Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Taking on the private funding issue

Stephanie Fysh, in one of the discussion groups on Facebook, put into words what I've been trying to convey - the challenge of getting private funding. Her words:

Have you ever tried to get a small-business bank loan? In most sectors of the economy, you can get capital backing from a private institution to assist in bankrolling your business -- you don't have to already have an established, successful business in order to access that. But as an artist, you wouldn't stand a chance with the banking system, regardless of your track record. Many government grant programs exist in order to provide capital-expense funding and cover some temporary costs to enable artists (whose average income level is currently something like $23,000) to actually purchase the materials and obtain the space they need in order produce work that can be sold. Other sectors don't need to have large profits and savings *before* accessing capital; why are people who produce artistic and cultural products so vastly different as to deserve no such access at all?

Those cultural sectors that do access large capital backing from the private sector -- particularly movies (including populist movies), television (including populist/"entertainment" television) -- don't stand a chance if they don't first have a portion of government backing. In practice, no bank will touch them without it.

And in publishing -- not just publishing of high-falutin' novels and poetry, but also children's books, Canadian history and current events and exposés, Canadian books on family health, home repair, cooking, magazines of all sorts -- for the most part, if there weren't some government funding assisting in the publication process, those books would (if they got to print at all) would be priced right out of the market.

It's all very well and nice to say that the entertainment industry should stand on its own two feet, not rely on "handouts," etc., etc., etc., but that view falls apart in the face of the actual structure and economics of cultural industry, and assumes, falsely, that government does not also support, whether through the tax system or direct or indirect funding, other industries.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Bravo, brava

Earlier today I attended what was originally billed as a debate but was changed to a "Town Hall" at a studio in downtown Toronto. It will be televised at 8pm on Thursday, October 2nd on Bravo. It turned out to be a thoughtful examination of the major issues at stake in the current arts discussion. I liked that the nominal question the panel was trying to address "does art matter" was quickly thrown out by saying "yes, it does" and we were able to move onto deeper discussions.

I went with Catherine from Play Anon and multi-disciplinarian Kristine Maitland. Sitting next to me was the lovely Alex Dallas and in front of her producer extraordinaire, Naomi Campbell. The rest of the front row were three wonderful ladies who I have seen around but never got the chance to get the names of. We were the only ones sitting on one set of risers and I dubbed us the womens' power section. We were also the section of heavy sarcasm and honestly, we had the most fun of anyone between taping. However, they sat us behind part of the panel so we knew we weren't the chosen ones who'd get to ask questions, which of course led to us snarking some more. They should have taped us, we had high entertainment value.

Of course, after the panel chatted for a bit (a good panel actually) and they threw the floor open to questions, the first person was an actor and he made a statement rather than a question, although his statement was pertinent. But the rest of the questioners were an actual cross-section: Sara Diamond, a pioneer in the area of collaboration between artist and scientists and new media; an 25-year veteran international promoter, a film festival head, and the guy who ran the PromArt program out of Foreign Affairs.

But the most excitement ran through the room when a sharp-dressed young man said, "My name is James Bradshaw and I write for the Globe and Mail." Everyone who has been part of this recognized his name immediately as the writer of the article that, as Catherine put it, "legitimized us". He was also the only reporter to do comprehensive coverage of the ACTRA press conference last week, and has been the only reporter to get Stephen Harper to actually talk about the arts. Immediately Catherine and I turned to each other and said, "I have to meet him" and knew we weren't the only ones. It was fascinating to see him when the taping was over and all these people coming up to him - he had no idea what a hero he's become in the community over his work on this issue.

He also managed to surprise me by mentioning that he was sent a link to this blog. It's pretty amazing to me what the last few weeks has brought. I've met over this wonder of the internet people in other areas of the industry I never would have crossed paths with.

I was approached by a journalism student from Carleton to talk about PromArt and what was supposed to be a brief informational interview turned into an in-depth discussion. Now she's planning to use me as one of her main sources. I started that interview saying how odd it is that I've been defending these programs that this company didn't even qualify for. After going on about theatre in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the current state of international touring, and going on a million digressions, I ended the interview by saying that I wanted to be saying at the end of all of this (whenever that is, it's certainly long after the election) that I did all I could. And I'm now seeing that I'm making a difference. It's reassuring.

The town hall was disappointing in that we had all these amazing people in the room but no real opportunity to talk with each other. At least we're beginning to come to a consensus that we need to reach out and fix our PR problem, which is definitely a lot faster than I expected a couple of weeks ago.

Yesterday I was at a friend's party and I was in the room with a actor/playwright, a visual artist, an arts board member, a teacher and a couple of audience members and we had our own little salon about this issue. The visual artist came up with a great idea when the conversation turned to the question of establishing arts within the larger societal context. He suggested we build a true community cultural complex - an art gallery, a theatre, and an arena. I was relieved I wasn't the only one who had thought about the arts/sports connection.

We also talked about looking at changing the funding structure and agreed that one of the biggest challenges is that most marketing for the arts sucks. There's reasons for this, due both the small budgets we actually have for marketing and the trouble we have in keeping good marketers because we can only pay them a fraction of what the corporate sector can offer them. Marketing in theatre has been a pet project of the blogfather, Ian Mackenzie, over at Theatre is Territory, and Simon over at The Next Stage has been doing a great series on the art of business.

