ENTER Corona (unexpected and aggressive)

The late educator and arts administrator, Walter Pitman, used to tell the following illuminating anecdote to illustrate the sad state of affairs and short shrift that we in the arts community get when it comes to recognizing our worth and value with regard to federal and provincial budgeting priorities. Early on in his tenure as executive director of the Ontario Arts Council in the 1980s, Pitman was invited to Queen’s Park to attend an educational session that would break down the provincial budget for the coming year.

The government’s deputy ministers, assistant deputy ministers and senior policy advisors were all assembled from their various departments to present a slide show that began with an overview comprised of various pie charts and bar graphs explaining the province’s budgeting priorities for the coming year which included the manufacturing sector, industrial and agricultural production, health care, education, infrastructure projections (roads, hydroelectric plants, bridges, etc), sport (including hockey, curling, football, soccer, hunting and fishing) and so forth. The arts were not even mentioned in this initial part of the presentation. 

After lunch, the session continued by opening on a more sombre note. What if the government was not able to meet their projections in the various areas outlined in their provincial budget targets and  a contingency plan of some kind had to be developed in order to forecast what we can do without? Where might the government be able to find some room to cut back? Lo and behold, with a cool efficiency that Pitman found shocking, “the arts” were placed at the head of the list!

It’s been that way for some time now. The question is always posed as “support for the arts or more hospital beds?” Like COVID-19, that equation stands out in capital letters. It’s time to start looking for some alternatives.

The recent announcement that the Canada Council will receive $55-million and that the Museums Assistance Program will receive $53-million to assist arts and cultural organizations in light of the COVID-19 crisis is indeed welcome news. The Hon. Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Canadian Heritage, announced recently that $500-million in emergency funding has been set aside to help alleviate the financial pressures of affected organizations in heritage, the arts and sport. 

Beginning now, “Canadian Heritage is working closely with its partner organizations in culture and sports. In particular, Canada Council for the Arts, the Canada Media Fund, FACTOR, Musicaction and Telefilm Canada to distribute funds quickly through existing channels” the announcement said. “Canada’s culture, heritage and sports organizations are creative and resilient. This targeted funding will help organizations maintain operations while continuing to support artists and athletes and retain jobs.”  

Speaking at a recent online broadcast hosted by Actor’s Equity, Simon Brault, Director and CEO of the Canada Council, highlighted the minister’s announcement and noted that his organization’s annual budget last year totaled $360-million, but in light of the emergency brought on by the pandemic, “we have approached government for additional funds this year to address the crisis and we welcome the new dollars.” 

However, Brault went on to say quite candidly that “from what I have been hearing from my colleagues at arts organizations across the country and my colleagues in other countries, it is unlikely that we will get beyond this crisis in a matter of a few more months. More likely it will be one or two – perhaps even three years before we can see some return to a new normal.” Recognizing this, over the longer term, a more realistic figure for government support to heritage, culture and the arts would be “in the area of $3 to $3.5-billion”, Brault said.

Some of Canada’s largest theaters have been especially hard hit. The Stratford Festival canceled their entire 2020 season several weeks ago, and laid off 470 of their employees, announcing they had to “plug in the hole in their revenue stream” in the amount of 40 million dollars that would have been raised through projected box office revenue. The Festival said this would necessitate seeking additional aid from the federal government and the province in the amount of $20-million dollars to offset their losses. 

Since the initial layoff notices went out and in light of the intervention of the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program (CEWS), my colleague Carly Maga reported in the Toronto Star that, “340 of 500 employees have been recalled including people in costumes, props, finance, the human resources and fundraising departments.” Ironically, this left only the 160 actors, freelance directors, choreographers, stage managers and designers without a salary. 

