#351 – Roundtable Discussion: The Disappearing Audience Question

There has been a topic that has dominated the theatre scene in Canada for several years, and that’s the question of whether audiences are disappearing. This week, host Phil Rickaby convenes a roundtable discussion with indie theatre artists to discuss that very question.

Stephen Near is a writer and educator, as well the co-founder and playwright-in-residence of Hamilton’s Same Boat Theatre. Stephen was last on the podcast in June, 2022.

Emily Dix is a theatre artist and photographer and the Artistic Executive Director of Bygone Theatre. Emily was on the podcast in August, 2019.

Laura Piccinin is a playwright and performer, as well as a dancer and aerialist. Laura’s most recent appearance on the podcast was in June, 2022.

Adrianna Prosser the artistic producer at Eldritch Theatre, and general manager at the Red Sandcastle theatre, as well as a storyteller and social media maven. Adrianna was last on the podcast as part of the indie theatre roundtable in February, 2022.

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Phil: I’m Phil Rickaby, and I’ve been a writer and performer for almost 30 years. But I’ve realised that I don’t really know as much as I should about the theatre scene outside of my particular Toronto bubble.

Now, I’m on a quest to learn as much as I can about the theatre scene across Canada. So join me as I talk with mainstream theatre creators, you may have heard of an indie artist you really should know, as we find out just what it takes to be Stageworthy.

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There’s been a topic that has dominated the theatre scene in Canada for the last 10 years or more. And that’s the question of whether audiences are disappearing.

In a lot of ways this question has become even more important since COVID. I’ve seen breathless articles about how theatre hasn’t bounced back since we started opening things back up and how theatre needs to drastically change if it’s going to survive. But none of these statements are new.

Long before the questions of why the audiences are disappearing had entered the regular theatre discourse. A friend of mine who was not a regular theatre goer referred to it as a dead art form. So these are questions that need to be grappled with. And I’ve been thinking about them for quite a while. But I am just one person and these are questions that need more than one brain. So I asked some really smart indie theatre artists to join me to have a conversation about it. Joining me are Red Sandcastle’s Adrianna Prosser Bygone Theatre’s Emily Dix, playwright Steven Near and dancer/performer Laura Piccinin it here’s that conversation

I wanna welcome you all. Thank you all for joining me. Adriana, Emily, Steven and Laura.

I wanted to have this conversation about, audiences this evening. And, the reason I wanted to have this conversation is for years now, I’ve been hearing an ongoing conversation about the fact that audiences are disappearing, that the audiences are going away. And I remember a number of years ago, there was a big conversation that was held during, during a festival and we had this big conversation and it was a bunch of people in a room talking about what to do about the fact that audience were disappearing and.

Essentially when we got to the end, the answer was, audiences are disappearing. And that’s was essentially as far as we got. And I wanna start with a, question. and you’re all coming from different places. Adrianna, uh, you’re the general manager of the Red Sand Castle. Emily, you’re the artistic executive director of Bygone Theater. Stephen, you’re a co-founder of, of Same Boat Theater. Laura, you are, the playwright, performer, dancer, aerialist. You all have come from different places as far as, as the, this conversation goes. But I’m wondering, as far as you are seeing, is the idea.

Audiences are disappearing. Is that a reality in your experience or is that a myth that that, that you have not quite seen? Or is that sort of the wrong starting place? Emily?

Emily: I think it, it’s a little tricky to say, given that I, I know with my company we’ve just had in November, December, our first live show back since Covid. Um, we’ve got another one coming up, uh, shortly. Um, So we actually found we had, uh, better ticket sales for that than we have for any of our other shows.

But we were in a much bigger venue. Uh, we were at Hart house, um, and it was, it was just a bigger show overall. Um, I know talking to Hart House, it was much lower ticket sales than they’re used to getting, so I would suspect that yes, overall, and I know just hearing from all different companies that they’re, they’re definitely having trouble selling tickets, but I think it also depends on what and where you’re doing things.

Phil: No, that’s a really good point. That’s a really good point, Adriana. I’m curious what you’ve noticed. A last year or so at the Red Sandcastle, I know each show has it, is, is its own animal and, uh, audiences that they have to do their own promotion, that sort of thing. Have you noticed anything about, about, uh, audiences, whether they’re, they’re coming back, whether they’re they’re there or not?

Adrianna: Well, because they’re rentals. I’m not seeing everybody’s numbers, but our resident theater company, and I’m artistic producer of Eldridge Theater, so I can talk about our numbers. Um, we’re seeing a strong climb and I think that’s actually in due part to our C O V I D, uh, protocols and policy at sandcastle.

It builds confidence that we have a mask mandate, the response that we’ve had to our mask mandate has been so very strong that we’ve had emails, dms, and in-person, uh, chatter about, you know, I’m not going to see theater, but because you have a mask mandate, I’m coming to see your show.

Um, and in so much that even our numbers, I tried a pop-up market just this past weekend, which Ring Castle had never done before. And they also were just really ecstatic that I put wear a mask on the poster and that all of the vendors were wearing masks. They felt really welcomed and really safe and, um, it’s only been.

Maybe, maybe 5% of a backlash of, of, um, pushback against the mask mandate. But we, uh, Eldridge Supply supplies them for free at the door. If you forget, we remind you at all of the, the ticketing levels of like where the audience actually participates, the patrons actually participate in the buying journey.