There's some great info out there but we're still in the infant stages of working it effectively. It's hard because the people who could benefit the most from this have the time factor - working a job to pay the rent, then trying to fit in the remaining time all the elements involved in artistic creation, some time for themselves to keep sane, and you're not left with much time to properly leverage these tools. So finding some way to be able to better market what we do, thus being able to create more revenue I think needs to be part of this larger discussion.

Earlier today I was at Word on the Street and stopped by the Toronto Star tent where there was a session with Geoff Pevere (book critic), Peter Howell (film critic), and the ever controversial Richard Ouzounian talking about what they do and I was reminded of the power that Ouzounian has to control the success of a show. If he raves about it, the sales get a huge jump. If he dislikes it, the show stalls. And all that boils down to one person's opinion and that is not something that can be predicted or show up as a line item in a budget. And I know the power of the critics is a whole other discussion but I feel it's something that has to be addressed at some point. It plays into audience education, when we get that far.

There's so much more I want to say but it's really, really late. And to think a year ago I was struggling to come up with content!

So in summation (short posts are really not my strong suit) I'm getting my wish of having the discussions of both how we can rethink the funding models to be more effective, a discussion that's been born out of necessity of trying to relate to the group of people who have a huge problem with their tax money going to the arts; and the realization of the extent of the PR problem and a commitment towards remedying it. All in all, a good week's work.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Umbrella Talk with playwright Ben Noble

Welcome to this week's Umbrella Talk with playwright Ben Noble. Ben is originally from Australia and is currently based in Toronto. Ben talks about always adding different ingredients to his writing; being inspired by the stupidness of mankind and what a melodramatic play about his life would be like.

A bit about Ben Noble

Ben is a actor, playwright and the Creative Producer of Fairly Lucid Productions. A graduate of the 2002 St Martin's Performance Ensemble in Melbourne Australia, Ben trained with the Atlantic Theater Company in New York. As a playwright, Ben's first play "Pick A Card" won 3rd prize in the St Martins Playwriting Competition in 2002. In 2004 he was commissioned to write "Short Trip" for St Martins' as part of the Scattergun Project, which took out St Martin's Best Play that year. "Go, Fish" was short listed for St Martin's Play of the Year in 2005. Also in 2005, he was one of the few Australian delegates at World Interplay – an International Playwrights festival. He was recently commissioned by Riverland Theatre Company to cowrite and dramaturge "HOONS". Ben's work has also been performed and workshopped throughout Australia and in New York "interrogation' his award winning piece for the 2004 Melbourne International Fringe Festival is being translated into Spanish and adapted to a short film to be shot in Mexico and will be seen in an updated version on Toronto's stage in the new year.
As a producer, Ben was the co-curator for the Melbourne Fringe Festival at St Martins Youth Arts Centre in Australia, and has directed his staged readings within Australia and Canada. He also coaches actors across Canada with John Robert Powers Academy.
As an actor he took out the Peer and Audience awards in St Martin's 2002 Season of New International Work and received an "Honourable Mention" for his performance in the 2004 Melbourne International Fringe Festival. Recent credits: Binary (White Raven Productions), Something from Nothing (Cascade Theatre) Tessa King's One Last (Summerworks) Romeo & Juliet (Company X), The Scattergun Project (St Martin's), Phaedra's Love (Organised Chaos), interrogation (Fairly Lucid). Ben has appeared in numerous short films both in Canada and Australia and will be seen next in the feature film, Buck Wild.
Upcoming: Ben will also be assistant directing a production of "The Curative" in Montreal and performing in "Scrooge" for Stage West.

Umbrella Talk with Ben Noble

What do you drink on opening night?
Pre show it's usually water. I'm usually a little beside myself for anything else. Then intermission i'm usually onto the alcohol after the nerves have settled down.

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?

I'm always up for interesting productions. There are so many directors out there bringing their own interpretation into the mix. I'm going to go with a random but cinematic name - Pedro Almodovar would be pretty cool.

What scares you? What can't you write about?

What scares me is that no one will come to my show that I paid lots of money to produce. And if they do they'll hate it. Good times. In regards to what i can or can't write. I guess that's the question I always ask myself and I'm still discovering the answer to that one so I'll get back to you.

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?
There's so many idea's and subjects out there. I guess you just go with the most important one at the time. I feel like the chef that always has pots on the boil but it takes me forever to finish cooking the meal because I'm always adding different ingredients.
If someone was to write a play about your life, what genre would it be? (eg. comedy, tragedy, melodrama, horror)
Definitely Melodrama. With Musical Numbers, interpretative dance segments and puppets.

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?
Crawl in a hole and cry. Obsess over it for weeks. I'm more into the criticism then the praise thing. While praise is definitely appreciated I pay more attention to the criticism.

Where would you like your work to be produced?
Canada. New York. London. Anywhere?

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?
Have to say it's a bit of both. I write down idea's, stories, lines of dialogue in notebooks and scraps of paper but when i actually start to write a play, usually it's all keyboard.

What would you like academics to write about your work in 50 years?
A classic but misunderstood genius.

What inspires you?
The stupidness of mankind. The need to be the storyteller.

Thanks again for reading this week's Umbrella Talk. Next week we will be talking with playwright Brendan Gall. If you are a playwright who has work produced here in Canada or elsewhere, and would like to talk to us, please drop us a line at obu@web.ca.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Economic Argument in bullet form

After repeating them over and over again, I found myself reducing things to bullet points. Again, these are welcome to be stolen.

