Focus Issue: Providing greater opportunities for artistic work to achieve its potential
From an exploration of cross-border resources, to a residency for Indigenous theatre artists, six new projects are being launched as part of our 2016 Learning Network.
Click on each company’s logo to read about their initiatives.
The Musical Stage Company
The Musical Stage Company produces, develops, and promotes better understanding of contemporary musical theatre in Canada. In addition to their critically-acclaimed productions of contemporary musicals, the Musical Stage Company presents an annual musical concert at Koerner Hall and offers a variety of mentoring and training initiatives including workshops in Thorncliffe Park.
The Musical Stage Company’s supported initiative will unlock and access cross-border resources to support the often costly and complex musical theatre development process. The company will develop collaborative relationships with US regional theatres, explore US models for commercial enhancement within Canada, and capitalize on funding opportunities that are only available to American 501c3 charities.
Year One Reflections
We see an opportunity to bolster the very expensive development of new musicals because of our proximity to the US where musical theatre is very popular and relatively well-supported. We want to enable new Canadian musicals in development to better thrive, short and long-term, by unlocking and accessing cross-border resources that will support and nurture this costly and complex process. There are three parts to our strategy: establishing collaborative producing and developmental relationships with US regional theatres; exploring the model for commercial enhancement, that is frequently used in the US, within Canada; and capitalizing on funding opportunities for the development of musical theatre that are only available to American 501c3 charities by opening a U.S. charity account.
After working with writers for over five years to develop original Canadian musicals, we were struck by how long the process takes and how under resourced the sector is in Canada. Even with our commission funding and the promise of royalties from a production at our theatre, once that fee was divided amongst multiple collaborators, it was an unfair compensation for the immense amount of work.
By chance, we had forged a collaborative relationship with a US regional theatre in Washington to co-develop a musical. We were struck by how much better the resources were for the writers between two commissions and the built-in opportunity for multiple productions. Plus, the strain on our organization through each phase of development was lightened with a partner to share the costs. We saw this as a possible model for exploration within a larger market that is passionate about the musical theatre art form.
We secured commercial enhancement support for Life After. This is a very popular model of operating in the US where a commercial theatre company offers financial support to a new musical at a not-for-profit theatre, covering the costs of elements which have long-term impact. In our case, Yonge Street Theatricals covered the cost of orchestrations, arrangements, a longer rehearsal period because it was a new work and certain enhancements to the production and marketing budgets. The commercial producer does not participate in the box office for the show, but has the option to produce the piece commercially in the future.
Not only did this give us the ability to provide the work with the resources it needed, but it also provides a reasonable financial proposition for the show’s creator including an option payment from the commercial producer and a built-in commitment to pursue future production opportunities on a not-for-profit and commercial scale.
Personal relationships are key to any initiative. And building those personal relationships takes time.
Over the course of the year we have met with dozens of prospective co-producers based in the US. The meetings are all very useful, but initiatives are not formalized in a single meeting (even though there is promising interest). It will take time.
We also recognized that meetings in Toronto were more valuable than us attending meetings at the prospective regional theatres. The most fruitful conversations happened after someone saw our work first-hand.
Similarly, while we have secured our 501(c)3 US charitable status, we accept that strategizing an effective fundraising campaign south of the border may take longer than we had initially planned. We want to be thorough cultivating relationships with champions and supporters. Although this may delay the benefit of our US charitable status, we expect it will lead to greater and longer term success.
Be patient! There are many times when something seems highly promising and awfully exciting. Always though these arrangements seem to take longer than expected. But with patience, and conviction, you can see the right opportunities that are worth the wait.
Be a salesperson! At the core of each component of our strategy is a need to clearly communicate about our product. The ability to ‘sell your work’ directly impacts both fundraising and producing elements. Streamlining our pitch has been essential in engaging potential partners and supporters. We found, for example, that focusing our pitch to be about a single writer was hugely helpful in opening doors. Once these relationships exist, then we have more opportunity to consider the scope of all of our work.
The two most burning questions that have arisen in this first stage of our initiative are:
1. What is the first actionable item to raise funds in a new market?
2. What is the value proposition for someone in another country to want to fund Canadian musicals?
Art of Time Ensemble
Art of Time Ensemble is a collective of Canadian-based classical, jazz, and pop musicians, founded in 1998 by pianist/artistic director Andrew Burashko. Art of Time presents an annual subscription season at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre Theatre, and regularly appears as part of the Royal Conservatory of Music performance season at Koerner Hall.