Um, and yeah, I think that that’s actually really helping in that. We have also explored digital while we were in Covid, so I don’t know if anybody else has, has explored that as well as an alternative. And we’re trying our darnedest to find funding and supports for continuing our digital, um, offerings because I think the accessibility as well as finding more audiences that are perhaps remote as well as, um, uh, making it more accessible would actually be a really good boon to any theater.

Phil: Hmm. Steven. Laura, do you have any, any, any thoughts on this? This initial starting point?

Stephen: Yeah. Um, I mean, I was, I’m, I’m sort of, uh, uh, echoing what, uh, Emily said. Um, same boat. I mean, this past, this past summer at the Hamilton Fringe, uh, was our, was our first show. Live show back, um, you know, since pandemic shutdown. Um, and I mean, we, we had one of the more, I mean, we, we were one of the, uh, award winners of the, of the, of the festival.

So we had one of the, one of the, the better performing venues. But I mean, that said, we were also a bring your own venue. So I didn’t think we were gonna do that well at all. Like, we only had 50 seats in our house, and, and towards the end of our run, like halfway through our run, we, we ended up selling, selling Out, which was a bit of a surprise for me.

Um, and sort of going off of what, what I’d heard from the Hamilton Fringe itself, they, they, I mean, CL ticketed, uh, brought in like just o like over $75,000 in terms of ticket revenue, which, you know, was, was, um, about 10,000, over 10,000, um, audiences. So my, my understanding of, of the Hamilton Fringe at least, was that, that.

um, ticket sales did really, really well. Um, the only times that I ever heard of, uh, the, of of shows actually being canceled. I mean that this was one thing that I did see is that, you know, we had, there were several shows that that had cancellations, all were due to illnesses. Um, like all, all were pretty much due to, to, you know, sh performers catching covid at the, the last minute and then having to shut down their show.

I mean, one, one show in particular, um, uh, game show, the musical, I believe, which was much touted, um, to, uh, be at the Hamilton Fringe, had to completely shutter their run because they, because of an illness. Um, so I, I guess I, I have a bit of a question because I, I was sort of trying to prep for this discussion to see really how much, how much of an audience loss, um, we’ve been looking at.

Um, and it’s, it’s, yeah, it’s difficult to say. I, I would say, uh, uh, just echoing again what Emily said, it’s, it seems like a complex question. Um, because I, from my view of it, I get the feeling that although the uptick is, is, um, maybe isn’t as, isn’t as big. Um, I also, I do get the impression that, that people are somewhat eager to get back into seeing something live and in person.

And, and, and speaking to, to what a, um, uh, Adriana said, um, if, like, I, I, I like when I, the last time I, I, when I went to see fringe shows, I was in there with a mask. Other people were in there with masks. It was no big thing. Um, uh, I actually was more comfortable than I thought I would be. So I, I, um, I. . I, I, that was, I think, my big hesitancy in terms of how, how much are people, how comfortable our audience is going to be in returning to the theater.

Um, but it, but I, I feel like because, you know, people who go in who wanna wear masks are wearing masks, um, then, then maybe that’s, uh, maybe that’s a buffer of something. But I, I really think maybe there’s something to this notion that, that people want to see, want to see shows, again, want to, want to see something on an alternative, at least to, to something, uh, on their streaming.

But admittedly, I haven’t been able to do as much of a deep dive into the research as, as I, as I could. But just, uh, reading some articles by, um, j Kelly Nustra, it seems that tr some, at least some Toronto theaters are, are doing quite.

Phil: That’s, that’s true. Uh, Laura, you toured a show through the Fringe across Canada, this, this, uh, this past summer. And, um, I’m wondering what you may have noticed, um, did you notice, uh, uh, how were your audiences? Did you notice other people complaining about audiences at the fringes you were at? What was the general feel of the, of the fringe?

So, This year, as far as you can tell.

Laura: It. It was a little all over the map really. Audience wise, I. For various reasons. For example, Toronto was in July when we had that little like sudden burst of Covid, uh, one of many. But there was a burst that took out a couple of casts right at the top of the ru of everyone’s run. And I think that made people nervous and we had like a collective consciousness of like, ooh.

And everyone kind of went, oh, maybe you know what? I’ll just catch you next year. There, there was no talk leading up to fringe, like, of anything kind of being awry. And then it just kind of surprised us as if, you know, we could be surprised, but we were everyone. And I think there was, I like, and everyone just kind of went, ah, you know what, I’ll, I’ll, I’ll catch, I’ll catch you back in later.

Now’s not the time right now. Then maybe two weeks later I go to Saska. No discussion of Covid, not a problem for them there. And that was, so that element had been removed, but in Saskatoon, as in an effort to support, um, local artists. The media and the fringe itself were not reviewing or interviewing or reviewing or any kind of doing any kind of media for, um, for, uh, artists who weren’t local.

And so that hit a strange, that was a big bomb for everyone who has touring through Saskatoon that year, who, you know, Saskatoon has always been touted as like a place to go. It’s, it’s a stop to on the fringe circuit. And they, they kind of stepped in it where of course, on one hand you’re like, Support local, but the a be a better balance could have been achieved.

