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Real City Matters

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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

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