That is because technically these arts workers fall into a category called “self-employed” or more fundamentally for legal purposes, known as “independent contractors,” not technically full time employees. They are more like seasonal workers, of the kind that one might see picking fruit at many of the vineyards around the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake. Actors would not even be eligible for EI benefits had it not been for a special support initiative announced recently by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that allows them to qualify for benefits paid under the new Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) “to be paid to those arts workers who typically function as independent contractors.” Just announced, the CERB benefits will be extended on July 5 for an additional two months. 

“The amounts received by our members under the CERB are not enough to replace 40 odd weeks of work at the minimums paid by Stratford,” commented Arden Ryshpan, executive director of Canadian Actor’s Equity Association. “In fact, the amount paid by the CERB on a weekly basis wouldn’t meet any of the minimums in our agreements. Then again, the CEWS doesn’t pay the full amount of the employee’s wages, either, although it would likely cover a larger percentage of an employee’s weekly salary than the CERB does.” 

Initially, the Stratford Festival layoffs were categorized – in the case of artists who fall into the independent contractor category – as “temporary terminations.” The hope was to restart rehearsals with new contracts for unionized staff who are members of CAEA (Actor’s Equity), IATSE (technicians and stage hands),  CFofM (musicians) and ADC (set, lighting and costume designers) by the end of April or early May and open shows to audiences in June. These plans were quickly abandoned by management as the crisis deepened and provincial guidelines against crowd gatherings were put in place.

So what now? The reason that it is important to look closely at the Stratford Festival as an organizational model in the not-for-profit sector, is not because what they do there matters any more or less than any other theatre company across the country – but because how they treat their employees will set an example for other arts organizations both large and small. Theatre is a labour intensive craft and the SF represents one of the summits of live theatre in North America.

Ryshpan made a point of observing that employers such as Stratford have fulfilled their basic contractual obligations to unionized employees. “A number of theaters, Stratford included, kept our members on contract beyond the point where they could reasonably accomplish a great deal through online rehearsals and we are appreciative of that.”

Having acknowledged this, a layoff is still a layoff.

Says Ryshpan: “The world, at least until now, has been structured on an employer/employee relationship, despite the fact that an increasing amount of work is done on a freelance basis. Perhaps this global crisis will have some long term impact on how work is compensated. This has certainly raised the volume on a guaranteed minimum income.” There is also increasing talk about a renewed, enhanced and more robust Status of the Artist Act as urged in a recent article by Zainub Verjee that appeared recently in the Georgia Straight.

Currently, actors are hired seasonally at the Stratford Festival, at a base salary of $1,233.00 a week according to the last negotiated Equity agreement. A particular actor might receive more than the base depending on seniority within the company and other factors. They may be asked back for the next year’s season or not, depending on a variety of factors that are purely within management’s purview. For an actor, there is very little job security as the current crisis portrays in sharp relief. 

Although actors are central and critical to the whole process of creating plays (or “product” as they are now called at the Festival), apparently they are entirely expendable when crisis hits. When the lay off notices came, the actors received two weeks notice as is consistent with their working agreements. In the whole scheme of things they were literally “last hired, first fired.” 

Carol Stephenson, the chair of the Festival’s board of governors, appeared recently in front of the standing committee on finance in Ottawa to request emergency funding from the federal government in the amount of $9-million to assist the Festival in recouping the lost revenue that would normally have been paid out in salary to employees over the next several months. Her presentation left some members of the arts community (this journalist included) scratching their heads.

Accompanied by Anita Gaffney, the Festival’s executive director, Stephenson announced, “we would both ask that you think of the Stratford Festival as a business – because that is how we see ourselves. Ours is a $65-million company that sells its product to the world.” Really? Is this where neo-liberal economic thinking has taken us in the arts?

The last time I looked, the Stratford Festival was still firmly rooted in the not-for-profit sector of the economy and basically operated as a charity and not a private business. Unless there is a move afoot among the board of governor’s to take the Festival private or even public by way of an IPO offering on the TSX, then I imagine they still play by the same rules that every other not-for-profit arts organization does in Canada.