We had shows where three ticket sales were The pre-show. Were the pre Yeah. That, that was our pre-show sales, like three, and, and artists who two weeks later went on to sell out their full runs in Edmonton, had five to 10 people in their shows and we are all leaving our shows distraught. We were all, you know, looking to each other like, are your numbers bad?

My numbers are so bad. And it took a while to admit it to each other because we thought it was us and it, and it, and it really was. . It really was just a, a product, a negative product of this, um, real, uh, effort to support the locals who did a great job. They, their ticket sales were great, and also the artists did their absolute best to support our shows, come to our shows, talk a about it on their social media.

It, I, I couldn’t be more grateful for that. Um, so that’s kind of like, um, I think that was an attempt to fix a low audience situation that had a, an adverse effect for others. And then the rest of the fringes, you know, Victoria I think had a very, um, a typical, uh, run I went, Nanaimo was, it’s a boutique festival, so that was very cute, but also, Well attended.

You know, there were very few shows that were really, really struggling and, uh, Colonna being so, so new was a struggle, but I think that’s a, a characteristic of the Colonna locals just not really being embedded in, uh, fringe culture. But it really was all over the map, and I couldn’t, uh, I couldn’t really set an expectation for any of that, although I did have quite high expectations for Saskatoon because of what I had heard about it.

Um, and then was quite disappointed. Of course, they were open to the feedback from everyone, and I think we all gave it , and hopefully that’s a reconsideration. But I, I, I don’t think in the future that that would be a problem. I think it was really a response to Covid and this problem of trying to get audiences.

What can, what can we do? How can we narrow their focus?

Phil: Yeah, it’s a really difficult one. I mean, thinking about, about the media, uh, just thinking about the, the, this past fringe, um, uh, where it was a, there was a question of where, where are the media outlets? That will review shows. Um, it’s, it’s hard enough to get the word out, uh, uh, without media. And there was such, there’s such a, in Toronto, uh, a wasteland of, of, of, of, of reviewers, of independent theater, um, especially now that, now that now magazine is under new ownership, that doesn’t seem to give a shit about the arts any longer.

Fortunately, Glen Sumi is, is reviewing on his own. Um, but, uh, you know, people like Nestra, uh, Kelly Nera doesn’t really seem to do a whole lot of indie reviewing, um, unless he, I don’t know. I dunno what his criteria is. Uh, but aside from that, um, we have these theaters, uh, the large to mid-size, which, which sort of survive on, on subscriptions and your typical subscription, uh, subscriber, your typical subscriber is older, is.

Elderly. Um, I can remember working at, uh, the Ed Mur Theater in Toronto a couple of years ago. And, uh, the subscriber, uh, series performances were always, um, uh, uh, quite full of an, an older audience. And if your audience, if you’re relying on those subscribers to be able to, to fill seats, to be able to, to help, to subsidize your show, um, it should be a, I would think it’s a concern if, if your, if your subscriber base is quite old, but I don’t see a whole lot of, maybe I’m, maybe I’m mistaken, but may not seeing a whole lot of effort in terms of, of trying to, uh, uh, appeal to a younger audience.

Um, at least, at least at this time.

Stephen: Yeah, that’s, that’s a good point. I’m glad you raised that. I was just, um, reading an article on, on Y P T and, and there there’s sort of struggles that they’re encountering in trying to get. , the younger, their younger audiences in the door. Right? And, and I mean, that’s crucial because, you know, younger, young theater audiences, you know, are, are the ones who grow up to become theater artists and lifelong, lifelong audiences of theater.

So if you’re, if you’re losing that, if you’re losing that audience base, then, then that, that does spell, um, bad things for the future. Um, and I, I don’t know. I, that is something I, I think I would be concerned about because I mean, I, I talk about this all the time with, um, with people in my, in my playwriting classes about, you know, the business of playwriting and, and sort of the, the struggles, the fact that there are, there are just so many, so many other places for people to, to get their entertainment or get.

Their, their fit, their distraction, or what have you these days? Um, I mean, I, I think, I mean, we always had streaming services, but I think obviously in the early days of the pandemic, it, it, you know, where else, what else were you going to do? But, you know, stay, stay at home and watching streaming services.

And then out of the, the pandemic, the sort of notion of, you know, Netflix and Chill has become, you know, this buzzword of like, I don’t feel like going out. I just, you know, have, you know, endless, endless entertainment, uh, opportunities at my fingertips. And I think that is, that’s a huge concern. Um, Uh, because, you know, getting people out to the theater, you know, you’re not just getting them out to see theater.

You have to, you know, it’s, it’s the notion of what is an evening of theater, right? Is it, is it, you know, getting people to part with their money? Is it, you know, do you have to have an intermission built in so it, you know, buy them drinks? So I think that for me, raises a lot of questions of, does, does an evening of theater or does a theater experience need to change in some way so that it will appeal to a younger demographic?

Do shows have to be shorter? Do shows take place earlier? Right. Um, you know, admission prices, things like that. Um, where you move away from the subscription, the subs, the subscription model. Um, so I don’t know. It, it, it, I think those are, but I think those are, those are definitely challenging and difficult questions that all artists are, are having to wrestle with now.