- These cuts removed all support for exporting our work. No other industry has been cut off at the knees like this

- The increase in funds was actually to sports and communities activities, which also fall under the "culture" banner. Arts support has been cut since Harper came to office

- Arts funding was introduced to make art available to the average Canadian and foster a national voice. If we charged you what the actual cost of producing the work was, we would only be available to the rich

- The dirty secret of arts funding is that private investors will not commit until they see the government has. So any discussion about getting artists off the supposed "government teat" has to deal with this reality

- Our product is competitive internationally but other countries artists have way more government support

- Government funding is never more than 40% of a project

- Artists get funding from family, friends, sales revenue and unless they have established a reputation, not much else. Investors gravitate towards the larger organizations because they get a bigger bang for their buck.

- The successful artists live a middle-class lifestyle (unless they become a rock star). the struggling one hovers around the poverty line.

The cut programs' purpose

In one of the facebook groups, Silver VanTaloths compiled a detailed list of the function of the cut programs in the face of this article. I wanted to have it for reference here.

Canadian Memory Fund, $11.57M
R&D component of Canadian Culture Online, $5.64M

These two projects were a massive initiative intended to digitize delicate archival materials - this is stuff that is in some cases falling apart, at risk of destruction. Digitized materials were then going to be put up on the web for public access. Because the plug was pulled early, all the work and money spent was wasted. Links lead to nowhere, some things digitally archived and backed up (possible future relaunch), some not. Much of the material related to women, First Nations, and the very early years of Canada, and WWII.

Northern Distribution Program, $2.10 M
This project was an absolute innovation: First Nations Language radio and television in the north. Indigenous peoples the world over praised the project, and called for it to be used as a model for other projects world wide. Huge blow for northern aboriginals.

Culture.ca web portal, $3.80 M
This was meant to link all the online content related to culture; the memory project, the virtual museums, archives and records - this was to be the central access point. The content it had to manage quickly outgrew the code written to manage it, search functionality tanked... it ended up being a much larger project than anyone imagined, it was mismanaged, and when it failed, it made all the other content much more difficult to access. But much easier to "justify" cutting funding for.

nb: I was hoping this would be able to be used as the Canadian equivalent to OzArts.

Canadian Cultural Observatory (culturescope.ca), $0.56M
Meant to be a public portal onto arts, culture and research policy. It was a way to build accountability into the multiple online systems, but also functioned as a source of information for the general public: events, reports, statistics, journal articles, research papers, etc. Kind of pointless if all the other digital content has already been slated for demolition.

AV Trust - Feature Film Preservation and Access, $0.15M
Tiny fund aimed at storing and preserving film stock. This is an enormous difficulty for libraries, archives, and even the NFB as film degenerates rapidly if not stored correctly.

AV Trust - Canadian Music Preservation and Access, $0.15 M
Same, but for music and other sound recordings, including rare, early recordings of First Nations languages.

Canadian Independent Film and Video Fund, $1.5 M

Just what it sounds like; funds used for training and education, equipment, and materials for indie film makers.

National Training Program for the Film and Video Sector $2.5 M
This is a real shame. For all those of you saying, "Why don't we put arts funding into education?" We did. Conservatives cut it.

Trade Routes (contributions as of April 1, 2009 and remainder of program, April 1, 2010) $7.1 M
Intended to help Canadian artists, musicians, cultural groups, dance companies, etc promote, market, and export themselves abroad. Getting rid of this means Canadian artists will find it that much harder to be competitive abroad. Or even get there/get their stuff out there at all.

Summation: the programmes cut would have facilitated the public's (Canadian, and international) interaction with Canadian culture, history, and natural heritage by making more things available online. Would have preserved and repaired delicate items in need of repair. Would have ensured (or at least taken steps toward) the inclusion of First Nations voices in our national culture. And would have made cultural products more commercially viable and competitive both here and abroad.

Whereas: the "$325 million in tax cuts" gives breaks after production is finished to film projects (foreign and domestic) completed in Canada.That's it.

Oh - and this money was *already promised* and given away; the cuts are not budget cuts to take effect in the next fiscal year, they take effect last month. People are getting money yanked out from underneath them at the last minute. With no warning. And the damage disproportionally effects women, First Nations, French, LGBTQ, and other minorities.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Economic Argument

In the wake of Stephen Harper's comments, I spent the day around the internet. What I saw there convinced me that the way to move forward isn't talking about how arts feeds our souls and defines us, or about how we're being led down the road to right-wing social policies. I'm more than completely convinced (especially after the actors' news conference) that we need to make the economic argument, based on one word I saw over and over.


The general response to the press conference was that they exuded a sense of entitlement. It played right into the elitist positioning the government was attempting. The cuts are being positioned as ineffective, wasteful programs that benefited people who didn't deserve to be supported.

The government is playing the economic card and the only way right now to even be heard is to play the card right back. Which means talking about art as investment - anything else is preaching to the choir. If we're going to change the situation, we need to recognize what the concerns are out there right now, and it's that people are seriously concerned about the economy and are afraid of losing their jobs. We'll only be heard if we emphasize with people and address their concerns.

It took me a while to come up with an all-encompassing argument, but I'm pretty happy with what I've come up with below. Feel free to steal it if you like it.

The problem is that the government has obscured what the eliminated programs actually did. The cuts were to eliminate programs that provided industry support - training programs for cultural workers, research and development programs, seed money and venture capital programs. All supports to promote work internationally have been eliminated.