In fact, the Festival is the largest charitable organization in Canada that currently garners $94.3-million in reserve funds, a healthy portion of which makes up the Shakespeare Festival Endowment Foundation.

What the founder of the Festival, the late Tom Patterson – whose birth centenary will be celebrated in Stratford this month – did so convincingly, and what was a founding principle and primary motivator of the Festival’s origin, was to envision the establishment of a major regional theatre in the town of Stratford as an economic stimulus that could not only build appreciation for the arts by mounting the plays of William Shakespeare, but could also attract ancillary benefits to the town itself.

With prescience and no small amount of courage and tenacity, Patterson succeeded admirably, by establishing a model that has been emulated throughout North America and has been recognized as an example of both rural as well as urban planning and development, written about by everyone from Jane Jacobs to Richard Florida, who saw the arts as central to human development.

A disquieting aspect to the Stratford management’s presentation was to insist that somehow an arts organization should be hesitant about requesting additional subsidy. 

“It pains all of us to be in this position,” said Stephenson, “it is not our usual manner and one that we will not become accustomed to,” she assured the members of the finance committee. There was the mighty Stratford Festival approaching parliamentarians like a timorous Oliver Twist putting out his bowl to Mr. Bumble in the workhouse and asking, “Please sir, could I have some more?”

Globe and Mail theatre critic, J. Kelly Nestruck commented in an opinion piece: “I found this apologetic tone to be dreadfully out of tune with the times, when even many for-profit businesses are having the salaries of their employees subsidized to 75 per cent by the government, and millions of Canadians are accessing the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.”

In fact, it is indeed the “usual manner” for Stratford to approach government agencies for subsidy on an annual basis for core funding as well as bricks and mortar capital grants such as the support given to build the new Tom Patterson Theatre that was to have opened this month. Artistic director Antoni Cimolino regularly bemoans the fact that the overall amount of government support directed to the Festival amounts to only about 6 percent of their overall operating budget. Still and all, that equates to over 3 million dollars a year in government grant subsidy – not an insignificant amount by anyone’s standards.

Meanwhile, down the road at the Shaw Festival, a very different scenario is unfolding. In answer to my question as to which side of the financial ledger the Shaw Festival sees itself, executive director Tim Jennings (speaking over zoom from his home in St. Catherines) answered without hesitation: “Obviously we operate as a charity on the not-for-profit side of the ledger,” he stated. But he was quick to add that business was good last season at the box office. In fact, it was the best season financially in the history of the Festival. “We surpassed $34.1-million in earned revenue of which $21.1-million came from ticket sales.”

In addition the Shaw Festival had the presence of mind to foresee the possibility of natural disasters of some kind that might impede their ability to operate. Much like farmers and grape growers take out crop insurance, the Shaw Festival took out a policy that shielded them somewhat when disaster struck.

“It actually had the word “pandemic” in it,” said Jennings, “and this is what enabled us to maintain payroll for the actors when other theaters were forced to terminate artists’ contracts.” No doubt George Bernard Shaw would have been pleased to see an insurance company actually have to pay out the claim. In his satire on the medical profession, “The Doctor’s Dilemma”, Shaw commented wryly, “Of all the anti-social vested interests the worst is the vested interest in ill-health.”

Still, in spite of the insurance money cushion, earlier this month the Shaw had to make the difficult decision to suspend the contracts of approximately 70 ensemble members.

“But I immediately re-engaged almost all of these artists under a new job category and job description that is supported through the Canadian Emergency Wage subsidy program,” said Jennings. This newly created team of cultural and artistic animators is called ECOS, which stands for Education and Community Outreach Specialists, who are being deployed throughout the region locally in an effort to deepen relationships with the surrounding communities, increase digital interactions and patronage online as well as to create educational learning materials that will strengthen the Shaw’s relationship with students and educational institutions.