Adrianna: So many things. So, uh, we’re trying a lot of things and riffing off of what Steven was saying, um, we’re trying to listen in real time. Uh, social media really grants us that opportunity to listen in real time with, uh, with comments, with dms, and with replying to newsletters, like I can get an instant reply.

Uh, so much so that, um, I, uh, Eric Wolf, um, the artistic director at Eldrich and also management at Red Sand Castle, we, we tete, we have so, Called the morning meeting song every day. And it’s sometimes it’s five minutes and sometimes it’s 50 minutes. And it really is us observing what’s happening on social and then what’s happening from newsletters and to patron interactions.

And from all of that, we actually had the brain baby of not subscriptions because again, this this antiquated idea of let’s plan out the next six to eight months, and we’re always gonna come on the last Thursday. Life doesn’t work like that anymore. Um, did it ever, um, so , uh, the, the idea of Netflix and Chill and things being on demand we’re up against that.

Yes. But there is the idea again that, uh, the magic of theater, the magic of community, the magic of live. Um, but we didn’t want to go to that antiquated model, so we decided to go with memberships. And that idea of being a member, an inner Sancta member of Eldridge, and that you are inner circle, you are important to us, and you have put your money where your mouth is to say Eldridge is important to you.

And so that membership fee for the season, a se a season membership, is going to get you perks and discounts and, and insider stuff. And I actually leveraged that insider. Uh, so it’s 33 people at this point out of about, um, a thousand, um, people who are in our subscribers and Facebook groups. So people who are outside of just our followers, um, people who are a little engaged, um, but then this other tier of 33 people being like, no, I will pay money dollars to be considered a member.

I actually asked them, um, after about a month or so, uh, of just getting, just getting discounts. They get, they get, um, a membership fee discount for their tickets for as many as they would like to buy. Please bring your friends, bring your enemies, bring your enemies. Um, and I asked them point blank. I’m like, what do you want?

because you are the people that we make this art for and with. And now that you’ve invested in Eldridge, you have a say. So here’s what I’m thinking. And so it’s not just a discussion between Eric and I, it’s now a discussion between Eric and I and these patrons who have raised their hand and said, you know what?

This is important to me and I would like to see you thrive. I would like to see you succeed. Um, because I wanna witness that I wanna be a part of that, right? It’s, um, it is a beloved patron level. And so I asked them, and that’s where I got the idea of my haunted hig, um, of like being inside and like, how can we pass the time in winter?

Because winter sucks. I mean, yes, we’re Canadian and we all understand snowsuits, but like, what are we doing to pass the time for six to eight months? And so they gave me feedback and then I listened to what they wanted and I delivered. And that’s why. We did the market. Uh, that’s why I have some more programming up my sleeve that’s coming out up until May to try and pass the, the cold winter months.

And so the idea of the subscriber for us has evolved. Like we listened to what we used to do and then we’re listening in real time and we’re trying to evolve an amalgam and just kinda squish all these things together into something that people will want. Yeah, and I hope they do.

Phil: Yeah. Emily.

Emily: Yeah. Uh, both Adriana and Steven sort of touched on this, but um, I think at the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of people sort of panicked and thought that the reaction to not being able to do live theater was, well, let’s still do that, but we’ll just film it and everyone will watch it from home. And I hear a lot of the time, um, artists com comparing us to something like Netflix or going to the movies.

And I, I don’t think that’s really a very accurate comparison. Um, because I think the thing, and Adrian has mentioned this, that people are really looking for is the experience, right? So I think we’re really competing more with things, even like the immersive Van Gogh and those sort of things that don’t really have much of a story that show is doing so well.

I have a friend who started off as an usher with that, and now he’s very high up. They make millions and they’re set up all over the place and there’s nothing to it. They’re really . It’s kind of ridiculous. But people wanna be able to go out and do a thing and feel like they are in some way interacting, even if that’s a very minor interaction, like literally having a projection over top of you.

Um, I, I watched so many small companies put a lot of time and money into making plays that. Badly filmed and couldn’t sell tickets for. And I think some of us thought maybe that could work because Stratford put out stuff and that was very popular. But Stratford, uh, we won’t even compare. Yeah. Not comparing the quality of the shows, but the quality of the video, you know, that’s six figures easily to, to shoot one show.

And, and none of us could do that. Uh, so with bygone, we, we didn’t do anything for a couple years. We instead put all of our focus onto building up our stuff, um, to become a charity and focused on, um, like market research and things and, um, building up our different, um, like our diversity program and our sustainability and everything.

And it’s, it’s helped a lot starting this year. But, uh, yeah, I think. I think we need to try and ask ourselves what is the audience actually getting out of going to theater? And I know, you know, you make a, a show and you put your heart and soul into it, and your blood, sweat and tears and you think it’s great and everyone wants to see it because they’ll just know it’s as great as, you know.

It is. But really, like , you know, it’s, it’s not, um, not, there’s, there’s so many different shows out there. And just because you think it’s important doesn’t mean it’s going to speak with people and to drag them out of their homes, especially in the winter, uh, to go to a place where it’s, it’s great you have a mask mandate that’s working.

I have yet to be anywhere where that’s been the case. Either there’s no masks or there are and there’s people arguing about them. And it just, I saw that a lot, a lot at the Fringe this past year. Um, so you need there to be another step to that, I think.

