Stafford Arima, artistic director & Maya Choldin, executive director of Theatre Calgary

Theatre Calgary seeks new ways to get bums back in seats

There have been a recent spate of catastrophic headlines in the US when it comes to the future of live theatre. From “American theatre is imploding before our eyes” in the New York Times to “Theatre in Crisis” in trade publication American Theatre — estimates are that private donations have dropped by 40 per cent, and audience numbers by an even larger percentage in some cases. Broadway aside, pandemic shut-downs have not generally been followed by triumphant returns. Non-profit theatre companies are shrinking or pausing their seasons, laying off staff, and in some cases, closing entirely. 

While we haven’t seen the same headlines in Canada (possibly because finding a theatre journalist in Canada requires Sherlock Holmes-level acumen), Theatre Calgary’s executive director Maya Choldin says there is no reason to suspect that the same trends don’t hold true here. 

“The return of our audiences has been much slower in the theatre realm than in any other cultural sector,” she says. “If you are a larger-scale organization that relies on ticket sales and donations from individuals, the impact of a slow return is immense on our bottom line … There are exceptions, obviously, but in the large-scale theatres across Canada, we’ve all seen the same thing.”

As part of a multi-pronged effort to address the slow return, Theatre Calgary is launching an initiative they are calling “Theatre for All”: a season-long reduction on the price of a main floor ticket of more than 50 per cent to $39 each. Choldin is very aware of the pressures placed on families by the endlessly rising cost of living. 

“People just couldn’t prioritize going to the theatre for their whole family versus paying their Enmax bill,” she says. “You only have so much discretionary income to spend, and you’re not going to necessarily be able to take everyone out for dinner and a show more than once in a year.” 

She reflects on the reality of concert tickets selling for many hundreds of dollars, and says that there will always be those who want to pay more for what she calls “a premium experience” at Theatre Calgary. But she adds that there are also a number of opportunities aside from the “Theatre for All” campaign to reduce barriers to the theatre experience.

“We will have community rush seats, and we will also be giving away tickets through other community groups,” she says. “Because we recognize that for some people, $39 is totally inaccessible. And there is just no question that we have an obligation to try to figure out a place for all people in all walks of life to come and experience Theatre Calgary.”

She is also aware that inflation isn’t the only thing that has changed people’s theatre-going habits. As many commentators have noted, there has been a fundamental shift in how people access art since pre-pandemic days. Choldin sees the $39 initiative as a way to re-introduce Theatre Calgary to audiences. 

“(We have to) show them the value proposition of who we are and what we do,” she says. “You kind of forgot, after a while of sitting on your couch and streaming Succession.”

She says that part of making a night at the theatre (and the parking and the babysitting and the meal before the show) worth the time and effort is presenting audiences with content that they want and need. 

“People are looking for a little bit of joy,” she says, “so internally within the office, we call this the ‘season of smiles.’ ”

The season includes Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, Steve Martin’s Meteor Shower, and the much-loved and recently missed A Christmas Carol. 

“That’s our two-pronged approach,” Choldin says, “find a way to make it financially feasible, and also to give people programming that they are comfortable (with) and know what it is.”

Theatre Calgary’s traditional audience historically demands both a musical and a Shakespeare. This year they will be in raptures with a Beatles-inspired adaptation of As You Like It. And artistic director Stafford Arima’s Broadway connections also bring us the international premiere of Beaches the Musical (based on the book and film). 

There will also be two less familiar titles: Edmontonian Farren Timoteo’s one-person show Made in Italy, which has toured across the country since 2016, and a new play by local playwrights Maria Crooks and Caroline Russell-King, called Selma Burke. Both will be staged on the smaller Martha Cohen stage, home of Alberta Theatre Projects, rather than TC’s 750-seat Max Bell theatre, and Selma Burke is co-presented with ATP. 

The “season of smiles” is heavily weighted to the safe choices, which Choldin concedes is a reality for theatre companies trying to win back audience attention. 

“I like to say that the tyranny of titles is what we deal with,” she says, “because people are busy, they have lots going on in their life, and if they see a billboard or an ad in the paper, the first thing they’re going to notice is the title, and if they don’t know the title, they might not read the second sentence.” 

At the same time, she feels a responsibility to contribute to new play development. “We have an obligation, as the largest theatre company (in Calgary), to ensure that there is a growing body of world-class Canadian and international work in the world.” 

She is quick to point out that it costs a lot more than $39 per seat to stage the shows — approximately double that amount in fact. A fundraising drive has resulted in private donations to make up the difference, and if they can reach their goal of $10 million — they’re half-way there already — the goal is to continue this initiative for the next three seasons.

“It’s $39 because of the donors,” she notes. “It’s not $39 because we can magically make that work and we could have made it work all along. It’s $39 because some people believe in us, and want to make sure that their friends and neighbours can all come to the theatre, too.”