Most artists are small businesses. Small business don't have the resources to leverage expansion on their own when they're first expanding their markets. That's why there are government assistance programs. Bank loans are impossible to come by because banks won't fund artistic ventures because the way it is sold doesn't fit into their cost/benefit analysis. There are no venture capital funds for arts, unless you're writing a Broadway music or making a Disney film. So we look to the government to provide assistance, as do other industries.

Again, it's the specific programs that were eliminated that were the problem. We understand it's a tight economy, but we also understand that right now is a growth period for our industry internationally as there is a much higher demand for entertainment product. These cuts will stop the forward growth we've been experiencing. Remember, Canada is a small market. To develop alternative funding sources, we need to expand. And there was no discussion with the industry about how we were going to move forward before the programs were canceled.

But instead of actually talking about what these programs did, the government chose a few grants to people they didn't like and used it to paint the programs as wasteful and unnecessary and to rile up their base of supporters against supposed "elitist art". And now Mr. Harper drops a comment that implies that artists are rich off government funding, completely ignoring the convenient fact that the majority of artists live at or below the poverty line and the successful ones live a middle-class lifestyle, with only the rare, odd exception.

There's also a misconception out there that the government funds the projects 100% and that it's easy money. No proposal to any government program that looks for more than 40% funding gets accepted. And there's a whole competitive process to go through with no guarantee of seeing money at the end. I've blogged about the process if you're curious.

And btw, the C-10 fallout has made it much more difficult for films to find investors because there is no trust that the government will honour their commitment. You see, the dirty secret of arts funding is that private investors will not commit until they see the government has. This is how they secure their investment.

The point is, artists are average Canadians too. We work hard to create something of value for society. We're just asking for our industry to be treated like the important economic engine it is.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The process of theatre funding

I've noticed on my journey around the internet that there is an assumption that arts funding is "free money" and that projects are 100% funding by the government. But the truth is in theatre, this is how it really works.

We have to compete to get funding in the first place - most programs have a success rate of between 25-40%. We submit an outline of the project, objectives, a budget, and a marketing plan. Government funding can't be more than 40% of the total in the budget, as a general rule. You have to report at certain milestones while you're working on the project. After the project is completed, you have to submit an actual budget, attendance figures, any press, samples of marketing, outreach, and promotional materials, and an evaluation of the project which includes a synopsis, evaluation of goals, marketing, names of people involved and what you plan to do if you have a surplus over $100. You're not eligible for future money until you've submitted your report.

After you've gotten a few project grants, you become eligible for operation grants, which requires evaluation of your administrative and financial management (your organization has to be governed by a board of directors at this point), reports from the previous fiscal year, and "demonstrate a range of revenue sources on an annual basis, including earned, government and private sector revenues." On the artistic side, you need to demonstrate the contribution your organization is making in your community and in the wider Canadian theatre community.

Trade Routes, the program that was eliminated from Canadian Heritage, provided access to market research and trade experts, as well as provided funding. You had to develop an export plan or a strategic international business development plan to even qualify. "Organizations may apply for financial assistance for projects that help arts and cultural entrepreneurs prepare and start to export. Examples of eligible projects include participating in international trade events, inviting buyers to Canada and hosting panels on exporting." From there, you had to submit the same amount of information that you needed for a domestic grant.

As for the much-maligned Prom-Art program out of DFAIT, these are the guidelines laid out: "The grant program provides funding to Canadian artists and arts organizations for the promotion of Canadian culture abroad, in alignment with Canada's foreign policy and trade priorities. The business development program provides information and advice to Canadian exporters interested in entering foreign markets, as well as financial support (contributions) to Canadian national sectoral associations for the generic promotion of their industry's products or services."

Priority consideration will be given to cultural activities in the following countries and regions:
* North American Partnership: United States of America, Mexico
* Americas : Brazil, other Latin American countries and the Caribbean
* Asian Markets: China, India, Japan, South Korea
* European Markets: Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Russia, Sweden, United Kingdom

"Time is money" is the old adage. To do these grants, you're looking at somewhere between 10 and 20 hours for the project grants, and about 4 weeks of work for the other grants.

As for the differences between Trade Routes and PromArt, my understanding is that Trade Routes most often was used to fund tours, while PromArt would fund various artists for specific strategic events. (i.e. sending 6 authors to participate in a Canadian showcase at the Adelaide Festival, or assisting different theatre groups from across the country to present at the Edinburgh fringe where they could be seen by international promoters.)

Walking the talk

I had planned to write another entry about the whole arts funding issue. But there's so much going on right now that I'm not even sure which direction to start in. Also, I've been walking my talk about working on the PR problem, so I've been doing a lot of commenting on various articles.

Since it's now really late (where did the time go?) I'm going to give links to where I've been.
(All the above are Globe & Mail articles. They self-destruct after a while, I think it's 7 days. You can still read the articles via the library, but the comments are gone.)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Umbrella Talk with playwright David Copelin

Welcome to this week's Umbrella Talk with playwright David Copelin. David chats to us about being inspired by good wine, food and Stephen Lewis; fantasizing about revenge on stupid reviewers; and writing about Israel/Palestine in the future.