Stephen: Um, I was just, uh, I, uh, building upon what, um, Adriana was saying about, about the, the different mo getting audience feedback and, and playing around with different models. It, it kind of speaks to me how, again, like how, how do we, how do we ev how do we use a theater in a different way or how do we sort of refocus, um, what a theater can be in a community, right?

Like, I, I think what, what, what El what, what Eldridge Eldridge recently did with the, um, or, or what Red Sandcastle did with the, with the, the sort of the, the, the maker space or the, um, uh, it, it was, is really cool or what the Theater center has been for a number of years now, essentially a coffee shop and.

and community Center. I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s more work certainly. Um, I know, uh, but I know it’s something that a number of other theaters are trying. Um, uh, Mary Francis Moore, the new artistic director in, uh, uh, theater Aquarius in Hamilton, um, has, is sort of been trying since she, she just took the reigns of Aquarius like this past year is, is now trying to figure out, okay, how can I refocus or, or reor.

The space, which has seemed for so long to be sort of this sacred cow of, you know, it’s not, it’s it’s never accessible except on a theater night. And, and you know, she’s like, you know what, if Steven, if you wanna come in with your laptop and like, sit in the, the cavernous lobby and like work, um, please do, by all means.

Um, she’s just bought, like, Aquarius just bought a space across the street that used to be a, a school, a community center school. And she’s gonna be trying to turn it into a black box, but it’s also, there’s a community center aspect to it. So I think that’s, hopefully, I think those types of steps to kind of turn theaters like physical bricks and mortars theater into something more than just a theater is a really good first.

Um, the other thing though that I, that I wonder about with regards to, um, you, you mentioned that at the top, Phil, that, um, there was a sense that, you know, we were losing audiences already before the pandemic. And I’m, I’m wondering about, about the reason for that, perhaps being sort of a leftover from, uh, the other thing that, that, um, took a change during the pandemic, which is a lot of artistic leadership in these big theaters, um, went through a complete overhaul, um, uh, like during the pandemic.

I mean, I just, I just said Aquarius, like, uh, Aquarius was being run by an artistic team, which was basically, um, you know, left during the pandemic. Also, there was a bit of a scandal there. Um, tarragon, uh, switched hands, factory switched hands. I believe the Grand theater in London also switched hands. Y P t has new leadership, uh, and Soul Pepper changed just before the pandemic.

So I wonder if, I wonder if we’ll see a more audiences come into the theater or re return to the theater as we see new artistic leadership in place as we see new artistic leaders kind of bringing in different artists, right? A different crop of artists who, who perhaps see theater differently or wanna make different, uh, different kinds of theater.

That’s something I’m really curious about personally.

Phil: I think that’s a hugely important thing to consider because I do think that, um, perhaps, and, and this might not be a popular thing to say, but perhaps some of the, the disappearing audience may have been caused by programming choices or advertising choices. I was, I was on the subway, just to give an example, I was on the subway a little while ago and there was a poster for just to call ’em out the, the, so pepper.

It didn’t tell me anything about any of the shows. It just had like a, a back, like a like simple text saying the name of the show and essentially it was like, Hey, here’s some things. And nothing about it was like, here’s why you might be excited about this show. It was just, here are some titles that might not mean anything to you unless you are one of our subscribers or a regular theater goer.

And if we rely on the regular theater goer, we’re not likely to to see a a, a show.

Adrianna: So much to riff on. But, um, going back to what Emily was saying is that, um, the mask mandates and welcoming in a post lockdown, not post covid world, that not only, um, Are we exploring? Like we have a, a, a strict mask mandate, but other, other theaters are actually exploring middle ground. And I actually respect that.

Um, I actually went to my very first show recently outside of Sandcastle for the first time in three years, um, at Crows because they had a mask mandated Tuesday, and it was just Tuesday nights after wearing a mask mandate. And guess what? It was full. And everybody was happy to wear a mask because they knew that that was their designated day, which I thought was a really lovely vibe.

And I was so happy to see some, uh, some theater down the street and support, um, the Leslieville. Theater district. Uh, so, so being those hybrids and again, listening to what people are experiencing and trying to figure out ways to welcome people. Um, so that, again, like, like, like I was saying, like going out and having, um, these poor ushers who are not making a lot of money, who have to act as bouncers and like health safety officers.

It’s not fair. Um, so those kinds of things are really great. And then, uh, riffing off what, um, what Phil and Steven were talking about in this, this, this, do, I dare be dramatic and say renaissance, but like there has been a lot of stuff going on in Southern Ontario. Um, not just changing hands, but lots of scandals, um, and things that have forced change.

Um, and I think we’re in a very transitory time right now, as, as Steven, uh, remarked the ideas of what’s coming next, next five years. I think right now there’s a lot of skating and a lot of finding footing. And growing with, um, new artistic mandates and visions and people. Uh, so I think we’re in a bit of a hold our breath right now.

Um, and then as well, what Phil is saying about that thing on the ttc, I have so many thoughts, um, that, um, you, I actually made a comment on Twitter and uh, because Glen Sumi was just like, you know, I’d really like to see more theater posters like this on the subway. And I just made a polite comment to be like, you know that that thing costs anywhere from 10 to $20,000 for that poster.

