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culture

Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s Brendan Healy Writes an Open Letter to Theatregoers (or the Lack Thereof)

The artistic director of one of Toronto's best-known theatre companies says his latest show is drawing "shockingly" sparse crowds.

A promotional still for Daniel MacIvor’s Arigato, Tokyo  Photo by Tanja Tiziana Burdi

A promotional still for Daniel MacIvor’s Arigato, Tokyo. Photo by Tanja-Tiziana Burdi.

Brendan Healy has had the role of artistic director at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre since 2009, and according to an open letter he released today, these are some bad times indeed.

It’s no secret that many of Toronto’s theatre companies have seen the numbers of paying customers coming through their doors shrink over the last few years. Companies have had to adjust in response—a process known euphemistically as “right-sizing.” But when the artistic director of one of Toronto’s most iconic companies—which Buddies In Bad Times, “the largest facility-based queer theatre company in the world,” definitely is—has to write a letter to the citizens of Toronto (theatre-going or not) expressing his surprise at low attendance for a new play from one of Canada’s most acclaimed and accomplished playwrights (Daniel MacIvor’s Arigato, Tokyo, in this instance), there’s a problem. ADs are not usually ones to admit a show, especially one they’ve directed themselves, isn’t performing up to their expectations in the box office.

Healy is funny, open, and embarrassingly honest and humble when it comes to his leadership role at Buddies, so we suspect this letter doesn’t come out of anger or condescension (but take from it what you will). It doesn’t speculate on the causes of the low turnout. Instead, it asks readers to participate in a survey that Healy hopes will help the company understand what’s keeping people away.

Healy’s high opinion of the play isn’t shared by everyone. Arigato, Tokyo has received very mixed reviews, from glowing, to puzzled. One reviewer called it “a low point.” (This writer thought Healy’s direction was stunning.) But in any case, such a statement from one of Toronto’s major artistic voices, about one of Canada’s major artistic fields, is something we thought should be brought to your attention. Here’s the full text of the letter:

Dear Buddies Patron and Supporter,

I am writing this as an act of transparency.

As you may know, we are currently running Daniel MacIvor’s newest play Arigato, Tokyo until April 14th. I am very proud of this production. It represents a bold and exciting departure in Daniel’s writing and I am deeply honoured that one of our country’s greatest living playwrights entrusted us with the responsibility of realizing this latest phase in his oeuvre. Audience and critical feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. I truly believe that this production figures among the finest that our company has ever produced.

Despite this, our houses have been disappointingly low. I would even say “shockingly” low for such a critically lauded production by a writer of Daniel’s stature. They are low in such a way that we are scratching our heads and asking some very serious questions.

I took the helm of Buddies four years ago following a time of great crisis for the company. Prior to my arrival, the company had been forced to cancel shows and it had lost the trust of many of you. Since then, we have been working hard to provide you with theatrical experiences that are contemporary and challenging but that also live up to a high standard of artistic excellence. In many ways, these efforts have paid off: the company is financially solid, our shows have received numerous accolades and awards, and there is a general consensus that Buddies is an important cultural force in the city. And still, show after show, we continuously struggle to get people to come.

I am aware that this is an industry-wide phenomenon. We are hardly the only theatre in town faced with this problem. In fact, I recently participated in a historic meeting between several of the artistic directors in the city to discuss this critical issue. We all recognize that these are exceedingly challenging times for the arts in Canada.

This leads me to the purpose of this email. We are currently engaged in developing a 10-year strategic plan for the company. We want Buddies to have a thriving future to look forward to. But, in order to do so, we need to understand what obstacles are keeping audiences away from our shows. As part of this strategic planning process, we are currently conducting a survey of our patrons. This survey is an opportunity for us to get to know you better and gather some valuable feedback on our programming and communications. I ask that you to please find a few minutes to fill out our online survey by clicking here. The data collected from this survey will play an important role in helping us figure out what we need to do in order to keep Buddies a relevant and dynamic theatre company.

Furthermore, I urge you to please come to Arigato, Tokyo. We only have ten shows left. Attending our productions is truly the best way to express your support. As always, feel free to share your thoughts about the production with us. We care deeply about our audience and your feedback is invaluable.

Thank you for your time and continued support of Buddies.

Sincerely,

Brendan Healy

Comments

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.provost.397 Michael Provost

    Less pompous, elitist, self-indulgence would go a long way. A play is not good simply because you say it is. But you’ll ignore this. After all, what does the audience know?

    • anon

      Presumptous sarcasm is probably not helping to enhance culture and an open-minded public supportive of the arts.

      The least one could do when assigning a subjective label like ‘pompous’ or ‘elitist’ or ‘self-indulgent’ (or all three), would be to explain specifically how one may have come to that conclusion, and examine the reasons for stating it so explicitly and generally.