Art of Time’s supported initiative will increase their artistic work’s potential by fostering new creation, enhancing existing works, providing resources according to the demands of the artistic idea, and leveraging works in original and adapted form to increase their number of performances and their touring capacity. The company will concurrently expand its human and financial resources to underwrite these activities in perpetuity.
Year One Reflections
With a solid base comprised of a decade of curatorial and performance excellence and a strong financial and organizational foundation, Art of Time Ensemble looks forward to furthering its artistic capacities in several key areas.
We will improve and extend the lives of our productions by: fostering the creation of new works; reviving and enhancing existing repertoire; expanding the scope and scale of our works according to the demands of the idea, rather than self-censoring due to resource limitations; and leveraging works in original and adapted forms to increase our national and international festival, touring and run-out activity. As the program progresses, we will concurrently expand our human and financial resource capacity to underwrite these activities in perpetuity.
What motivated your organization to take on this project?
Like other performing arts organizations, Art of Time Ensemble creates high quality offerings within the scope imposed by our means, but not necessarily our imagination. Unlike most other companies, our artistic development process has taken place entirely in the head of our Artistic Director, without pre-production exploration or development of any kind. An idea will be programmed in our season untested and unperformed, on three days’ rehearsal and without certainty as to its readiness. This means that some ideas worthy of pursuit will either fall short of their greatest artistic potential, or not be staged at all.
We also felt that the accessibility and high quality of our works should allow us to do more national and international work. We need to get connected internationally and export our work.
One significant outcome so far has been actually developing a new idea to see if it is programming ready. We held a four day in-theatre workshop of a concept Andrew had to set Scriabin’s 24 Preludes in an immersive colour-filled environment, to convey a sense of the synaesthesia that inspired Scriabin to assign a colour to each of the 24 movements. Kevin Lamotte, our lighting designer, Andrew and the house crew at the theatre played with the possibilities for four days, emerging with a solid understanding of their approach. We have since programmed the piece and it will be on stage in March 2018. For theatre people, this process sounds elementary, but for a music company, it is less common.
There is no single or best way to gain international exposure. We’ve met with dozens of players in the international scene, including presenters, agents and artists. Every person has given different advice; all of it was good, but it made our heads spin a little. One reason that the advice varied so much is that the work we do covers such a broad range. We operate in the classical, pop and theatre spheres and prescribing a single strategy that covers all three is near impossible.
On the artistic development front, I’d say a frank assessment of your approach is key. We realized that taking an idea straight to production is actually riskier than taking time to carefully develop a risky idea. On the market development front, relentlessness is critical. Don’t be disheartened by the opacity of the international scene. Each time we revisit it, for example through an international arts congress, we are that much more comfortable and familiar with it.
One question we are grappling with is the scalability of Art of Time Ensemble. As the opportunities for us grow in number, and as we drive to increase that number even further, how do we capitalize on them when our Artistic Director is the researcher, curator and a performer of all of our work?
Native Earth Performing Arts Inc.
Native Earth Performing Arts is the oldest professional Indigenous theatre company in Canada. Currently in its 34th year, the company is dedicated to creating, developing and producing professional artistic expressions of the Indigenous experience in Canada.
Native Earth Performing Arts will launch the Mskomini Giizis Residency as their supported initiative. The residency is designed for emerging and mid-career Indigenous artists living across Canada who are developing original works, and will occur over four weeks in July of 2017, 2018, and 2019.
Year One Reflections
The Mskomini Giizis Residency supports the late stage development of Indigenous work. By providing space and resources to an Indigenous collective or an individual creator and their team, we will provide up to 10 artists with the opportunity to revise and polish works that have received under two years development, including workshop presentations, readings, or tours.
We aim to enable a meaningful creation process and learning opportunity not only for the key creators, but also for positions where we see significant deficit in Indigenous representation: designers, stage managers, directors and technicians.
We feel that in the current climate, Indigenous work is being rushed to the stage. Currently arts councils are addressing the systemic funding gaps for Indigenous artists. However the focus is on the creation of new work, so second productions are infrequent. There are calls for greater representation on mainstream stages, so work is being fast tracked to the stage by Artistic Directors eager to showcase their new-found desire to engage with Indigenous artists.
This is the context for Indigenous work now being a desirable commodity. We are excited by these new initiatives but feel the work and the development of Indigenous artists are frequently not being served. We wanted to give an Indigenous artist or company a chance to further develop their work after a first production.
We supported a senior Indigenous artist and his company in an extended process that would be impossible in the current funding and rehearsal model. Both company and artists benefited from the process.
