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  • Hamilton Fringe Festival Blog: the First

    July 25, 2012 by Stephen Near

    I’m writing this blog at 1:39 in the morning…fresh after our 4th Show at the Hamilton Fringe. Despite the requests of my mother to “go to bed early”, I have locked myself in my basement, hooked myself on the interwebs and am now scouring the internet for reviews on my play to post on every social media outlet.

    My name is Aaron Jan and this is the first time that my company has participated in the Hamilton Fringe Festival. With the first 4 of our 7 shows complete, I’ve been asked by theHamilton Arts Council to provide some insight about the experience of being a first time participant in the Fringe.

    When I told my Torontonian friend that our company had entered in the Fringe, his response (to quote magician James Biss) was less than fabulous: “Why the HamiltonFringe?” he asked bluntly. I didn’t really have an answer for him at the time. I made up some lie about “giving back to our community” and ended the conversation there – feeling exceptionally stupid and naïve. More on that later.

    Contrary to my friend’s opinion, our experience at the Hamilton Fringe thus far has been nothing short of positive. A big part of this has to do with our venue technician, Adam Archer. Ever since our first meeting, Adam’s been there for us. Every day I see him extensively selling the shows at our venue to patrons. There’s a kind of loyalty and invested interest there that I’ve never experienced before. Needless to say, we’re purchasing him copious amounts of alcohol to show our gratitude.

    I think that’s the thing I really dig about the Hamilton Fringe Festival. In my past dabblings with community theatre, I’ve noticed that other companies don’t necessarily support each other. Every community theatre (ourselves included) in Hamilton seems to have a circle of followers at every performance with maybe 10 strangers or random people. Cliques, if you will. Not so at the Fringe. Because the Fringe is unjuried and advertising is entirely self-motivated, the Festival puts onus on us to sell our show. Even companies with large networks cannot sustain 7 nights of shows with their circles alone.

    Obviously, friendships make sense. Everyone is on equal footing. Everyone paid the same fee to apply to the Fringe. If there’s prejudice or contempt here, I’ve yet to notice it. Not only is the work of the other artists interesting, but partnering with another company to “double promote” shows has proven to be extremely popular and effective for getting bums in seats. There’s a sense of fellowship when you see other “artists of the Fringe” seeing your show, because you’re all alike in some messed up way.

    This really comes together at the Artword Artbar. After shows, companies gather at the Artbar to exchange stories, whispers, rumors and flights of fancy. They get drunk, share marketing strategies. They laugh together, eat soup, and poke each other. It feels like a unified and cohesive community…maybe one that Hamilton’s theatre scene desperately needs.

    Because at the end of the day, we’re all united by one desire: to sell. No one wants anyone to get an empty house. That’s the big struggle…trying to overcome that massive obstacle of not having people see your show. That’s also the fun of Fringe…the tactics of tempting a stranger to take a chance on your show. This is the reason why I’m up at this ungodly hour, advertising the show all over Facebook. Tomorrow I’ll be at the Fringe, communicating with patrons at the Artbar and handing them our postcards in the waiting lines of other shows. It’s obsessive and addictive.

    It’s to these tactics that I credit our audiences. At best we’ve had over 78 people in the house. At worst we’ve had 25. I’ve been told that the first three shows are the hardest and based on our audience size tonight I’m pretty confident that we’ve crossed this hurdle.

    So why Hamilton Fringe then? Simple: It’s a bunch of ragtag artists gathered in one spot with one desire. It’s a chance for both performers and audiences take a risk with potentially huge payoff. It’s a glimpse of the artistic community that Hamilton could and should have.

    See you at the Fringe!

    -Aaron

    Aaron Jan is a Hamilton-based theatre playwright, performer, director and the Artistic Director of Fulcrum Theatre. You can catch the company’s entry in the Hamilton Fringe festival, Drafts, at the Citadel Theatre until Sunday, July 29th. You can follow him on Twitter at @afatchineseboy

  • Break-A-Leg Speed Date Theatre Network Event

    July 20, 2012 by Stephen Near

    On Wednesday, July 18th the Hamilton Arts Council in partnership with CoBALT Connectsand Theatre Aquarius held a unique networking event at the Baltimore House in downtown Hamilton. Structured around a “speed-dating” format, this event offered theatre artists of all kinds a chance to connect with each in brief 5 minute intervals before moving on to someone new. Although the event didn’t get many pre-registrations, we had quite a few people who showed up and signed in at the door. We spotted Jason Dick (Hammer Entertainment) alongside Crystal Jonasson and A.J. Haygarth sipping coffee before the event kicked off. Soon we were joined by other local artists Lisa Pijuan-Nomura, Ker Wells,Lori Le Mare, Paula Grove, and Kelly Wolf. Chris Farias from Kitestring also joined us for the night along with Bridget Macintosh from the City of Hamilton

    Before the night got started, Luke Brown (from Theatre Aquarius) suggested the participating “speed daters” keep a few things in mind about their theatre practise:  Who are you? What do you do? Who are your influences? What do you want to do? What are you looking for? What’s your history? Jeremy Frieburger got the evening’s participants moving around with the help of timer clock and very loud buzzer that reminded us all of those agonizing days of gym class in high school. But it actually helped move participants along at a steady pace. It seems when theatre people get together to talk and conspire they plot and plot and cannot stop chatting. Not surprisingly, the first three rounds of speed dates went by in a flash.  After a break for drink and coffee at the awesome Baltimore venue, the event continued with another three rounds of speed date networking.

