Canada's largest regional theater plans future

TORONTO — Canadian Stage Company, the country’s largest regional theater, is trying to turn itself around in the face of hostile press, outraged authors, apathetic auds and a general sense that the city’s flagship not-for-profit playhouse has lost its way.

Artistic producer Martin Bragg is living with a C$1 million ($1.02 million) accumulated deficit and hasn’t had a smash hit on his mainstage in nearly three years. Add the recent resignation of artistic director David Storch as well as a dozen staff firings, and you have another messy scenario this theater has suffered through before in its 20-year history.

But while revealing plans for the company’s future at a Feb. 27 press conference, Bragg was surprisingly optimistic, buoyed by the solid sales of his most recent shows, Sarah Ruhl’s “The Clean House” and Judith Thompson’s “Palace of the End.” Local legit pundits now are watching closely to see if CanStage can maintain some positive momentum and emerge from its sustained run of financial and management instability.

Operating since 1988, the org was founded by the merger of CentreStage and Toronto Free Theater, an unusual union of the city’s primary establishment and alternative theater companies. But it took only two years for the new hybrid to run up a million-dollar deficit and for the board to replace its artistic director with Bob Baker, who was joined two years later by general manager Bragg.

They chipped away at the deficit and made some artistic inroads, but the board grew unhappy with the overall result, and in 1998 Baker left.

Bragg, who had been known more as a business partner rather than a creative one, was then appointed artistic producer, running the org singlehandedly. For a few years, it seemed to work. The deficit eventually dropped to about $300,000, and the level of achievement, if not quite stellar, was solid.

But in fall 2005, things began to go wrong, with a unanimously panned and poorly attended season that set the company back to where it was in 1990. The deficit again spiraled to $714,000.

Without a formal search, Bragg suddenly announced last May that Storch would be joining him as a.d. A well-respected actor, a less respected director and a totally unknown quantity as an arts executive, Storch was a close friend of Bragg’s and had worked with the org for decades.

Last fall’s season began with a poorly received and attended production of “The Elephant Man” and a mediocre “Little Shop of Horrors,” which underperformed at the box office. By the new year, rumors were circulating of imminent layoffs and major personnel changes.

On Jan. 30, Storch announced his resignation as a.d. after little more than six months on the job. Two days later, a number of longtime employees were let go.

When CanStage’s 2008-09 mainstage season was announced, it was criticized for focusing on small, more commercial plays, with the absence of even a single Canadian title on the list, prompting protests from local playwrights.

Legit industry rumblings were also fueled when reports surfaced indicating CanStage would cease producing in its smaller space on Berkeley Street and turn it over to three of Toronto’s alternative theaters.

However, Bragg underlined at the press conference that he was not abandoning his Berkeley Street Theater, but working in close cooperation with the three companies scheduled to present shows there next season as part of CanStage’s subscription package. Revenue generated from those sales will be funneled back into the smaller companies.

“I think this is significant and different,” Bragg says. “I wanted to do something meaningful for the other theaters in Toronto.”

His latest act has generated some much-needed goodwill. It could go a long way toward helping reverse Toronto’s perceptions about a company with more lives than a theater cat.

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