We need to have comprehensive conversations up front so that we can understand and evaluate the resident organization’s needs, expectations, skills and experience at the outset. This can be delicate and takes time. We want to ensure from the very beginning that we can support the artists involved by offering guidance, advice and service that also leverages our in house expertise, community and audience relationships. The time needed to have these early, honest conversations is time well-spent.
1. Clear and honest conversations about expectations at the outset are key.
2. Build in opportunities for audiences to engage with the work along the way. Audience feedback at particular milestones should relate to a framework or set of goals offered by the artist.
3. Find ways to engage external support such as peer to peer exchange.
1. How do we balance the resident companies’ needs and desires with our perspective on the residency?
2. How much are we prepared to mentor smaller organizations and how much of the learning is built into making their own mistakes?
3. How do we fully utilize the mentorship element implicit in the program?
4. How do we support artists with varying skills, needs and experience? How do we balance the needs of individual artists with the needs of the larger (Indigenous) artistic ecosystem?
Public Recordings Performance Projects
Public Recordings Performance Projects is a collaborative operation, formed in 2003, that unites artistic research, performance creation, learning, and publications. While the company’s work originates in the form, tradition, and structures of dance, it also speaks to the adjacent disciplines of performance, theatre, and social- and object-oriented practice.
Public Recordings’ supported initiative will extend the conceptual and artistic bases of their work, drawing on its history and reputation to clarify the company’s public appearance, sustain its development momentum, and grow their partnerships and audiences.
Year One Reflections
Our initiative is called Presence and Partnerships.
We developed our initiative to harmonize Public Recordings’ local presence in Toronto with our organizational partnerships, most of which are further afield. We’re a collective that’s been making and touring experimental performance across Canada and internationally for more than a decade and we think we have a lot of resources to share–including experience, networks and strategies–as well as art. One way of putting it is that we’re developing and executing a communications strategy that’s both functional and coherent with the collective leadership and experimental ethos of the artworks we produce. Basically, we’re trying to share our story by investing time and resources into telling it in a variety of spheres.
Over the last five years, Public Recordings operations have changed significantly. The company has really expanded in terms of the number of collaborators, the volume and variety of the work produced, and the disciplines and backgrounds represented by the Public Recordings moniker. Making the artistic direction of the company into a collective operation was a long-term goal and we were really proud to achieve it. But it left us in the position of having outgrown the image many people in our community have of us. We want to address that. We want audiences and artists to know what we’re doing and feel empowered to come towards the company when they’re curious.
Last year was a huge season of production with the company. The work we made was very well-attended and that had a lot to do with the activities of this initiative. On our wall in the office there’s a question, “Why are you here?” We’ve learned how to ask that question and answer it better.
The biggest milestone probably came at the end of last season. With all of that activity–six big projects including a self-produced tour and a few premieres–our administrative capacity was, bluntly, over-extended. We had to take a hard look at what we’re capable of, what we have the time to undertake joyfully, where our priorities are and, especially, how we say “no.” So finishing the 2016-17 season and coming through the transformations that resulted–changing roles, re-allocating labour – feels like a huge accomplishment. Bringing new Associate Artists into leadership positions is certainly the milestone.
When you’re asking questions about the outside, you’re also asking questions about the inside. That means: if you’re trying to examine the associations you’ve made and the way you’re perceived by your community, you’re inevitably going to look at the inner workings of your own organization. In our case, at least, addressing the nature of our partnerships and our presence in the community revealed some of the contradictions present in the company itself. When you try to modify those outside perceptions you will inevitably modify the organization–the practical stuff like who does what, how it’s rewarded and when it’s required.
Following the last point, the advice would be: sustainability isn’t a master plan. Sustainability is having a bunch of tools that allow you to adjust to changing conditions. So make sure that, within the organization, you have ways to talk honestly about your motivations and your limits–both collectively and individually–and make sure to invest the time it takes to make sure everyone knows as much as possible about what everyone else does.
Also: be prepared for change, and accept that change is always difficult, however rewarding it is.
We think that this advice applies particularly to organizations that are trying to operate under a collective or non-hierarchical structure. That said, there’s always some form of collectivity at work in an organization, so maybe it works for everyone.
As members of an organization, what can we ask from each other? What are the practical implications of our ethos? Is there something that we all need from this work–and can it be named? Is it okay if that “something” is not the same for everyone?