A little bit about David Copelin

David Copelin is a playwright, dramaturg and translator who works extensively in the professional theatres of both Canada and the United States. He is a graduate of Columbia University and the Yale School of Drama. As a dramaturg, David has worked at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, Arena Stage in Washington, DC, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. His play Bella Donna (Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2006) won the New Play Award at the 2005 Toronto Fringe Festival and was subsequently staged at the RCA Theatre in St. John’s and at Toronto’s Berkeley Street Theatre. David’s translation of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi has been produced at the Shaw Festival and Yale Repertory Theatre. As the Ontario Arts Council’s Playwright-in-Residence at John Van Burek’s Pleiades Theatre, David translated German satirist Carl Sternheim’s Bürger Schippel. David is also the author of The Rabbi of Ragged Ass Road, Mind Over Matter, and A Clean Breast. He is currently writing two new plays, Winner Take Nothing and Hitler Goes to Heaven. David teaches scriptwriting at Brock University and through his own company, Some Strange Reason. An active member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada, Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, and the Dramatists Guild of America, David is represented by Michael Petrasek at Kensington Literary in Toronto.

Umbrella Talk with David Copelin

What do you drink on opening night?
Champagne, if someone will buy it for me.

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?
Julie Taymor

What scares you? What can't you write about?
Almost everything, at one time or another. So far, I can't write
about former lovers.

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?

If someone was to write a play about your life, what genre would it be? (eg. comedy, tragedy, melodrama, horror)
All of the above, plus pastoral and farce.

How do you deal with praise? with criticism?
Theatre people tend to over-praise, so I take that into
account. As for criticism, it depends on whether the critic has any
useful insights. Some do. I often plot revenge on stupid reviewers, but
I have not acted on these fantasies. yet.

Where would you like your work to be produced?
Worldwide, with tours to the rest of the universe.

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?
I write mostly in my home office, on a keyboard, but I sometimes rough things out with pen and paper.

What would you like academics to write about your work in 50 years?
That it's still producible.

What inspires you?
Good stories, good wine, good friends, and Stephen Lewis.

Thanks again for reading this week's Umbrella Talk. Next week we chat with Australian Canadian-based playwright Ben Noble. If you are a playwright whose work has been produced in Canada or elsewhere and want to talk with us, please drop us a line at obu@web.ca.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Futher on funding cuts

Been having a conversation with a fellow artist about the funding cuts, and I thought I'd share some of that here. I was answering this question:
It's also a question of budget management: the arts councils at all three levels of government haven't been cut and in fact are reportedly pretty flush at the moment, and general project funding, not to mention travel grants, come primarily from the councils; so I don't quite understanding why, for modest-scale projects at least, touring can't be financed via arts council contributions and however else the project in question is being funded, perhaps through private fundraising and box office income.I may be missing an important consideration, but I can't grasp why a program designated for touring...could be considered absolutely, unassailably essential.

As far as I can tell, the arts councils' mandates are to promote work within their purview, whether it's federal, provincial, or municipal. So for international export, that doesn't fall under their mandates unless it involves creation with international partners or advanced training abroad. The arts councils also don't have the expertise to be able to evaluate the merits of various international opportunities which is why international touring has always been under the external affairs purview. Prom Art was used to tie arts in with larger trade objectives, which is why it mostly benefited individuals (easier to have a musician or writer perform/read after a long day of business meetings than to have to set up a stage for a theatre or dance performance), who were chosen to enhance the business relationships being formed. If you have arts councils starting to fund this activity, this means less funding for creation and less interaction with other sectors of the economy.

One thing you are missing is that you're falling into the general presumption that the government is totally funding these endeavors, which is not true. Mostly they're providing travel costs, leaving the production costs to be funded by the company, either through corporate sponsorship or fundraising within the company. With touring, the first international performances are at arts markets (where you have to provide a 20 minute excerpt of the work) or festivals (Edinburgh is a popular jumping off point). In these cases, the companies are not getting a guarantee. The idea is to parlay this into further bookings, where the presenter provides the guarantee. At this point, the guarantee covers all costs and the government is not needed.

Every industry gets this leg up.

In Australia, AusTrade promotes the arts the same way it promotes wine, mining, and other industries. Artists are treated no different. And maybe that's what we're trending towards. But even there, the government has given the industry two key supports to that end - a website (OzArts) that lists all the Australian companies that have tour-ready shows that presenters can look up easily and find out all the details they need to book a show, and a website (fuel4arts) which provides a mountain of information for artists about touring, audience development, marketing, promotion, international trends - anything that can help their artists position themselves for success. (Thankfully, this site is not limited to Australian artists - I'm a member.) They also sponsor a lot of trade markets and invite international presenters, recognizing that they need to make an extra effort because of their geography. Australia doesn't put huge amounts into creation, but they promote the heck out of what they do create.

New Zealand went one step better, identifying arts as one of their key export sectors. Their arts council created a crown entity, Creative New Zealand, which has an international team who's responsible for identifying and promoting their artists abroad. They concentrate on getting their artists into residency and participate in arts markets heavily. They regularly update their site to list the latest accomplishments internationally. They also have teams who are involved in audience and market development, and in advocacy and research. I personally think Creative NZ is an excellent model of arts support, one that came out of strategic thinking from the highest government levels. Arts are celebrated in New Zealand, not marginalized.

Arts is an industry and expansion of markets is essential for an industry to survive in a global marketplace. Quebec has been really good at this. They created CINARS in the early 80s (the private sector drove this) to promote Quebec artists on the world stage, and it's now expanded to become one of the international hubs for promotion. Yet it has virtually no ties with the English-Canadian theatre community. There's a huge disconnect between Quebec and the rest of Canada in terms of international promotion and touring. Magnetic North was born to try and address some of these issues but it's still a minor player in the international arts marketplace. I'm not sure if the conferences received funding out of Trade Routes, but I do know they both get funding from Canadian Heritage and DFAIT, which is where the funding cuts have come.

