Saturday, September 22, 2012

Theatre For Thought, September 22, 2012

joel fishbane

The twin corpses of Montreal’s independent papers (the Hour and the Mirror) are still fresh in their graves and meanwhile some other news has just come down the pipeline: according to a memo being circulated by the Quebec Drama Federation, the Montreal Gazette will no longer publish theatre reviews other than for productions by the Centaur or Segal, Montreal’s two major regional theatres. “This decision will have a serious impact on our community,” reads the memo, which goes on to say that there needs to be “a concrete and positive approach which could demonstrate that the community would be active participants in finding solutions.” 

For those of you in the rest of Canada, it’s important to realize that in Montreal there’s only one major English language daily along with a smattering of community papers. Getting press for theatre is difficult in any city, but here it can feel like a Sisyphean task. Given this, the time has come for theatre companies to shift focus and take advantage of the media outlets still available to them. Paramount among these is the university press. With the last surviving professional papers devoting less space to culture, the importance of The Link, The Concordian, The McGill Daily and The McGill Tribune has just been underscored and circled in red. 

Yet few English theatres design seasons that appeal to students and fewer bother to buy ad space in the student press.

Montreal theatres have long tried to woo students by offering attractive discounts – some theatres, like the Montreal Opera Company and Centaur Theatre, even offer special subscription rates. Yet few English theatres design seasons that appeal to students and fewer bother to buy ad space in the student press. The implication is that while theatres are happy to offer student rates, no one wants to go out of their way to convince the students to take advantage of them. 

Meanwhile, over on the French side, Theatre du Nouveau Monde took out a quarter-page ad in the latest issue of L’journal UQAM. Here is a step in the right direction: by making students a priority, TNM is attempting to appeal to a new market. This is both vital for the present and could lay the groundwork for the future relationship between Montreal’s culture and its media.

Our theatre companies have long courted school groups and why not? That class of shiftless third-graders can mean the difference between finishing in the red or the black. But few third graders drive the economy and in a city with as many post-secondary students as Montreal, companies and their publicists simply must start treating this crowd like the important demographic that they are. 

Time and again, these students have shown a clear interest in this city’s culture. Back in the spring, The Link offered widespread coverage of the Montreal Fringe while more recent weeks have seen profiles on Metachroma Theatre (The Link, McGill Tribune), Teersi Dunya (The Link, McGill Tribune), the Montreal Opera Company (The Link, McGill Tribune, The Concordian) and Wicked (The Concordian). This coverage, though, is minor when compared to the articles on movies, music and “fringe” arts. 

Theatre companies must work to change this by developing a focused strategy to make themselves more appealing to the student media. They must forge better relations with the editors of these papers to learn why these papers aren’t focusing more on theatre and what can be done to change this. Ultimately, a major public relations campaign is needed to show the student press that they are not an afterthought – they are as deserving of those opening night tickets as anyone else. 

As any election campaign teaches us, money talks. By buying ads in student papers and courting student editors, theatre companies can help persuade these papers to focus more of their arts coverage on the theatrical world. Companies must make a concerted effort to focus their marketing and development strategies on the next generation of theatre goers. If they do this, it will no longer matter how many reviews the Montreal Gazette puts into print – the younger generation probably reads the paper online anyway.

Equally important to remember is that these student papers all feature eager journalists-in-training anxious to create a portfolio. Need I remind everyone that the Globe and Mail’s theatre critic, J. Kelly Nestruck, once wrote for the McGill Daily? By forging strong ties with student journalists, theatre companies can ensure those same journalists will continue to value the importance of giving exposure to culture in the years to come.

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