Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Life Next to Theatre's Elephant

Pierre Trudeau once made this now famous (and oft-bastardized) quote about Canadian life as next door neighbour (sic) to the USA:

“Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

The reason I mention this trivial, ironic sidebar to Canadian history is that it could just as easily be applied to our situation here at Grinder Productions, or even more generally to the entire theatre community in Centre Wellington. We are the ones sleeping with the elephant - and that elephant is Drayton Entertainment.

For any of you who have been living under a rock for the past ten years Drayton Entertainment is one of the biggest success stories in Canadian Theatre. The company started off in the tiny village of Drayton and has now grown to six venues in 4 communities, with an annual attendance averaging 220,000 patrons. Just this past week it was announced that the company will build yet another venue, a massive performing arts centre in Cambridge, which will also function as the new administrative and production hub for the empire.

The key to Drayton's success (at least in my opinion) is a combination of pragmatic programming, excellent sponsor stewardship and, most importantly, an economy of scale. With venues spread out across the province the company is able to produce a show at one theatre, give it a several week run, then ship it off to another theatre for several more weeks, then in some cases on to a third for an even longer run. This allows them to amortize production and rehearsal costs, as well as maximizing a show's earning potential - advantages that no other theatre in Ontario (to the best of my knowledge) enjoys. To be sure, there are "co-pros" - where two theatres work together to mount the same play in one venue, then move it to another, but in this case the costs (and any profits) are split between the two companies on a pre-arranged basis. Only at Drayton does a single company get to reap 100% of the profits from a given show.

Whatever the reasons, Alex Mustakas and his team have done remarkably well, and proved that live theatre can still be extremely viable in the 21st century, despite competition from film, TV, the internet and other emerging forms of entertainment.

So we're sleeping next to the elephant. Okay, so the elephant is dancing. The Jitterbug. What can we, Grinder Productions and our fellow local theatre companies, do in the face of such mind-boggling success?

Well the easy answer is that there are no easy answers. As much as we would like to be the only ticket in town and exist in a vaccum that simply isn't our reality, and if it weren't another theatre company it would be TV or Facebook or high gas prices or something else that would be used to explain away empty houses. And trust me, when it comes to empty houses, I've heard just about every conceivable excuse.

And I've said this before. Not my words, and I apologize if they're a bit crude but I heard them on an old cop show years ago, and it sums up my attitude on this matter perfectly:

"Excuses are like butts; everyone's got'em, all of 'em stink."

In other words Stop Blaming Drayton. No theatre ever succeeded or failed because of what was going on across town, it's what happens here, what we're doing, that matters. If the Drayton experience is better than the Grinder experience then it's our fault, not theirs (though I have heard some say the Grinder experience is better than the Stratford experience - not that I'm letting it go to my head).

Grinder's motto is "Theatre that Dares to be Different" and for me that translates into many things, but one of them is that we dare to try harder, to do better, to not look for excuses but for innovations, to take the little we've been given and use our creative energy to turn it into something that meets and exceeds our larger, more affluent competition. This is not a pipe dream; it can happen, I've seen it happen, I've made it happen.

Join us at Grinder productions, and let's make it happen again together. You never know: one day we just might be the elephant.

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