    “On the Clock” – Photo courtesy of Jeremy Frieburger

     

    Among the projects I heard discussed by some of the artists was a new solo show, a new play script, a remount of a successful musical, a series of performance-based presentations and an initiative to develop new local work that speaks to what Hamilton audiences want to see.  It struck me that this city’s emerging crop of theatre artists are rooted in a do-it-yourself, entrepreneurial tradition linked with a passion to do new work for and about Hamilton. Luke Brown said that he often felt that producing theatre in Hamilton right now feels like “being a pioneer”. Perhaps such networking events can help give more theatre artists a proverbial wagon train?

    “Coffee Talk” – photo courtesy of Jeremy Frieburger

     

    It was a terrific event and one of many that we hope we can do in the future for the benefit of other artists across the various disciplines in the city of Hamilton.

  • 3rd Theatre Arts Committee Meeting Notes

    July 16, 2012 by Stephen Near

    The Theatre Arts Committee was convened for the third time this year by the Hamilton Arts Council as part of our renewed mandate to promote critical dialogue in our creative community.

    This meeting of the 2012 TAC on June 19 was attended by Luke Brown (Theatre Aquarius), Trevor Copp (Tottering Biped Theatre), Tom Mackan (Burlington Little Theatre), Brian Morton (Hamilton Fringe Festival), Patrick Brennan (Lyric Theatre), Stephen Near (Independent Artist | HAC staff)

    1) Theatre Guide 2012-13: The Committee discussed how they will be going forward with this year’s HAC Theatre Guide. Stephen reviewed the Committee’s concerns regarding previous guides and outlined how the HAC will be improving upon at least some of them for the upcoming Guide. It was further discussed how the HAC hopes the Guide will be a means of promoting Hamilton as a ‘destination city’ for theatre not only to audiences living here but also to tourists coming to the city. The Committee also discussed the relevance of a print-run Guide in the future and posited the idea of a Theatre Guide app at some point in the future. The Committee identified that a robust website in concert with an app might work better, would keep the information current and be more cost effective down the road. Turning the Theatre Guide into a downloadable PDF can and will be implemented. Stephen stated that the editorial sub-committee will be elected from members of the Theatre Arts Committee to oversee the submission of content for the Guide. The HAC suggests that the Editorial Committee bear in mind two key points with regards to editorial content:

    • What are the most relevant issues facing Hamilton theatre right now?
    • Who is the best individual/organization who can speak to those issues within the Guide?

    2) Panel Audition Day: Luke talked about this audition event at Theatre Aquarius in July allowing for any performer wanting to be seen by directors/producers/playwrights in Hamilton to perform a monologue or a song. The day is scheduled for Saturday, July 14th @ the Studio Theatre. Luke will be moderating communications to performers from the audition panel and clarified that it isn’t an opportunity for feedback as no direction is going to be given to performers.

    3) Break-A-Leg Speed Dating Event: This event is a collaboration between HAC,Theatre Aquarius and CoBALT Connects with the goal of pairing up theatre artists with one another in a rotating, speed-date style encouraging creative dialogue and sparking collaborations down the road. Participants will have 2 ½ minutes to talk to one another before moving on to another partner. It takes place on July 18th, 2012 (the day before the opening of Hamilton Fringe Festival) and runs from 6 PM to 9 PM at the Baltimore House. Admission being $10 and participants can register ONLINE.

    4) Culture Days 2012 (Sept. 28, 29, 30): The Committee discussed Culture Days for the fall. The weekend offers Hamilton theatre companies the chance to invite members of the community into a more involved interaction with their art. This can be anything from backstage tours to new play readings to a post-show talk-back sessions to an open rehearsal. The goal of Culture Days is to showcase to the public at large as to how the arts and culture contribute to the growth of their community. The Culture Days website is a tremendous resource for all interested companies and artists to use for marketing purposes and to register and post your event. Stephen asked that members of the Committee notify HAC if they register an event so he can start plugging it on the the organization’s website. Patrick mentioned that the Lyric will likely have their grand opening on that weekend.

    The Theatre Arts Committee will continue to meet regularly throughout 2012. Inquiries about this committee of the Hamilton Arts Council can be forwarded to Stephen Near at stephen@hamiltonartscouncil.ca.

  • 2nd Theatre Arts Committee Meeting Notes

    May 15, 2012 by Stephen Near

    The Theatre Arts Committee was convened for the second time this year by the Hamilton Arts Council as part of our renewed mandate to promote critical dialogue in our creative community.

