Can a Theatre Company Lead Change?
Toronto, often deemed “the most multicultural city in the world,” is the largest city in Canada. There’s a thriving theatre scene here, with almost everything you could ask for, and the artists whose work we’re treated to are some of the best in the country. In this city series, you’ll hear from several of these theatremakers about the Toronto theatre landscape through their eyes. Here, Owais Lightwala, managing director of Why Not Theatre, talks about major challenges in Toronto theatre that can be tackled when a scrappy indie company quadruples its budget. —May Antaki, series curator
For as long as I can remember, I have had a compulsive habit of counting the number of not-white and not-old people in the audience every time I go to the theatre. Over the years, the trend I’ve observed is pretty consistent: the larger and more prestigious the stage, the more likely the casts are to be white, the director to be male, and the audiences to be older and wealthier. This staggering lack of diversity, both on stage and in house, has struck me as a stark contrast to the rest of Toronto, often called the most multicultural city in the world. I realize that for most people reading this, that won’t be a particularly shocking observation; this seems to be a common trend across North America. But for me, a Pakistani-born immigrant middle-class millennial, I still find it shocking on a daily basis.
This staggering lack of diversity, both on stage and in house, has struck me as a stark contrast to the rest of Toronto, often called the most multicultural city in the world.
This lack of diversity was one of the motivations for me to join Why Not Theatre many years ago. When I first got involved in 2010, it was a scrappy startup founded three years earlier by artistic director Ravi Jain. Ravi had returned to Toronto after a decade of training all over the world only to find a frustrating lack of opportunities for artists like himself. Together, we set about building a company from scratch, wanting to challenge the model of what was possible for a theatre company. Seeing the larger institutions as rigid and exclusive, we wanted to be more agile, collaborative, and responsive to the changing world around us. We wanted to confront the status quo by examining what stories are told and by whom.
We quickly found that while our vision of a more progressive landscape was always welcomed, there was never any new money to actually support a new vision. Canadian non-profit theatre is heavily reliant on public funding from various levels of government, which privileges older and larger institutions, with the bulk of money going to a few legacy organizations at the top. The institutions in that top echelon are also often mandated with some form of Eurocentric classical cannon—ballet, opera, Shakespeare—a direct legacy of Canada as former British and French colonies. Those institutions all have buildings with an obligatory plaque thanking their major donors, the same handful of names repeating in every fancy lobby. The donor plaques are an even less diverse group than the audiences I have been informally surveying all these years.
In those days, working in the independent part of the sector and without a venue, Why Not learned to be resourceful, creative, and prolific in partnerships to make things happen. We created shows like A Brimful of Asha, which broke the mold in form and content by bringing to stage an underrepresented story from an unlikely storyteller. As those successes brought more opportunities, we decided to play to our strengths as a smaller company.
Since we didn’t have a venue, we would go where the audiences were and find spaces that fit the work, not the other way around. We had no season structure to be tied to, so we invested a lot of energy in touring. We didn’t have a large endowment or subscriber base, so we took risks that larger companies couldn’t or wouldn’t. We didn’t have a lot of funding, so resource-sharing and innovation were necessary for survival. At the same time, we created new producing models—like RISER—that made it easier for other independent artists to produce their work by pooling together resources and making more with less. This was important to us because we have always believed in trying to grow horizontally rather than vertically, prioritizing strengthening the community over a single company.
In 2015, Canadians elected Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party into power. His government announced they would be doubling the $150 million budget of the Canada Council for the Arts to $310 million by 2021. There was finally an avalanche of that most-prized-of-all funding: new money. It had taken Why Not ten years to grow to a team of three with a half-a-million-dollar operating budget, and with the new federal funding, we grew quickly to our current team of nine with a two-million-plus operating budget. The increased support from the federal government got us to a stage where we had the size and infrastructure to pursue more substantial private philanthropy, which is further fuelling our growth in coming years. Suddenly, we went from a scrappy startup to a privileged institution in our own right. With this new position, we had an even greater sense of responsibility to creating change towards a more equitable, exciting, and engaging Toronto theatre landscape.
In order to make this change, Why Not’s tri-leadership team (artistic director Ravi Jain, executive producer Kelly Read, and myself) tasked ourselves with identifying the biggest issues Toronto theatre faced and narrowed them down to three of the most urgent for us.
The first is space. This came out of us looking into, and very nearly pursuing, a capital campaign to purchase our own studio. For the first ten years of the company, we didn’t even have an office, and the idea of running our own space was very seductive, as quality space in Toronto is both rare and expensive.
Getting your own venue seems to be the universally accepted growth trajectory for a successful company, as seen by the recent builds of the Theatre Centre and Crow’s Theatre in the city. Plus, over the years, we had developed connections with a large community of exciting indie artists who could use better spaces. Most of these artists are competing for the few available slots to work in institutions, or paying through the nose to do it on their own. This is why, starting about a decade or so ago, Toronto began to see a spike in storefront theatres, like Videofag (now defunct) and the Storefront Arts Initiative (which still exists as a company but without a space), and more recently Coal Mine Theatre and the Assembly Theatre (both still active). These places provide (and provided) cheap but generally small and limited spaces—though most Toronto storefront spaces seem to have a short lifespan because of an unsustainable business model.
Suddenly, we went from a scrappy startup to a privileged institution in our own right. With this new position, we had an even greater sense of responsibility to creating change towards a more equitable, exciting, and engaging Toronto theatre landscape.
The more we crunched numbers and spoke to those who had actually worked in a venue, the less appealing getting our own became. No space seemed to have a model that was sustainable—they were either too expensive, low quality, or perpetually overcapacity. And in Toronto’s rapidly changing real estate landscape, we realized we wouldn’t be able to solve the problem of access to space by simply building another space.
