Saturday, March 1, 2014

jackDawe, March, 2014

The Good Old Bad Old Days, Today and The Search for Communion
So what keeps us coming back in the face of such crushingly miserable odds?
by TJ Dawe

In my last article, I talked about how crowded the lotteries for Fringe festivals are getting. It did indeed used to be easier to get into multiple Fringes and put a cross-Canada summer tour together. But that doesn’t mean it was easy. 

In my first Fringe tour, 20 years ago, I acted in a three person show. Our director stage managed. Every time our box office revenue came close to paying off the tour debt a new expense would pop up (like the axle of our van falling off outside of Kitchener). Or a bad review would gut our houses. We finally did pay off that debt, splitting the profits from then on. We made $400 each that summer. 

Friends of ours never had good houses and wound up thousands in the hole. My buddy Charlie’s credit rating was fucked for years. Another group self-produced in the cities they didn’t get drawn in, and played to single digit audiences. Another group, after being listed as the number two pick in Robert Enright’s Best of Winnipeg list, had 15 paying audience members. They quit the tour the next day. 

Ask any touring veteran if they have a billeting story. Go ahead. And sit back. 

I toured a solo show of my own in ‘98. Scrambled to make a go of it. Again, the break-even point stayed just out of reach, perpetually. Then I got mono. 

In ’99 the Kelowna Fringe went kaput two weeks before opening and didn’t refund anyone’s application fee. A bunch of touring companies had nowhere to go. A few years later the producer’s body was found in a river. 

Every year companies got their balls smashed in by the critics’ steel-toed boots. Every year companies collapsed from internal conflict and frustration and poverty and just plain being thousands of miles from home. Every year people found themselves in strange makeshift venues (converted gyms, churches, basements, store-fronts, bus barns, swimming pools, banks)(I’m not exaggerating). 

And I haven’t even touched on accommodations. Ask any touring veteran if they have a billeting story. Go ahead. And sit back. 

Those were the good old days. 

And now there’s a greater scramble than ever for the experience described above. Which is only part of the picture, of course. A few people get consistently good reviews. And big houses. And good venues. And good showtimes. And good billets. And revenue that put them in the black. And opportunities beyond the Fringe. A few. A tiny few.

Any time an avenue opens for artistic expression, artists will come in and fill it. In nature, if there’s a surplus of a food source, the animals that feed on it will multiply until it diminishes. 

The business is tough. Always has been. Always will be.

I was in the cradle for the legendary ‘70s, when supposedly anyone in Canadian theatre could get as much grant money as they wanted simply by asking for it. I doubt the picture was really that rosy.

In an interview in the ‘70s, Robertson Davies remarked that careers in the theatre rarely last longer than ten years. Davies had left a career as an actor and playwright, switching to newspaper editing, novel writing, teaching and university administrating. 

In an interview in the ‘90s, Bruce Robinson, director of Withnail and I, remarked that of his original acting class at RADA in the ‘60s, only he and one other person were still working in the business - and in his case, it was only because he’d gotten into writing and directing. 

A number of possibilities to improve the Fringe tour were floated in the various discussions that followed my last article. I’d love to see them put into practice. But even if they are, it’ll still be a hard go. The business is tough. Always has been. Always will be. 

And keep in mind, in Canadian Fringes it’s extremely unlikely you’ll be seen by a producer, agent or artistic director, unlike at the Edinburgh Fringe, where participants accept the near certainty of a $16 000 loss for the remote possibility of career advancement. How many companies are willing to do this? Thousands, every year. 

The game was tough in the Middle Ages, when actors toured in carts and passed the hat and were derided as prostitutes. The game is tough now that people are staying home and downloading Game of Thrones and attendance in American theatres is down 33% from a decade ago. 

So what keeps us coming back in the face of such crushingly miserable odds? Because when it works, when there’s that moment of pure communion between the people on stage and the people in the audience, the universe stands still. 

No matter how hard it gets, there will be people chasing that feeling, that experience, anywhere it’s a possibility. 

And it’s worth it. 

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