    This last meeting of the 2012 TAC on May 1 was attended by Luke Brown (Theatre Aquarius), Jason Dick (Hammer Entertainment), Margaret Houghton (Players Guild of Hamilton), Colette Kendall (Staircase Theatre), Ray Louter (Redeemer University College Theatre Dept.), Shirley Marshall (Binbrook Little Theatre)
    Brian Morton (Hamilton Fringe Festival), Stephen Near (Independent Artist | HAC staff), Richelle Tavernier-Clements (Hamilton Theatre Inc), Judith Sandiford (Artword Artbar), Sally Watson (Dundas Little Theatre), Ronald Weihs (Artword Artbar)

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    1) Agenda & Minutes: The Committee discussed the Agenda and reviewed the Minutes from the last meeting (January 31st, 2012). Stephen mentioned that he would like to hold future meetings of the Committee at other theatre venues around the city. Colette also briefly spoke about the Elaine Mae Theatre; a new performance and workshop space now used and rented out by the Staircase.

    2) OAC Grant Workshop: Stephen announced that the HAC will host a theatre project grant workshop featuring a discussion with Ontario Arts Council Theatre officer Pat Bradley. There is a growing number of theatre artists in Hamilton and a desire on the part of the OAC to see them apply for funding. The workshop will take place in the 1st Floor theatre space of the Pearl Company, 16 Steven Street on June 2nd, 2012 @ 1 PM.

    3) Theatre Guide 2012-13: The Committee discussed the issue of this year’s HAC Theatre Guide. Stephen stated that  he would like to involve the Committee in the creation and format of the Guide to a greater degree than previous years. He noted some proposed changes including a larger print run and a widespread distribution model. He did note, however, that more advertising and sponsorship will be needed to make this possible.

    • Concerns - There were concerns about the resolution and detail on the map as well as the inclusion of editorial content. The Committee suggested an open call for editorial content or an editorial board might be a option this year. The disparity between the advertising needs of established theatres with seasons vs. rental theatre venues with no fixed season was also discussed. The present print-run and distribution model is a pressing issue for all companies. The idea of publishing the Guide three times a year (fall, spring, summer) was discussed as a means to help distribution and make room for more editorial content. Unfortunately, HAC resource limitations make such a model unfeasible right now.
    • Redesign – The Committee also discussed strategies on redesigning the Guide. Stephen clarified that the Guide was always meant to advertise theatre within the Hamilton region. The Committee suggested that the Guide might simply be (re)printed through-out the year and filled with an insert featuring up-to-date shows at the rental venues. It was also suggested that linking the Guide with an online calendar. In this case, the ad buy for participating companies would include a banner on the hub website and a link to their individual sites. Jason suggested a radical redesign to the Guide in the form of a tri-fold calendar of shows with minimal ad-space and brief listings of the companies. This format would be more cost effective and might also resolve the distribution model.
    • Purpose – It was agreed that the Guide should be something for patrons to pick-up and refer to throughout the year. Most Committee members agreed that they’d like to see the Guide continue but retooled in such a way as to make it more responsive to their needs. Ron raised the point that the Guide is more than just advertising a theatre season… it is creating the impression and serving the reality that Hamilton is a destination for theatre. To that extent, perhaps it should have more informative and provocative editorial content.

    Stephen wrapped-up the discussion and strongly urged the Committee to provide further ideas or suggestions via email before the next meeting.

    4) Panel Audition Days – Theatre Aquarius is holding a series of panel audition days onJuly 14th – July 15th @ the Studio Theatre. Aquarius hope to allow Hamilton performers the opportunity audition for a broad range of area directors/producers/playwrights. It will also allow different theatre producers to see prospective performers that might be suited for an upcoming show in advance of general auditions. The Committee was enthusiastic about this opportunity to showcase some of the hidden talent in Hamilton. More details will be forthcoming from Aquarius as the dates get closer.

    5) New Business

    • Hammer Entertainment – Jason announced that Hammer Entertainment is moving from their present venue at the Lyric Theatre to the Citadel Theatre (previously known as the Downtown Arts Centre). Their upcoming 2012-13 season will take place here and feature the following line-up: Next to Normal, Forever Plaid: Plaid Tidings, Grey Gardens, and Avenue Q. The company is looking forward to the move and anticipate it will benefit the production needs of their season next year.
    • Theatre Season Overlap – The issue of season overlap was discussed by the community theatre Committee members. They all agreed that planning for the upcoming seasons takes place in January but due to contentious dates and scheduling of rehearsals, sometimes overlapping cannot be helped. Stephen offered to create a shared season planning calendar for use by all Committee members either online or at the HAC offices. Such a calendar would allow the Committee to see what dates are being used by the other members.
    • Venues – Brian talked about the closure of Sir John A. MacDonald and the potential loss of the school’s large theatre space. The Committee also discussed City Council’s deliberations on ownership and use of Hamilton Place and the question of programming more theatre in the venue.

    6) Next Meeting – the next meeting was tentatively scheduled for June 19th, 2012 with a location yet to be determined.

    The Theatre Arts Committee will continue to meet regularly throughout 2012. Inquiries about this committee of the Hamilton Arts Council can be forwarded to Stephen Near at stephen@hamiltonartscouncil.ca.

  • Theatre Arts Committee Meeting Notes

    March 21, 2012 by Stephen Near

    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)

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    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.

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