Raising [the] Capital: Expanding the Edmonton Audience (Part III)
by Tracy Carroll
Our provincial capital boasts a healthy and diverse theatre community, but with so many established theatre companies in the city, what are they doing to attract new patrons?
I spoke with some prominent people in Edmonton’s theatre community to see if indeed theatres are thinking this way. It turns out that there is more than just creative programming going on to fill seats…
If you travel East down Whyte Avenue to the heart of Bonnie Doon, you will find L’Unithéâtre, housed in the bustling facility of La Cité Francophone. L’UniThéâtre is the only professional French language theatre company in Alberta and has been producing plays for decades. The ongoing challenge for this company is the specific task of programming plays for a Franco-Albertan audience.
Artistic Director Brian Dooley doesn’t want L’UniThéâtre to be a ghettoized theatre so his hope is that its appeal will widen to include Anglophones and Francophiles—those who appreciate the French language but are not necessarily French speakers.
Dooley has been finding new audiences with the addition of English surtitles a few years back, and with productions like Mercy of a Storm/ De Plein fouet dans la tempête, an English play by Jeffery Hatcher that was translated into French—a co-production with Northern Light Theatre. He calls this a co-lingual production, as alternating evenings were presented in French and English. Some patrons came to see both versions of the show.
With about 235,000 French–speaking people in Alberta, Dooley points out that a large portion is immersion or Francophile. So making efforts to reach out to these different communities is very important for audience development.
Another approach that Dooley is taking is in nurturing the Franco-Albertan voice on the stage. He says, “My goal at L’Unithéâtre is to create a pool of Franco-Albertan writers—three plays next year presented as readings and one of them programmed in the following season.”
He doesn’t know yet if this idea will bring in new audiences, “But I think it’s important—you have to develop your local stories to reflect your community. Otherwise, you become a roadhouse, bringing in shows from elsewhere.”
Introducing these elements can be seen as a disruption of sorts. Dooley feels that it will take time for the community to adjust, but he believes that “people will always glom to quality.”
So it seems that not only are Edmonton theatre managers and artistic directors creative, but they are also smart and resourceful. Programming plays and events that will draw in new audiences is an important factor in the health of theatre companies in Edmonton. But an overlaying factor that will deepen the longevity is the philosophy behind each. Companies need to cater to new and changing times, as Brian Dooley says, “Our children will expect something different from the theatre than what we did.”
Penny Ritco talks about a new attitude towards patrons as making the difference, “We approach our theatre goers as specific people instead of a mass of audience.”
And perhaps a shared approach by the entire community is the way to go. At Fringe Theatre Adventures, Murray Utas believes that “we all need to come together and go forward as a community. Start a conversation… develop a deeper integration with companies to build a new foundation in Edmonton.”
Tracy Carroll lives and works in Edmonton as a director and dramaturg with a particular focus on new works and Theatre for Young Audiences. She is the Artistic Associate-North for Alberta Playwrights’ Network, and recently directed/dramaturged Conni Massing’s new play The Invention of Romance for Workshop West Theatre and a staged reading of The Book of Ashes by Emil Sher at the St. Albert Children’s Festival. She was also director of the Sprouts New Play Festival for Concrete Theatre in June 2014.
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