I'm looking at this as an opportunity to rethink how we promote our artists internationally because we've done an incredibly poor job of it for the English-speaking artists. PromArt mostly benefited musicians, writers, and visual artists while Trade Routes benefited performing artists. (I'm working on a blog post talking about this.) In a fiscally conservative environment, we have to think of ourselves as an industry. This is not to devalue the need for our work to be good or to dismiss the role we have in creating a working society. But it's been too easy to dismiss artists as non-productive members of society and as I see it, that's what we need to be fighting for. That's more than fighting to change the government. It's a start, but we can't stop there. We need to be part of the larger conversation.

And as I was writing, Darren O'Donnell posted this. It makes a good argument.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Umbrella Talk with playwright Jon Lachlan Stewart

This week on Umbrella Talk, we are talking with Western Canadian playwright Jon Lachlan Stewart. In his conversation with us, Jon mentions some of the theatres in B.C. and Alberta that he'd like to see his work produced with; writing in abandoned parking lots at 2am and why he wants to write about Helen Kane someday.

A little bit about Jon Lachlan Stewart

Jon Lachlan Stewart has been writing plays since he was twelve.
credits included Little Room (two Edmonton Sterling
nominations), Grumplestock's (co-written, published with Nextfest
anthology), Twisted
Thing (honorable mention, Larry Corse
worldwide playwrights competition),
Dirty Mouth (Solo collective,
Vancouver), and currently, Big Shot, his
new touring solo show.
Jon is also an actor who has worked in many
pieces in
Vancouver and Edmonton,
and most recently, a sound designer.

Umbrella Talk with Jon Lachlan Stewart

What do you drink on opening night?

Before or after the play?


Then anything with alcohol.

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?

Daniel Brooks.

What scares you? What can't you write about?

Facts. It scares me to write a period piece or a play about a current issue or real story that is completely true to facts and accurate to history.

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?

Helen Kane, the 1930’s singer whose life was the inspiration for the famous Betty Boop cartoon. Her life was stolen and she deserves justice.

If someone was to write a play about your life, what genre would it be? (eg. comedy, tragedy, melodrama, horror)

Take the funnier moments of Waiting for Godot where the schtick is outweighing the melancholy, blow it up to an hour and a half, and that would be my life: an absurdist, existentialist lazzi.

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?

With joy, excitement, conversation and sometimes confusion.

With joy, excitement, conversation and sometimes confusion.

Where would you like your work to be produced?

The Citadel Theatre, Edmonton.

ATP Calgary

The Electric Company, Vancouver.


Touring, around the world.

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?

In cafes on my computer.

In abandoned parking lots 2am freehand.

In my bed, oscillating between a dream and consciousness, in a notebook.

What would you like academics to write about your work in 50 years?

We’re still trying to figure out the things he was writing about.

What inspires you?


The anomaly.


Thanks again for reading this week's Umbrella Talk with Jon Lachlan Stewart. Next week, we move back to Toronto and talk to playwright David Copelin. If you are a playwright and want to talk to us, please send us an e-mail at obu@web.ca.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

More funding cut commentary

The Wrecking Ball has posted a translation (by John Van Burek) of Wajdi Mouawad's open letter to the Prime Minister on the funding cuts. Besides running the French theatre side of the National Arts Centre, he is also an award-winning playwright. (His play Scorched is currently running at the Tarragon.) I think this is the most eloquent analysis of the issue so far.

Special thanks to Simon at The Next Stage for pointing it out.

Monday, September 8, 2008

More on Perth Theatre

Still keeping an eye on what's happening in Perth. The latest news is that the Perth Theatre Company and the Black Swan Company has signed a memorandum of understanding, looking to "examine the compatible activities and synergies of both companies as they prepare for their move to the new performing arts venue in Northbridge". Both companies will be occupying the space.

A couple of years ago, the Nugent Report recommended merging the two companies, a recommendation that was rejected. But now that both companies will be sharing the much needed new facility, they've decided that it makes sense to work together. Merger is a possible option they're looking at.

I suggest they might want to talk to Guy Sprung, one of the guys who merged Toronto Free Theatre and CentreStage to form CanStage. (Or maybe Bill Glassco's ghost will pay them a visit.) The merger goal was slightly different, but now one of the biggest discussions in the blogsphere is discussing how to get the company back on track.

The new venue is being named after Heath Ledger, which is causing its own ruckus because while he was born and trained in Western Australia, he never appeared on stage there.

The shift towards new blood at the top is now complete with the announcement of Melissa Cantwell's appointment as the new artistic director for the Perth Theatre Company. The three major companies in Western Australia have all within the last year announced new ADs. All of them are under 40.

Meanwhile, a lot of new work is being premiered and toured, both by the main companies and by the fledgling independent companies. (Weeping Spoon Productions was in Canada this summer, taking their show Greed to the Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto fringes - warning, site only works in IE.) It seems, despite the challenges, Perth is remaining vibrant. It is definitely a place to watch.

