Opinion: Affordability plagues Vancouver artists and patrons alike

Sep 6 2016, 7:17 am

I get why most people don’t see theatre and other performing arts. Going to see arts in Vancouver can be really expensive. When your living situation demands the majority of your income be vampire’d by either your mortgage or your landlord, it becomes pretty difficult to justify a $30 ticket.

The cost is particularly tough to swallow when you consider that you can’t see trailers, you might not get comfy seating and you legitimately have no idea if the production will be well-executed.

There is a way to eliminate the anxiety that comes with buying a ticket to a play. I know what you’re thinking, “just make tickets cheaper!” And trust me, the dream for most companies is that all theatre should be free for anyone to attend.

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Why do tickets cost so much?

Unlike blockbuster film studios, independent theatre companies don’t have highly paid executives. They don’t make tickets expensive to pad the bottom line for investors. Those ticket prices are usually just a way to make sure they break even. And sometimes they don’t even accomplish that.

The first thing most artists discover when trying to produce their own play is how expensive it is. You need to rent a rehearsal space, rent a performance venue, hire cast and crew, purchase costumes, set pieces, makeup and pay for production rights if the play has been published. All of that adds up really, really quickly.

The affordability issue isn’t just affecting patrons, artists are also making huge financial sacrifices in order to keep producing theatre. Productions can’t be funded by advance ticket sales, because the show doesn’t exist yet.

Companies and artists either need to pay out of pocket or receive government funding. Box office sales are both a way to make up for accumulated debt and to convince committees that companies have “earned” their allocated funding dollars.

How does funding affect artists?


Image: Kimberley Paynter for NewsWorks

Companies will almost always apply for government arts funding to avoid the debt issue, but this process isn’t as cut and dry as it appears. Recently, local theatre makers Mitch and Murray Productions have discovered public funds aren’t everyone’s for the taking.

From an outsider’s view, their application should have been a slam dunk. Mitch and Murray aren’t exactly the new kids on the block, they have been here for five years. During that time, they have accumulated 12 Jessie Award nominations. They sold out the final week of their last 3 shows, with a box office record of over 60% of seats filled. By all accounts, both public response and critic reception have demonstrated that the company should continue making art in Vancouver.

The company has received $0 in public funds for two of the last three years, and have never received money from The Canada Council for the Arts, one of the most prominent funding bodies. They have been forced to turn to crowd-funding in order to make sure they have a season opener, Detroit. The good news is that the play is now a go, but it doesn’t change the fact that there shouldn’t have been need for the campaign in the first place.

Affordability for everyone gives us better art

Image: Renaud Philippe

Image: Renaud Philippe

If ticket sales have become the utmost important factor in determining whether or not theatre is successful (and receives funding), we can expect to see a steep diversity decline in both local theatre’s content and form.

Need proof? Look at the ticket prices of big-budget productions from The Arts Club or Bard on the Beach. There isn’t a wide net of people who can afford to check out Shakespeare on a whim. These audiences are are mostly white, older and wealthy. And while the artistic quality of these shows are hard to denounce, it is disquieting that the majority of our tax dollars are being sent to these established institutions, and not to indie companies working to amplify minority voices.

I know distribution of these public funds aren’t as straightforward as I make them out to be. There’s a huge judicial process and honestly, there are terrific, smaller companies that also receive funding. For example, both Rumble Theatre and Theatre la Seizième received operating grants from the BC Arts Council last year.

How much does art cost the tax payer?

In 2012-2013, the average earnings of Vancouver artists was $27,100. That’s 29% less than the average of other local workers. Compare that with the entire dollar amount of the Canada Council of Arts: all funding for music, visual art and theatre cost each tax payer $5.19 for the year.

We can afford more than $5.19 a year. Giving the public access to inexpensive theatre through more public funding and a change in mentality won’t result in a drop in quality. It will give way to more diverse artists and audiences, something long desired by arts communities. I’m willing to bet that they will be lining up in droves. My hope is that eventually, we can just open the doors and let them all in.

Dale MacDonaldDale MacDonald

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