“I’m speaking with other theaters across the country in an effort to construct a working model that might serve even more needs,” Jennings added with enthusiasm.

In light of this, I spoke with Ashley Corcoran, the newly appointed artistic director of the venerable Arts Club Theatre in Vancouver who took over the helm from founder Bill Millerd last year. Will the largest theatre employer in Western Canada, programming in three separate venues, also make their way to Parliament Hill to state their case?

“While we aren’t as connected to get an audience with the federal finance committee, we will continue to try any route necessary to advocate for the funding our company needs for survival,” Corcoran wrote in an email communication. She added that annually 250,000 people come to see the 18 shows that they mount in their season. 

“We run 12 months a year and 80% of our $16-million annual operating budget comes from earned revenue (ticket sales, etc.) Annually, less than 7% of our operating budget comes from all three levels of government combined. As such, we are hopeful that we will receive the type of government support – through a grant and loan much like Stratford is asking – for our continued survival, and we will continue advocating for such.”

In a recent op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail by international museum consultant Gail Lord (president of Lord Cultural Associates); Daniel Silver, a sociology professor at University of Toronto; and Mark S. Fox, associate director of research at U of T’s School of Cities, the authors argued that Canada’s arts sector needs transformative action similar to the Works Progress Administration that was enacted under the auspices of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation of the 1930s in the U.S. .

“With unemployment approaching levels not seen since the Great Depression, it is time for bold initiatives. The federal government is wisely considering a major stimulus package geared toward improving the country’s infrastructure. Yet to have maximum impact, it is necessary to expand the notion of infrastructure beyond the physical. Our society is built not only on roads, bridges and cables, but also on music, stories and images.” 

It is an idea whose time has come around again.

Several years ago, on a visit to Central European cities, I had an opportunity to observe a wide variety of arts and cultural activity. Most impressive to me was Bratislava, the capitol of Slovakia.

Close to our hotel in the old part of the city, was the historic Slovak National Theatre located on Hviezdoslav Square. But the only thing that was playing there during the time of our visit was a children’s opera called, “The Great Doctor’s Tale” by the Slovak composer, Milan Dubovský, that was scheduled daily at 11 o’clock in the morning. Since that’s what was going, we took in the show one morning along with several busloads of elementary students accompanied by their teachers. Excitement was high, as the little dusters eagerly anticipated the full length, two act performance to come. As the house lights came down, a calm settled over the packed house as they eased into their seats, transfixed.

I was transfixed as well. The opera (directed by Andrea Hlinková) demanded a large cast that was accompanied by a full orchestra! I compared this to a recent production of the musical “Annie” that I had seen at Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre the previous season. The truncated cast involved much doubling with only a piano and a clarinet as musical accompaniment for the show.

Slovakia is a small country of only 5.5 million people and Bratislava is a poor city compared to Prague. And yet, these were the production values that they dedicated to their children’s theatre programming. Later that night we visited the newer Slovak National Opera located in a beautiful facility along the Danube and saw a wonderful production of “Aida.” I noticed that a number of the performers names were also in the program for the children’s opera performance earlier in the day. Here were actors and opera singers who performed in repertory year round and who thought nothing of doing a performance in the morning for elementary school children and an opera by Verdi that very same night!

Let me just conclude by saying that I am very much in agreement with Antoni Cimolino, the artistic director of the Stratford Festival. I too deplore the fact that the Festival only receives 6 per cent of its overall operating budget from government subsidy when around the world we see subsidies for companies large and small often approaching 50 to 60 percent. With that level of subsidy should come better working conditions for the artists and lower ticket prices for the general public. 

Even before economic losses caused by the pandemic, ticket prices (plus overnight accommodations) were very often out of reach for many Canadians who might want to spend a few days seeing shows at either the Stratford or Shaw Festival. We all desperately want our performing arts ensembles to survive the current crisis and it is only through substantial government intervention that they will be able to do so. But organizations should use those subsidies wisely and responsibly with some sense of social conscience.