And he went, excuse me, what Now, . So that’s why you don’t see a lot of indie theater, um, in public spaces because they have been regulated by the city bylaws and you will not. Red Sand Castle Theater poster on the TC because we cannot afford it. Um, so that’s why we rely heavily on social media and algorithms and seo, um, because it is much more accessible, um, except, you know, Zuckerberg and, and all of his henchman are making it a little bit less accessible every year because it gets more and more expensive.

But yeah, that is a lot of thoughts to digest, but thank you.

Phil: Yeah, it’s a really, I mean, advertising on the subway, uh, I did it once. I was only able to afford, and this is like, like, like maybe 20 or more. Let’s not, let’s not get into specifics about how old I am. on the subway we were only only able to afford, uh, two posters about like, maybe just, just a, like a regular poster says like small poster.

Um, and those, uh, in the end for the time that we had them, uh, cost us, uh, those two cost us like $5,000, which, and that was like in the nineties prices, um, which was a lot then. So like that kind of advertising is, is, is out of range. Physical world without advertising is often out of range for a lot of indie theater companies.

Go ahead, Laura.

Laura: to your point, Phil, like if I see one more poster from Mama Mia, I’m gonna lose my g dang mind. I’m gonna lose it. Who, who, who are we, who are we doing this for? Um, and to Steven’s point about this, there’s, there has been a jumbling, I, I there’s, and there’s aspects of it that even, uh, spaces have closed before the pandemic, during and after.

But spaces like the Laura Ossington theater or dance Makers, places where if people had been going for a long time or performing there or whatever, um, once they’re out of the habit, once their, once their space closes, it’s really difficult to form new habits, to find new community and to, uh, fi find that place that you wanna go to, that you like, you know, you like their programming or to follow a certain artist to a new place.

We’ve there that mass like jumble of everything. I certainly think. Resulted in people going, ah, okay, well I’ll take a break. And then we all know what happens when you take a break. You say, I’m gonna skip the gym one time, and then you never go back. And it just, I think it takes a minute. And obviously the covid is compounding.

And then this, uh, recession, non recession that we’re going through here is compounding Everything is like, is anything suggesting to us that, uh, uh, Adrian, I I love your, um, f phrasing of the Renaissance and I think I, I agree with you there, but they’re so that we’re so at the early stages of like, what, what is prompting individuals.

to Renaissance. What is their, what is, because I’m feeling day by day going, oh my God. Oh my gosh. Like, I better not leave the house. Cause if I get strep the throat, I can’t go to the doctor because I can’t get there. You know what I mean? It’s the almost like the silliest things, um, keeping, keeping us all, uh, away.

And we need a powerful movement to get everybody back and into new kind of patterns and, um, a a kind of excitement that if we’re all working towards it, we’ll be very, very fun. But I think what your listeners and you, Phil, had noticed is like, where, where did everybody go and how did we all know to leave at the same time?

So how do we all know to come.

Phil: I think like coming back is the harder point. But I think the reason why people, um, uh, felt like they wanted to, that, that they left was that the programming wasn’t speaking to them. People vote with their feet. . Um, if people don’t like the movies that you’re showing, they don’t go to the movie theater.

And if people don’t like the theater that you’re presenting, they don’t go to, but you, even if the show is great, you have to express that, and you have to express that through an exciting poster through exciting images through the media, which is getting harder and harder to access. But also you need, uh, a kick ass trailer, which is really hard.

I’ve seen so many really bad theater trailers that just don’t make me want to see the show. We, we, it’s, it, I think we, the idea is people, the people who are coming back, they are coming back for an experience and the people who are going to the theater are looking for an experience and they’re not looking for, um, oh, okay, I’m going to sit in this chair and I’m gonna see a nice play and lo look, here’s like a drawing room that I’m going to witness things happening in again.

Um, they want more. They want that, um, that, that, uh, van Gogh. Effect with all the projections they want. They want a spectacle. They want to Instagram, they want all of these, these things to, to excite them and, and, and, and give them something to, to, to see and something to talk about.

Emily: Yeah, I, I think spectacle is really the right word for it. Um, . I find that there’s, well, can Canda loves problem plays. That’s what wins all the awards. That’s what the big companies put on. Um, they’re not necessarily happy things to watch. They’re almost never happy things to watch. Maybe it’s something that, uh, speaks to you and so there’s something sort of therapeutic through that or you learn something.

Uh, there’s reasons to put them on. There’s reasons to see them, but they’re not entertaining and fun the way musical is, which is why you can put on just about any musical. And unless it’s God awful, you’re gonna sell tickets. Uh, especially if it’s something that’s an older one that people have heard of and they think, oh yeah, music man, I can take my kids and my grandmother to it.

It’s fine. Um, . So I think that’s one thing that we see in Toronto, especially with programming, because you look anywhere else in Ontario and you’ll see they put on the same sort of shows over and over. And I know that is frustrating to artists who wanna do something new, but there’s a reason they do that, that’s what sells.

Because the people who have the most disposable, uh, disposable income are older than all of us here, . Um, they tend to be middle class, usually white people, um, that have like a nine to five job and then can go and see these things in the evening. So I think if we’re putting on shows that are not what’s likely to attract those people, then you need to look at what those audiences can actually do.

And a lot of the time they’re, they can’t pay anywhere near enough to actually support these shows. Um, you know, there’s lots of talk of trying to get into new, um, new communities and people that don’t historically go and see theater. Maybe part of it is that they’re not interested. I’m sure a big part of it is not having money.