And now, with construction underway in the space in Perth, all the Australian states have new state of the art theatre facilities.(Well, I'm not sure about Hobart.) And what is the state of our theatre buildings in Canada, huh?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Umbrella Talk with Playwright Robert Chafe

This week we chat with playwright Robert Chafe of Newfoundland's Artistic Fraud. Robert talks to us about director Jillian Keiley, what two things he ignores and what scares him in life that he's already written about.

A bit more on Robert Chafe

Robert Chafe’s work has been seen across Canada, the UK, and Australia. He is the author of fifteen stage scripts and co-author of another ten. He frequently collaborates with director Jillian Keiley; Emptygirl, and Under Wraps: A Spoke Opera. Two of his plays (Tempting Providence and Butler’s Marsh) were published in 2004 by Playwrights Canada Press, and subsequently shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Drama. Tempting Providence, directed by Keiley and produced by Theatre Newfoundland Labrador, is entering its seventh year of touring, and has been nominated for two Betty Mitchell Awards and a Dora. His one act play for Theatre Newfoundland Labrador, One Foot Wet, saw its premiere at the Gros Morne Theatre Festival in 2007, and toured the southern UK last Fall. His stage adaptation of Michael Crummey’s short story AfterImage for Artistic Fraud will premiere in April 09 at the HarbourFront Centre’s World Stage Festival. He is currently working on a film adaptation of Tempting Providence, and his first novel. He is Artistic Associate and playwright for Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland.

Umbrella Talk with Robert Chafe

What do you drink on opening night?

Usually jamiesons whiskey (after the complimentary red wine runs out).

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?

Jillian Keiley. she has done. no one understands what i'm trying to do like her. and i would say vice versa.

What scares you? What can't you write about?

hmmm. it seems all the things that really scare me in life i have already written about; loneliness, death of my parents, etc. i guess i really can't write about what really makes me tick. probably because i don't know yet, and probably because i don't think anyone would be interested.

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?

i'd like to do more political/topical writing. i sometimes feel sad that my work doesn't have the current topical punch of some of the writers that i really admire. but strangely i also don't know if i am built to write such things.

If someone was to write a play about your life, what genre would it be? (eg. comedy, tragedy, melodrama, horror)

melodrama. definitely. one of my worst qualities; emotional escalation. what is tragic and life altering one day ends up making me roll my eyes with embarrassment for myself the next.

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?

i'd like to be able to ignore both. i've gotten great at discarding praise, but criticism? i can still quote bad reviews and negative feedback for years afterwards. not healthy, that.

Where would you like your work to be produced?

anywhere really.

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?

in my home office usually, sometimes in my local coffeeshop if i need the distraction. keyboard, definitely keyboard.

What would you like academics to write about your work in 50 years?

that i was honest.

What inspires you?

newfoundland. the people who live here. love.

Thanks again for reading this week's Umbrella Talk. Join us here again next week as we talk to Western Canada's Jon Lachlan Stewart. Again, if you are a playwright that has been produced here in Canada and/or elsewhere, and would like to talk to us, please drop us an e-mail at obu@web.ca.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Charles Ross & Tim Freedman Talk

I found this video he did recently to promote his new show, Sev, at the Victoria Fringe. (It opens tonight in Vancouver.) He talks about his love of acting, the audience response to his work, and keeping grounded. Watching it reminded me why I admire him so much.

And here is a radio interview Tim Freedman did recently where he was interviewed by high school students. Listening to this reminded me why I admire him so much.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Arts Funding Articles

I can't take credit for tracking these articles down - that goes to the wonderful Facebook group Against cuts to foreign touring and Trade Routes programs, who have compiled an impressive list of links.

This is an interesting article on the issue of arts funding from a British Conservative perspective. This article talks about how the cuts are making things difficult for the Conservative party in Quebec. And this article talks about how the eliminated programs are setting Canada even farther back in the international cultural marketplace.

Artists: The PR problem

To expand a bit on what I talked about in the previous post, I'd like to talk about artists' huge PR problem.

Over the last few weeks, I was following various articles on the funding cuts on the various newspaper websites. Every article had an option to add comments. Looking at the comments, I saw a ton of misinformation in terms of how we're supported, what our revenue sources are, what we actually contribute to communities, and about our characters in general. For example:
As it used to be, the government was pretty much just handing out cash, without discretion.

Rembrandt didn’t get government funding.

I applaud the Prime Minister for making cuts to the arts to tell you the truth.....am I against culture entertainment whatever and showcasing it ? No but for the most part, the money is always awarded to the extreme morally and politically correct left wing segment of society and just have someone make a request for a grant for someone who doesn't match their particular ideology and good luck getting anything.

The "Arts community" is going to find that very few people want to see their tax dollars spent on programs like this. Perhaps they would get more support if the so-called arts community had more respect for the cultural activities of average Canadians. Things like fishing and hunting, or watching Don Cherry rant and rave during intermission on HNIC. Until the elites learn to respect the people who pay the bills they shouldn’t be looking for what is little more than glorified welfare.

Canada's subsidization of the arts has been costly and questionable.

In Canada the art forms that most people care about, music, novels and tv, are largely funded from private sources and are doing well.

Harper should make the arts community pay back every dime they've taken from Canadian citizens. They are welfare state leeches.

Culture Exports??? Why should I have to pay for a bunch of actors to go overseas to show Canadian plays when I can't even afford to see Europe myself? How come there is so many countries that have amazing culture but don't have any funding? Artists should do it for the love and not for the money. After all is it not called a starving artist, I just think too many artists want to get paid for their hobbies. Go get a real job, pay some taxes, and then do the theatre in your spare time. I know of some actors who just rehearse a few hours a day and consider that their full time job.

