Could the dumping of a permanent performance space help solve the affordability problem of the theater?

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By January 2014, the Single Carrot Theater in Baltimore had passed one of the most important milestones in the life of a professional theater company: they had built their own permanent and dedicated theater space.

The theater management had worked with a developer to design it exactly to their specifications. It contained a flexible black box for performances, as well as a small rehearsal space and desks. The building was the fulfillment of a dream that the founders of Single Carrot had had since the company had its very first season in 2007.

“The vision has always been to have this permanent performance space,” explains Geneviève de Mahy, artistic director of Single Carrot and founding member of the ensemble. “In our minds, we felt that we had reached a certain level as an institution. ”

But after five years of living this particular dream, the management of Single Carrot made a bold decision. They didn’t want that space anymore.

Instead, they took a different view of their business and their relationship to the city they worked in: Single Carrot took its performances to unused, transient or unconventional spaces, embracing creative and financial freedom – as well as unique challenges – this would come from not being tied to a single building.

“Over time, we realized that it was getting harder and harder to maintain that space,” says de Mahy. “And we also had other priorities in terms of paying people and artists. We found that these things were always at odds with the costs of these large facilities. So we got to the point where we decided that the best choice for us, from a sustainability standpoint, was to leave this performance space. “

They are essentially turning away from the traditional, established growth and sustainability models of professional theater companies and opening up a whole new path.

Single Carrot isn’t the only theater, or artistic organization, for that matter, that has made the decision to abandon a permanent space in favor of a more flexible performance model, but they probably are – it’s hard to tell. know for sure, because the data on this is nothing more than anecdotal – among the very few who have done so on purpose.

Across the country, a decrease in affordable performance spaces has prompted countless small and medium-sized theaters to close or significantly reduce their operating budgets, often meaning a drop in the huge costs associated with owning or even operating. the rental of a permanent theater.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, several local theater groups have started performing or rehearsing in bars, restaurants, breweries, retail spaces and even gravel courts due to lack of budget or lack of funding. affordable space.

The Houston Chronicle also reports that several of the Houston’s small and medium-sized theaters have closed or been forced to vacate their spaces due to rising costs and lack of donor funding.

But while the problems facing professional theaters, and the arts as a whole, are daunting, creative solutions emerge.

One of them is in Toronto, Ontario, where the internationally renowned group Why not the theater is working on a groundbreaking pilot project to help connect performing artists with available and unused spaces across the city, from churches to office buildings.

Founder and Artistic Director and General Ravi Jain, along with Managing Director Owais Lightwala and Executive Producer Kelly Read, spearhead the project.

The genesis of the project lies in the phenomenal growth that Why Not Theater experienced in a short time, when in 2016, the The Canada Council for the Arts has changed its funding priorities, emphasizing equity, in other words, supporting institutions that advance diverse voices.

Jain and his company were not present and have been committed since their founding to creating intercultural, innovative and inventive theater, as well as to actively questioning and addressing issues of performance. “Our work tends to be new work and one that challenges the status quo – what stories are told and who can tell them,” Jain explains.

In other words, they correspond to the profile that the city was looking for precisely.

And that meant going from a three-person organization with a budget of $ 550,000 to a nine-person organization with a budget of $ 2 million in just a few years. “Everyone said to us, ‘Oh, if you’re growing up, you’ve got to find a space,’ Jain says. “So we looked at it a bit and we were surprised because when you become a theater with a venue, your whole business model has to change…, ‘and that sounded like a waste of resources. If we raised millions of dollars, we could change the industry overnight. ”

With that in mind, Jain, along with Lightwala and Read, began looking for a way to solve the space problem not just for themselves, but for their fellow theaters and performing arts organizations in Toronto. Lightwala explains, “One solution that came to my mind, just looking around our city, is that there is actually a lot of unused space in the city that just isn’t considered a waste. cultural space. “

The Why Not team experienced this firsthand when they were approached by a local church that was struggling to keep its doors open and maintain relevance in the community. Church leaders wanted to know if the theater could have some use for the building. “So we said, ‘When is the building available? And they said, “Oh, it’s available six days a week – we only need it on Sundays.” And conveniently, it’s also the cycle a theater company operates on – rehearsing or performing Monday through Saturday, ”says Lightwala.

Partnerships between churches and performing arts organizations aren’t new, but this conversation inspired Lightwala, Jain and Read to think bigger. Now they are working not only with this church, but also with a company that owns vacant buildings in Toronto, a real estate developer and the City of Toronto itself to locate available or underutilized municipal space that would be offered to arts groups. on a temporary basis for a very low cost or free.

The project is still in its early stages, but the goal is for Why Not to become a sort of agent that connects local artists to free or heavily subsidized spaces for rehearsals and performances. “The idea was, what if we could become the broker in this relationship? Said Lightwala. “We will understand all the logistics. Then, eventually, the artists could come to us and say, “I want space for X,” and we could say, “Okay, this is the perfect space for you. ”

The issue of affordability is key, of course, when it comes to maintaining a healthy theatrical community in any city.

But equally important is how this kind of flexible model, which Why Not and Single Carrot embrace in different ways, can open up the sector to both artists and audiences who are largely excluded from the traditional theatrical experience.

“The most interesting and diverse new work is often the one with the most emerging artists,” says Lightwala. “You start to lose these people in the cities, and that creates a ripple effect throughout the industry. So ultimately, in large institutions, you start to see less diversity, less interesting work, less innovation, more stagnation of ecology.

While Why Not Theater is heavily invested in solving this problem on the artist side, Single Carrot focuses on expanding accessibility for its audiences. When the company decided to leave the space it had worked so hard for, it sparked a lot of soul-searching. “We were really thinking, what kind of art do we want to do? What kind of relationship do we want to have with the city of Baltimore? Said of Mahy. “Baltimore is a very complex city – it’s very economically and racially segregated, and people stay in their own neighborhoods a lot. ”

Using the flexible and site-specific template that Single Carrot landed on allows them to present their work to the public and the neighborhoods they want to reach, while adding an exciting immersive aspect to the pieces they produce.

For example, their current production is a piece called “Mr. Loup” by Rajiv Joseph, which focuses on a girl who was abducted as a baby and who is miraculously found and returned to her family as a teenager.

Single Carrot puts it on stage in a real house, with a small audience of 25 people who move around the house with the actors. “A lot of the game is about reintroducing him to his family, so there are these very intimate conversations that take place in the bedrooms, the living rooms,” says de Mahy. “What’s really amazing about doing theater in a space like a house is that because you’re so close and you’re in this small space, the actors can, for example, whisper to each other and you can hear it. It really is like sitting in the living room during these very private family conversations.

Apart from the advantages, this model also presents some challenges. One of the most immediate is to help potential audience members find Single Carrot now that they are performing in a changing array of venues.

“People are creatures of habit, especially when it comes to how they integrate their cultural offerings,” says Alix Fenhagen, Single Carrot ensemble member and interim CEO. “One of the challenges we’re having right now, that we’ve anticipated, is getting everyone back home and saying, ‘Hey, that’s how you find out about us. This is how you engage with us.

While it is too early to say how successful these alternative models will be for the theaters that undertake them – and that of course largely depends on each individual theater, its audience, its mission and more – it is clear that theatrical organizations are going to have to be creative in order to survive.

“We are only at the start of this journey and we see where it is going,” says Fenhagen.

Elizabeth Pandolfi is a freelance arts and culture journalist. She is the former art editor of the Charleston City Paper and her work has appeared in Art and Antiques Magazine, Charleston Magazine, WNC Magazine and other publications.

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