I work in theater and I, I don’t see anywhere near as much of it as I, as I’d like to. Um, I usually end up only going and seeing shows with people I know and because I can’t possibly, uh, keep up. Um, and two, it’s, it’s been depressing few years, like since 2016, honest to God. I remember I was working at Terragon and I remember sitting in the office two weeks before the US election and being like, oh, I feel really anxious.

And as we were talking about that and the woman I was working with was like, well, there’s no way he’s gonna win. I’m like, I don’t know. Cuz we just had the whole grabber by the pussy thing. And when that didn’t get him kicked out, I thought he might actually win. And that tightness has not gone away. It literally hasn’t.

Um, and yeah, like. every day I go and scroll through the news and it’s just awful things local and around the world and, and with women’s rights and everything, it’s, it’s horrific. So I am not in the mood to go and watch a depressing play about how terrible life is for whatever person or group of people, because that’s what I’m seeing all the time anyway.

What we’ve been watching at home is not even new stuff. We’ve n right now we’re watching, um, arrested Development again. And that’s a thing that people with anxiety especially tend to do, is go back and rewatch things they already know the ending to, because there’s, there’s no stress to it. And I think there’s a lot of people, that’s why you see Netflix bringing back, you know, older shows.

We all wanna watch the stuff either from when we were kids or teenagers or just something that is safe and easy and uh, is not gonna make us question anything. Um, and that’s not the type of theater. that is put on in Toronto except by the Murs.

Phil: Yeah. Laura.

Laura: Um, exactly to your point that, um, what we could use is some levity and some just go to the show. And, um, for people who are, who are independent producers or small scale, uh, productions, you need grants. You need grants for those things. You need grants to get anything off the ground and you know who, what?

They’re not gonna give you money for fun shit, just to do. You can’t write into a grant. What is the purpose of this production? Fun. We’re gonna have fun. We’re gonna be on roller skates and we’re gonna sing as some songs. And they’re like, no, no. And that’s too bad because. You just, you get caught up because my show, let’s be honest, is like so silly.

It’s got certainly some things in it that are deep and, you know, steeped in queer culture in the arc of whatever. But that’s not what people are going for. They’re going to laugh and, and I cannot, cannot get any funding for it despite a history of success of doing this show self-produced over and over and over again.

There’s just no room for funding of things that aren’t difficult. And while there’s so much room for it, Emily’s point is we can’t handle it. The audiences can’t handle it, they can’t. We are watching friends for the 55th, fifth time because we can’t handle, and then maybe going to one deep show a year and going, that was great.

And then not going back. And it’s, it’s. I think that fun that that, that it’s cyclical and then the things that are fun is Mamma Mia. And it’s like, okay, is there not a balance between giving us Mamma Mia one more time, and showing us something new that’s also comedic? It, it’s, and I don’t know how to influence the powers at b to that effect.

You know, it’s, it’s, it feels like a dead end.

Phil: I mean, I, I don’t know how you, how you do, uh, affect those powers that be. Uh, one of the things that I, um, have been just thinking of is the fact that the shows that have stuck with me over the years, the shows that I still think about, uh, days later, weeks later, even months later, are the shows where, um, I felt there was a sense of awe, a moment of awe in the show.

There was a moment where, uh, I felt. just taken away. It, and it, it can be simple, but it’s like this moment of magic that happened. Uh, and I’ve seen it in, in, in, in a few shows and, but they’re always the shows that, that stuck with me. Um, and I think that, that, you know, like Emily was saying, Canada, we love our problem shows.

We love our problem plays. Um, but again, we have to, there’s that fine line because people will say we can’t give the audience what they want. We give them what they need. But then of course, if you’re not giving them what they want, like why are they buying your tickets? Steven.

Stephen: yeah, I just, this is, uh, I wanted to pick up on that thread. Um, something I hadn’t really thought of before, but I actually posted something on my social media cuz I was thinking a lot about trauma, about the fact that we’ve been, we’ve come out of, um, you know, you’re right, like we’ve, we’ve come out of an electoral, an electoral trauma, um, you know, in, in, in the states and then up here as well.

And then of course the, the covid trauma and, and, and yet I, I was thinking to. Why is the biggest show on TV right now? Um, freaking last of us on Netflix, I guess. Um, you know, which, you know, it’s, I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s apo, it’s apocalyptic, like it’s post-apocalyptic, dystopian, right. And, and, you know, I’m, now I’m reading all these news, like, could it actually happen?

Like, could people actually get, you know, infected by fungus and stuff? And, and I, I, I suppose I said, you know, I, I’m, I’m sure it’s a great show and, you know, a lot of people have talked about this one episode that is, that has, you know, that that is poetic and it’s beauty and, and, and sort of wrestling with grief.

But a part of me is like, I can’t, I can’t watch it. I can’t take it because I feel like I’ve lived through that. And so, but at the same time, this is also something that I’m wrestling with that as, as artists, as a writer, especially in theater. Like part of what You’re right. What, what we, what we’re, what we need to try and do is create theater that wrestles with these difficult topics because good art a lot of times.

