can?" Currently, CanStage is creatively stuck somewhere between Dirty Dancing and The Farm Show, between the glitz of Mirvish and the artistic verve of Passe Muraille. Unless CanStage decides what it wants to be, it will be difficult to survive their present financial straits. And if they fold, it will be a serious blow to theatre in our city and a disturbing portent of things to come.

Photo: CanStage's Berkeley Street Theatre. Courtesy of the Canadian Stage Company.

Latest Videos

Latest Videos

Join the conversation Load comments

Latest in Theatre

The top live theatre shows in Toronto May 2014

Beatrice & Virgil stuffed and mounted at Factory Theatre

Company Theatre's Belleville a nail-biting drama

The top live theatre shows in Toronto April 2014

A Beautiful View at Factory Theatre for a limited run

The top live theatre shows in Toronto March 2014

Play about Rob Ford to debut at Edinburgh Fringe Fest

Rhubarb Festival Preview 2014