The Theatre Arts Committee convened by the Hamilton & Region Arts Council brought together Artistic Directors, Managers and Theatre Artists from across the wide spectrum of theatre companies and venues. As part of the Hamilton Arts Council’s renewed mandate to promote critical dialogue in our creative community, we have restored this valuable forum to promote collaboration among arts organizations and inform our ongoing arts advocacy in Hamilton.
This first meeting of the 2012 TAC on January 31 was attended by Dan Abbott (Players Guild | HAC staff), Luke Brown (Theatre Aquarius), Jason Dick (Hammer Entertainment), Colette Kendall (Staircase Theatre), Ray Louter (Redeemer University College Theatre Dept.), Brian Morton (Hamilton Fringe Festival), Stephen Near (Independent Artist | HAC staff), Richelle Tavernier-Clements (Hamilton Theatre Inc), Nea Reid (Village Theatre Waterdown | Burlington Slam Project), Lilly Small (Great Big Theatre Company), Sally Watson (Dundas Little Theatre)
1. Current theatre work in Hamilton – The Committee members discussed some of the theatre projects now taking place at their venues or later in their season. Among the highlights were auditions for upcoing productions, preparations for announcing 2012-2013 seasons, and updates on shows that are now up-and-running. We note the diversity that comprises the members of the Committee ranging from community theatre groups to professional comapnies to independent artists and theatre space venues.
2. Challenges facing theatre artists in Hamilton
A) Venue Concerns: One of the main topics of concern to Hamilton theatre artists is the need for secure and reliable venues where artists can grow and audiences can be developed. Some of the community theatres rent their spaces from the city whilst others own their own space. The general consensus is that if companies can own their own venue their long-term sustainability is likely increased. Their ability to maintain a strong profile in the community and keep production costs low is increased. One of the issues raised with venue, however, was the matter of how theatre companies of all varieties can actually fill a 300 to 500 seat theatre when multiple companies across the region open and run production at the same time. When theatres in Hamilton are sharing both actors and audiences it is difficult to get full houses all around.
B) “Old” vs “New” Theatre in the City: This issue has permutations in a variety of sectors. Several companies noted challenges in adapting modern theatre practices (online ticketing, building-wide Internet, marketing strategies, etc.) with the older community theatre traditions. The Committee also noted there are more theatres doing the same type of work in the region. Combined with the fact that there are a lot of productions being done across the region means companies and artists are inadvertently competing with each other for audiences. The Committee notes that Hamilton theatre artists don’t tend to work together in a unified capacity and agreed that the Committee could be a strong step towards such cooperation. Jason and Richelle both suggested the Committee could help coordinate the theatre seasons of the city’s companies so scheduling conflicts are less common and competition for share-of-audiences is less frequent. The Committee discussed the idea of a collective of companies sharing one venue and consistently producing one show per month to increase audiences and exposure. This model has seen success in other cities like Toronto (The Theatre Centre for example). The Committee also talked about the challenge facing Hamilton artists regarding audiences that don’t normally go and see theatre. This matter was raised on a broader level as the Committee discussed how the numbers of people attending live theatre are down nationwide and wondered how Hamilton theatre companies might work on an artistic level to redefine theatre and make it more appealing for audiences. Richelle also mentioned a problem with regards to Hamilton artists is that they don’t tend to see each other’s shows or appreciate the work of other companies. She demonstrated how she is working to encourage theatre artist cross promotion by purchasing bulk ticket orders for her company members. Ray mentioned the idea of a Theatre Artists Pass system that would encourage this further. The Committee discussed that a new incarnation of the Pass system for opening nights would be a great initiative.
C) Advertising: The matter of how to tackle this persistent and challenging issue was high on the Committee’s agenda. There is a consistent problem facing small or community theatre companies in the form of ever-rising advertising costs. Jason suggested the Committee might work with the Hamilton Spectator or other media outlets to take out a large ad space buy to collectively promote the theatre seasons or shows of several companies. A group of companies might pool their advertising resources together and purchase a “bulk” advertising space on the radio, CHCH or in the Spectator. The Committee also discussed how both the Spectator and the View have seen a diminishing degree of active theatre coverage in recent years. A smaller pool of critics combined with the fact that a show can really only feature a preview or a review (not both) means less of a profile for featured artists or companies. Both Jason and Richelle mentioned the boon of targeting community news publications for advertising as their readership is broader(delivered to every single household) and the publications are free. Other Committee members stated that social media has taken on a much larger and more effective role in advertising. Nea said that VTW has spent less money on advertising this past year while focusing more on social media as creative way of reaching out to audiences. Colette Kendall mentioned how she is running her entire venue as a space-for-rent open to parties, classes, karaoke, etc. alongside theatre. She has made sure the building is plastered with promotion materials to garner greater attendance for the theatre in the place.
D) Audience Development: Stephen asked the Committee for more information about their attendance this past season. Generally, the Committee members saw an increase in their audience numbers this past fall though they acknowledged it is too early to determine if this will hold in the long run. Luke said that Aquarius’ attendance is generally up but continues to fluctuate from show to show. He mentioned that Aquarius has been working with a consulting firm on other methods of audience outreach. Richelle and Sally both said that there has been a growing trend for community theatres to make conscious and realistic decisions about their programming. These decisions not only reflect the mandates of the company but also the type of work specific audiences want to see and what is deemed “commercially viable”. Brian talked about the need to understand two types of audiences for the theatre: the core audience (those that are loyal to the company no matter the show) and the swing audience (those who are attracted to a particular show). The swing audience is, in many ways, the most lucrative and most difficult audience to attract and retain. Dan and Jason both said that there are probably many in the community who don’t know about the diversity of Hamilton theatre but would come out more frequently if they did. A higher degree of media exposure is likely needed to reach such people and to keep reminding them that theatre is out there and available to be seen. Colette said the Staircase has a policy whereby most shows produced in the space must help promote other shows in the space by announcing at the end of the show and holding flyers in the program.
3. How can the TAC address these challenges?
A) Collective Grant Application: A grant application by the HAC on behalf of the Committee members for the purposes of hiring a marketing professional to do publicity and consult on marketing issues might be feasible. Stephen mentioned that Pat Bradley(the Theatre Officer of the Ontario Arts Council) has expressed interest in seeing more theatre-based applications come out of Hamilton. Ray mentioned that such a grant could also be used to create a downloadable database or Smartphone app listing all of the theatre venues and contact information in Hamilton. The app would be especially useful for getting information into the hands of theatre students or theatre artists new to the city that are looking for opportunities to work in Hamilton.
B) Hamilton Arts Council Annual Theatre Guide: This successful and award-winning advertising pamphlet will, once again, be compiled and put together by the Hamilton Arts Council. The Committee will take a more active role in the creation and compilation of the Guide this time around. The Guide has been nominated for a Hamilton Tourism Award two years running and there are plans afoot to see the design improved.
C) Theatre Information Initiatives: There were two ideas on how the TAC can increase the profile of the theatre community and get the word out to theatre artists on potential work opportunities. The HAC Audition Board is open for use by any Hamilton theatre group that is looking for actors or backstage crew. Luke mentioned that he and Stephen are working on publishing a Hamilton Theatre Venue Guide (perhaps in partnership with the Cobalt Connects) detailing names, locations, rates, etc. of different theatre venues in the city.
D) Panel Audition Day: Luke stated that Theatre Aquarius might be interested in hosting a day or two of scheduled auditions that would allow the local theatre companies to audition and interview local actors and artists. This might take place in the summer once all of the theatres have declared their seasons and it would teach audition skills to new actors and put directors and producers in touch with performers or crew that want to do their shows.