In order to change the kind of art that gets made and who engages with it, we realized that it would be more useful to find an innovative way to increase access to space at a lower cost than building new. This would allow for more resources to go towards other areas—like the actual art-making. So, instead of becoming a space landlord, we began thinking in terms of creating a structure where we would act more as a broker or facilitator between artists and spaces.
We’re particularly looking at creative ways to increase access to existing yet underutilized spaces, like empty churches, community centers, and corporate buildings. This is hardly original thinking. It’s inspired directly from the many theatres started in garages and sheds, and the newer sharing economy that underpins phenomenons like Airbnb and Uber—with the crucial difference that our motives are not profit driven. Local companies like Outside the March, which is mandated to present site-specific shows in unconventional spaces, have made this reduce/reuse/recycle mindset their entire rasion d’être. We’re using these existing models as jumping-off points and pursuing the facilitation direction with an openness to finding a new way of organizing.
The second major problem we want to tackle is caregiving. Over the years, we’ve been hearing from more and more female artists that the cost of childcare is making it unfeasible for them to work in theatre, with its precarious engagements and unimpressive wages. At Why Not, it’s now become policy for us provide a childcare subsidy for any artist we work with, but we know there are hundreds of artists working independently or with other companies that can’t offer this kind of support. And what about the thousands of potential artists who have already given up on a career in theatre because it doesn’t make sense for them to spend more on childcare than they earn?
At one point in a three-hour brainstorm session, Kelly (Why Not’s executive producer) threw out a crazy idea: what if we could provide the caregiving support we give our artists to any artist in the community? In 1997, Quebec famously adopted a universal childcare model that offers highly subsidized childcare for all families in the province. The initiative has resulted in the participation rates of women in the workforce jumping from 74 percent to 87 percent between 1997 and now. It also brought about an increase of $5.1 billion to the country’s GDP and actually made the government money, even after paying for the program. We don’t have any good stats for how many women have been forced out of the theatre or arts sector because of childcare, but this data raises the question: What potential could we unlock by investing in women with children at a critical stage in their lives and careers? How many more female artistic leaders would there be if we didn’t have as many women leaving the industry for more financially viable jobs?
The third problem we are looking at is audiences. More specifically: who the audiences are and who they aren’t. I looked up the actual stats, and the average theatregoer in Toronto is fifty-three years old (compared to the city’s average of forty-five), has an average household income of $88,000 (compared to city average of $53,000), and has an 80 percent chance of being white (only 49 percent of the city is white). Considering almost all of Toronto theatre works in a non-profit charitable model, these discrepancies really undermine the argument that their programming is intended for “public benefit.”
Changing audience demographics is a much more complicated challenge than creating access to space or childcare because there are so many possible causes and interconnected variables. There are barriers of culture and language, which Why Not has tried to address by presenting international work in non-English languages. Another major barrier is cost, with the average ticket at a major company going for anywhere between $60 and $150. Almost every institution has tried to address this with various forms of rush, PWYC, youth prices, etc., but it still seems like the overwhelming majority of tickets are priced out of reach.
In thinking about these problems (space, caregiving, diversity of audiences), we’ve realized that these aren’t just issues in our sector, they’re symptoms of something much larger.
The summer festivals, like the Toronto Fringe and SummerWorks, have more accessible prices (in the $15-ish range), and their audiences are younger to match. But the festival models also often mean smaller production budgets and are even harder for artists to make a living from. We’ve done some experiments with our own pay-what-you-can-afford model that aims to balance access and sustainability, and found some success on several shows. But could this model serve a larger audience than our own? How can we make an impact at a larger scale that affects our entire sector?
In thinking about these problems (space, caregiving, diversity of audiences), we’ve realized that these aren’t just issues in our sector, they’re symptoms of something much larger. It’s not just artists who are feeling the crunch for space; the city is seeing real estate prices swell, which has caused a housing affordability issue. Childcare is a problem for women in every sector and industry, especially for precarious workers. The question of who is in the room is a problem in every corporate boardroom and every level of government.
Toronto is becoming a leader on many international lists. The most unequal city in Canada. The fourth most unaffordable for housing in North America and the fifth in the world for overall unaffordability. The worst city in North America, and sixth worst in the world, for commuting. Toronto has also been declared the most multicultural city in the world, with over 51 percent of the population born in another country and more than two hundred nationalities represented. Many of those “visible minorities” and immigrants face lower levels of education and income.
This rising financial and cultural inequity is only going to increase as Toronto continues to grow rapidly, as it has been. As the economic engine of Canada, it attracts more and more immigrants looking to make a living. It’s also increasingly seen as a cheaper source of highly skilled labor for the tech sector, with major corporations and new startups looking to set up shop in “Silicon Valley North.” But while there is a massive construction boom to create new condos to house the wealthy urban professionals, most people living in Toronto are worried.
In this time of great challenges, I think there are great opportunities. We at Why Not see this moment, when there is so much division, so much silo-ing, so much in-the-box thinking, for theatre to become the force for change that it always has been.
There is a wave already underway, most visibly in leadership. Recent high-profile appointments like Brendan Healy at Canadian Stage and Weyni Mengesha at Soulpepper, the two largest non-profit theatres in the city, mark a new generation of artistic leadership. The challenge they face, however, is that they are inheriting institutions with massive rigid structures, and it will take years to turn them in new directions. In order to see change in the system sooner, it will take more than a few leaders in the top seats. It will take a larger movement—a movement that needs to include the biggest institutions, the smallest indie collectives, the artists and audiences, and also the city itself. Can we mobilize across the silos and divisions, and build a new order that serves us all? I say, why not.