      Also – assuming intent (‘you’ll ignore this’) and asking a rhetorical question worthy of debate (the audience is all of us who attend – and there are likely differing opinions)

      In an increasingly product-driven marketplace (as opposed to a community that exchanges ideas), the place to attend, support and spend on arts that you do not necessarily ‘like’ or think is ‘good’ is being lost rapidly, and the attitude reduced to dismissive reasoning for not taking time, effort or consideration to take in alternative creative ideas.

      The important point is to participate in the attempt to understand ideas and expand creative thinking. People hated every new wave of artistic ideas, that then went on to flourish. Theatre, unlike music or visual art, is temporal and of the moment – and it does not always fall into the category of ‘entertainment’ that panders to the general audience ‘good feeling’ – it can also challenge, be engaging in dark, uncomfortable, dramatic ways – which is the point – to discuss how those differing displays make one feel and why one would tell that story, and what it might mean for others (and not only just for oneself – ie: ‘I don’t like it’ or ‘I like it’)

      An unmentioned factor, is the increased amount of time people spend (like now) surfing the internet, and being distracted by a great deal of other stimulus with their time, in addition to being ‘busier’ than ever with the economic times – creating a less-than-ideal environment for time away at the theatre as a ‘distraction’ to have the same effect/value as it had in past.

    • LogicToronto

      I know Brendan Healy personally (from before he became the BiBT AD and since) and he is anything but pompous, elitist, or self-indulgent. He’s passionate and has a true dedication to Toronto’s theatre community.

      That aside, how do you take this open letter to be pompous, elitist, or self-indulgent? It’s a frank and open discussion with current and future theatre-goers.

      Brendan is doing nothing more than saying “I think we have a good thing here and I’m saddened that it’s not reaching more people. What can we do so that our theatre and its productions are more attractive and accessible to you?”. He is not in ANY way saying “This play is good and your opinion of it is wrong.”

      He’s literally asking his clientèle for their voices and their opinions and will use those to shape the way in which his company runs and delivers art and performance to its patrons. That’s not elitism – it’s the opposite.

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    If the audience isn’t there it isn’t because they are doing something wrong.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=614961286 Regina Simon

    It’s not so much that Toronto Theatre goers are neglecting Theatre. I think there comes a point when the piece just doesn’t connect with the audience so they don’t come, regardless of the reputation of the playwright. Otherwise the entire touring run of “Book of Mormon” wouldn’t be sold out after the 2nd day the tickets became available. Or “Rent” at the Lower Ossington Theatre won’t be extending their runs to meet sold out ticket demands. Heck, I’m in community theatre production of “South Pacific” opening in May. Our tickets were already more than 50% sold out for our run before rehearsals started in March.

    • http://www.facebook.com/cam.laurie.5 Cam Laurie

      Everything you just mentioned is a mainstream musical. We know these sell well because they are easy and digestible. Not that I think Toronto’s smaller theatre’s do all that challenging of work, but they do put much more risk into their productions as far as audience reception goes. This is a given. I think the concern was that the audience for these particular types of productions have fallen off rather drastically. The theatre audience that rushes to see community theatre productions of South Pacific or Mirvish’s Book of Mormon is not the same theatre audience that ever went to Passe Muraille or Buddies. This audience once came out in stronger numbers and seems now to be quickly disappearing.

  • feeling cynical

    It’s interesting that something like Toronto’s Zero Gravity Circus’ Lunacy Cabaret attracts sold out audiences again and again. We’re talking like 3-400 people for the most off the cuff, steamy, unprocessed, unfiltered show in Toronto. No advertisement, no Now Magazine reviews, 1 rehearsal, no pretenses. But the audience not only gets to be part of the show, is engaged and invited to BE in the shows. There is a community there. People are taking classes, developing bits and caring for each other. Let’s face the facts, EVERY BIT OF AMAZING ENTERTAINMENT is FREE ONLINE. I can go watch Peter Brook productions, Royal Shakespeare Company, Beckett plays, entire volumes of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, HBO series with the best in writing, acting, direction and unheard of budgets, the list goes on and on. As an actor/producer/director in Toronto, I have been on the scene for over 15 years and I think it comes down to this: only way to get seen is to do something that can’t be missed. I have gone to see Buddie Shows in the past. They’re miss-able. Daniel McIvor made one man shows for highschool and university students to sink their teeth into and have some fun, the fact that we laud him as one of Canada’s best living playwrights is like saying Justin Beiber is one of our greatest talents. He did some stuff. It was cute and charming and funny. He sold a bunch of plays and the thousands of eager actors going to the inumerable theatre schools that churn out budding artists will run into his work and say, “I can do this”. Let’s face it: being an audience member sucks. You have to get across town, find parking, pay too much money, go into a place that’s kinda trashy and run down for what? An exceptional experience? Transformational? It’s been damn cold out. I haven’t heard anybody talking about this show. I haven’t been invited by a friend to go see it. If a show doesn’t have some amazing energy and heart and soul in it, I end up just falling asleep. And I can do that at home.