We also need to recognize that the business of the arts is not like an automotive assembly line that regularly turns out new homologated “products” for eager consumers. The play is not the thing. The skilled actors, directors, playwrights-in-residence, choreographers, dancers, musicians, designers and technicians of all kinds are the thing and always have been the thing. It is their daily labour that fashions and molds this creative art form we call the theatre.

One final but important point here: after Simon Brault had concluded his remarks, Arden Ryshpan opened the floor to a Q&A from Equity members. Actor David Ferry asked Brault how the new funds coming into the pipeline will be distributed to artists and arts organizations and would there be any provisions made for those newly emerging companies that may not yet receive core funding from the Canada Council or do not yet have their not-for-profit charitable number status in place?

Brault replied that the funds will be distributed on a “formulaic basis and will not go through the regular peer review jury process.” In other words, if you don’t have your foot in the door already, don’t even bother to knock. 

The Globe and Mail op-ed article by Gail Lord, et al, calls emphatically for, “Direct support to racialized, immigrant and Indigenous artists, as well as subsidies to encourage the profusion of cultural activity outside of major urban centers, where it is disproportionately concentrated.” These are the new less privileged, emerging voices who don’t yet have a place at the table but are hungry nonetheless.

Following upon the recent social upheaval across North America resulting from increased incidents of police brutality against Black and Indigenous people, BIPOC members of the theatre community are speaking out. Signed by hundreds of prominent BIPOC theatre artists, the hashtag #weseeyou is addressed to “Dear White American Theatre” and currently lists over 158,000 posts on Instagram. A much broader and far reaching proclamation was published today – Juneteenth – by Black Artists for Freedom that can be found here.

The Stratford Festival recently mounted an online panel discussion entitled: “Black Like Me, past, present and future: Behind the Stratford Festival curtain” which allowed company members to raise concerns with regard to both personal and institutional racism that they have experienced at the Festival and beyond in their professional careers. On Twitter, the hashtag #inthedressingroom became a forum of discussion for the many microaggressions that BIPOC artists must face on a daily basis.

The 10 panelists aired a wide range of grievances which included specific discussion around provisions such as the “As Cast” clause in the Equity working agreement which actor E.B. Smith said, “amounts to the forfeiture of all agency for actors who seek to work for them.” One quick result was a hastily called meeting of the CAEA ex-com to table a motion that will remove the language surrounding the “As Cast” clause from the contract.

Upon hearing this news, an actor friend of mine commented: “All actors, of all colours shapes and creeds hate the “As Cast” provision. And it doesn’t matter how big a role in the season you have, you could always be offered As Cast. Many actors leave Stratford because in one season they have a meaty part, then next season they have a smaller part and the rest are As Cast. Many actors turn down As Cast. I’ve turned down As Cast at Stratford.”

In addition, Stratford will present, “Ndo-Mshkogaabwimi – We Are Standing Strong: Stories of Endurance, Resilience and Resistance from Members of the Indigenous Circle at Stratford” on Saturday, June 20.

The Festival should be supported for acknowledging – albeit belatedly – their own history around anti-BIPOC racism and other social justice issues and hopefully their example will lead other theatres and organizations to mount similar efforts (are you listening Shaw Festival, Canadian Stage, Tarragon, arts councils, et al?) and come forward with tangible plans that allows the theatre going public to know these questions are being taken seriously at an institutional level. And yes, we need to include the unions here as well. There is much work to be done.

As Linda Loman reminds us: “Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.” The question is not; to be or not to be? Our theatre will survive and we will progress beyond these perilous times. The question is: will attention finally be paid by the political powers-that-be and will they act decisively?

(Editor’s note: the article above was recently re-published in ArtsJournal, a digest of arts and cultural journalism culled from internet sites, and more than 200 English language newspapers, magazines and publications featuring writing about arts and culture. You can access it here.)

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