Toronto Dance Theatre
Toronto Dance Theatre is a leading contemporary dance ensemble dedicated to the creation and performance of original Canadian choreography. The company maintains a regular presence from coast to coast in Canada, and has toured extensively in the USA, Europe, and Asia.
Toronto Dance Theatre’s supported initiative, Reimagining Repertoire, uses the company’s significant body of work as an opportunity for creative and organizational growth. Four projects will address their repertoire’s formal structure, its potential for adaptation and remixing, how its content relates to topicality, and how these past works can inform their ongoing performance practice.
Year One Reflections
Reimagining Repertoire is a multi-year initiative by Toronto Dance Theatre that examines the potential of repertoire as a resource for ongoing research and artistic development. Areas of focus include ways to distill and deepen original ideas; using repertoire as a site for adaptation, remixing or response by other artists; examining the notion of dated work and considering ways to refresh topical references or be in dialogue with representational issues that arise with changing social attitudes; and deepening performance practice as a way to unlock the potential of a work.
The initiative is framed by writing, blog posts and annual symposiums that bring together artists and audiences in dialogue around this topic.
We were already engaged with questions around the potential of repertoire but were limited in the resources that we were able to devote to our research. The opportunity to receive support from Metcalf in this area inspired us to articulate a series of proposals that brought our research into much deeper focus.
Our first project under Reimagining Repertoire was the new production of Chiasmata, a work that had been created in 2007. Through working with a trusted outside eye, readdressing the musical score, rethinking the concept of transition and feeding what we have learned about performance in the last ten years back into the original production, it was both the same work and radically different.
The understanding that the performers are absolutely key to this initiative; their agency within each work, and understanding of and commitment to the articulation of its overarching goals, is at the core of this exciting new approach to repertoire.
Pay attention to surprises.
Don't be afraid to look at older work with fresh eyes.
Plunder from earlier works and go deeper with material and methods that capture your interest in new ways.
Who owns repertoire?
How can we get the audience excited about seeing older work?
How do we reconcile changing social attitudes with assumptions or blind spots imbedded in earlier works e.g. problematic representation, agency for performers, etc.?
Volcano Theatre is an international theatre company based in Toronto. Using innovations in global and intercultural performance practice, Volcano creates theatre that explores identity, politics, history, and the contemporary human condition. Volcano’s mission is to connect Canada to itself and to the world, and the company has previously performed in international festivals ranging from Edinburgh to Rwanda.
Volcano’s supported initiative will enable the company to re-enter the international touring arena, pursue global showcasing and networking opportunities, and rekindle relationships with venues. These activities are intended to extend the lives of their productions, strengthen the skills of the company’s general manager and production manager, and foster new conversations between Canadian and international audiences through the performing arts.
Year One Reflections
Through our Metcalf CrSI initiative, Volcano is rebooting our international touring efforts. For our productions to reach their artistic potential, and for us to fulfill a mission that involves crossing borders of all kinds, we seek opportunities for our work to tour, and for our artistic conversations to be deepened by moving into other territories. During our three-year initiative, we will widen our international networks and create strategic touring opportunities that will have a lasting impact both on the dissemination opportunities for Volcano, and the touring capacity of our organization into the future.
We used to tour more. We felt our work had been absent from international circuits for too long. This is a critical element of our work: bringing art made in Canada to audiences around the world, engaging in and learning from the cultural exchange that happens when we tour.
The contraction in tour funding under the federal Conservative government appeared to be coming to an end with the election of the federal Liberals. We wanted to position the company to have momentum by the time this funding came online. We sensed that this was good timing.
Visibility through international showcase events: We had an enormous success in pitching Treemonisha at the International Society for the Performing Arts (ISPA) meeting in New York City. This pitch put the project in front a powerful collection of international presenters, and secured us a co-commission from the Southbank Centre in the UK. This ISPA connection continues to pay off. We also had good success in showcasing Century Song at CINARS in Montreal – securing a link with the National Theatre of Scotland that has paid off in training and networking for us.
International connections are best made through work – through making one’s work visible. Making the work visible is key, and not always easy, and even once it IS visible – there are many ways for a tour to not come together.
Get your work out in more than one way – through showcases, festivals, and peer recommendations – and be ready to improvise when, inevitably, things do not go as planned. Ask for help in making connections.
How do we synthesize interest from a range of locations around the globe into a viable tour? How can we leverage the interest of a presenter in a geographic area to generate interest in others close-by to make a tour viable? How do we best leverage the funds from the CrSI program to reach our objective of increasing our touring? How do we position our work in a global market strategically while we have the support of Metcalf funding?