If an individuals art is not self sustaining then the artist should look to another career. Why should the government pick up the tab for the support of artists whose work has no market? Art and culture should look to the private sector for funding.

Buck it up artists and earn a living instead of living off the state.

I should also point out that there are artists who feel strongly against funding as well. Here's one example:
I am a crafter in NS. On principle, I have never applied for nor accepted as much as a thin dime from any government agency. As such, I think I am qualified to say that a significant percentage of the province's 'artisans' should be making their livings spilling coffee on a customer's lap in a Timmy's. Only thing, there is no market pressure pushing them towards their true calling due to being subsidized. The market is not allowed to work as it is supposed to. Subsidies 'accomplish' only the following: they prop up the inefficient, be it an individual or a large business.

One thing I did notice about those artists: they were all working in small towns and they were generally crafters, musicians, or visual artists.

On a different note, I love this comment. It seems to sum it all up.
The one domestic industry that can't be outsourced and Harper is killing it.

I'm assuming if you're reading this blog you're seeing the errors of these arguments so I'm not going to delve into that here. But it seems obvious to me that there needs to be a some sort of plan to correct the misinformation. I tried to do that when I could, but the problem I ran into was finding these articles after a 100 or so comments had passed. My comments would end up near the bottom, with no guarantee of the person who's argument I was rebutting reading it.

No matter what happens right now, if we don't want to keep fighting this battle every few years, we have to start correcting errors where we see them. Thanks to the internet, we now have these interactive discussions on news items. This gives us an opportunity. The challenge is being able to be responsive as it happens.

How do we do that? Maybe a group of us gets together and we're each assigned a paper and a day. For that day, we check the news items every 15 minutes or so with an eye to comment on anything that needs clarification. Or we create a network of people as a first-response team so when a story hits the wire, an alert is sent out and we mobilize to the different news sites to comment. We could probably use Facebook as the tool, since the administrators check in on it quite frequently and could be the first line of defense. I'm certainly open to suggestions.

I also feel that we should be trying to ally ourselves with amateur athletes because they're facing the same battle we are in this way. In recent discussions on elite athlete funding that happened during the Olympics, I saw comments like these:
I'm just tired of hearing these athletes complain about funding.

Setting a personal best at the Olympics means nothing.

What irks most people when watching Canada underperform is seeing our best athletes fail when the chips are down then say, "I had a great time and a great experience". Sorry, but that "great time" amounts to nothing more than a paid vacation funded by the taxpayer. Argue all you want about how much funding they should get, but the point is that we are paying them for this and we are paying them to win, not just to "be there" and set personal bests. That can be accomplished without a plane ticket to Beijing. We have a right to question where our money goes, no matter how much or little it is.

The problem is that as a working Canadian I am being forced to support you playing your games. It's fine if the Olympics are a value to you. However, it is not right to force me to support your values. The skills or abilities of the athletes is irrelevant.

A 'nationally funded' sports program is a waste of tax dollars. Sure, there are other areas that are wastefully spending the public dollar to be concerned about. I would rather not add another.

Maybe we could save money by tying funds for athletes to performance--say set a minimum medal intake to get further funding.

Some of that sounded pretty familiar to me. And here's a scary tale from one of the athletes:
Kyaker David Ford said after placing 6th in his event yesterday, his funding was cut off completely with no warning, and it was because of his age. He could have done way better given he had been able to attend the training camp at the Olympic course.

So they too can get cut without warning. In terms of funding, they don't do much better than us. The number I've seen is $18,000, which has to cover all training costs, travel to events, and equipment. It averages out to $5 per taxpayer. I haven't seen our numbers, but I'm guessing total cultural funding is pretty close. The performance at the recent summer Olympics has been driving a conversation about the nature of sports funding and what can be done to encourage participation in sport from the grass-roots up.

To get this grass-roots funding, they've been talking about the value of having facilities that make it possible for children to more actively participate, leading to physical fitness and learning the value of working with a team. Isn't the current discussion around reinstating arts programs in schools taking a similar approach?

There's a lot of distrust on both sides that will have to be overcome. Too many artists have childhood memories of being dismissed (or worse) by jocks, and a lot of athletes (although not the elite ones) look at artists as being weak because they aren't at the same physical level.

But wouldn't society be better off if children were involved in either sports or art growing up rather than being isolated and being at risk? And wouldn't it be beneficial for both camps to have those same children grow up to support sports and/or art?

We are two sides of the same coin. Our value to society can not be fully measured by dollars and cents. I've written in the past about how an athlete (Roy Halladay) has served as a measure of inspiration to me. (And Adam van Koeverden's handling of his Olympic adversity blew me away, but that's another post.) I'm sure there are athletes who see artists as inspirations for what they do. I believe it's time to break the stereotypes and get to know each other.

What does this have to do with funding? Elite amateur athletes will be getting a higher profile in the next couple of years with the Olympics coming to Vancouver in 2010. With this discussion around government funding, our profile should be higher as well. Our collective voices will be much stronger for reaching the general public.

To tie it back to the PR problem, if someone's favourite athlete talks about the value of the arts, won't that make that person stop and think? This is another opportunity I think we need to take advantage of.

We need to be aggressive. We need to do massive outreach. The more we're out there, the less likely we can be dismissed as outsiders, as non-productive members of society. And what's happening shows me that it's crucial to act now.