Or not good art, but, but, but a lot of, you’re right, Phil, a lot of the, the, the work that, that, that has stayed with me is, is art. That, that, that, that challenges that is difficult. That, that is, is not easily digestible. And I guess I wonder at the same time as I watch all these people talking about how, how awesome, um, a dystopian show is on Netflix.

Uh, at the same time I wonder how, like what, how, how does, how, how is the, the people who are coming out. Of this pandemic wrestling with all of this trauma that we, that we’ve gone, that we’ve gone through. I don’t know. I, I, again, though, part of me, I, I wonder if that’s still something we’re going to see, um, because I’m not sure.

I’m, I’m not sure it’s necessarily something that’s gonna keep audiences away. Um, but I do think that maybe it’s something that artists at this point in time are, are needing to, to think about and, and figure out. Um, one of the, one of the things I’ll, I’ll just point to, uh, point to, um, , uh, Adriana, one of the, one of the shows that I saw, one of the best theatrical experiences that I’ve seen in the last few years was, um, was, uh, um, Aldridge’s, um, uh, doubleheader last, when was it?

Was it was the fall or, or, um, was it the fall where he did the HP Lovecraft and the, the, the, the po the the, um, uh, the, uh, the Kafka piece and was like the doubleheader.

Adrianna: And it’s coming back this April.

Stephen: and the thing is it, so it was just, it was just Eric on stage, like him o on stage with, with these puppets, um, doing a magic, magic shows and, and, and, and it was great.

And the thing was, li I think the thing that so touched me, is, I mean, both shows were dealing with some apocalyptic themes, some identity like, like he, there was a lovely, there’s a love, there was a lovely comment that he made about how one show was dealing with sort of lockdown and the other was like the anxiety of going out in the world.

But at the same time, I also looked at that, that production as a, as a model of something that might work, which was two, essentially one act shows that were paired with each other. And I thought, well, what a great idea for, for fringe artists, you know, who generally don’t have a lot of money to try sh to try shit out, to try something that, that you know, like it the to, to not to see if it will work, to see if it won’t work.

And it’s actually a model that I’ve heard a lot of people talk about, but I’ve never actually seen it done in practice. And I think it’s something maybe. Like, I would like to see it done more often, right? Like a couple of companies get together and say, we’re gonna take out, you know, this space cuz we can’t afford it on our own.

And we’re gonna like split split, you know, one half of the evening will be this show and the other half will in the evening will be this show. And this is kind of how we can help each other to kind of earn audiences. And I recall like when, when Aaron and I went to see that, that show at, at Red Sandcastle, it was packed.

It was packed. There was tons of people there. So it was an, I’ll say it was a really lovely way to kind of return, get back to the theater cuz it actually gave me a little bit of hope. And I I saw that just before the summer. I think, um, if I, if I’m remembering correctly, God, I can’t, yeah. Yeah. It was, it must have been before the summer.

And I turned to Aaron and I went, this is how we should be doing theater in Hamilton . And then I said, we need to, we need to like book, book space with these people

Adrianna: Yeah, you do. This warms my heart so much. And you know what is really great, Stephen, is that people are actually doing that. It must be a collect collective unconsciousness because we actually have a booking opening tomorrow and it’s just a women’s solo, like one act, play festival that they have all come together to be like, let’s rent the sandcastle because we need to have these stories out of our bodies and how can we do it in an economical way?

And then there is another person who actually, um, it’s a collective where it’s one performer doing three pieces. So it keeps, it keeps the economy part of it, but the stories are coming so that there’s three playwrights in one person.

Um, that’s peri repost. Uh, productions, uh, doing dress as people, and then there’s the Women’s Play Festival. So I feel like artists are always going to do this, and that’s why I love us is that, you know, where there’s a will, there’s a way. And then there’s also places like sandcastle, right? That, that we want indie theater to thrive and survive because the stories will out.

Um, and, and it’s really hard to make theater. Um, like outdoor festivals in the winter. Tried it once at City of Toronto, I think in, in 2016. It was a terrible idea. It was at Fort York and it was so cold. Nobody enjoyed it. Um, don’t recommend it. So the idea of collaboration, I think is going to be like what Steven’s saying here.

I think that’s going to be the soup dejour, but that Dejour is going to be for possibly some time, um, to just, to really just again, maybe. Hopefully this is, this is a boost to really strengthening community and seeing how we can collaborate between other like-minded individuals. I know that we have a call for artists on sandcastle.

We want to help people who are specifically making like the weird and unusual, um, in, in, because again, like, um, everybody has their mandate and we’re gonna try and eek out the, the weirdos. Uh, we love you. Please come talk to us and, uh, we’ll try to make it happen as best we can, as long as we can keep the lights on.

And I think that that might be something going forward.

Emily: This, this is maybe going back a little bit, but, um, I think if we are trying to guess. Air things are headed now. Uh, we can look back to the 1930s because we are in a disturbingly similar place in a lot of ways. Um, there’s war happening elsewhere that is always sort of hinting that maybe we’re gonna get pulled into.

Um, everyone is poor, people are angry. There is lots of people, uh, moving about both with, with immigration and people just like coming to or leaving cities. If, if you look at what entertainment was popular, then you’ve got the big cheesy musicals. Um, Shirley Temple was huge because she was just a cute little, oh, you know, there’s, there’s nothing to not, like she’s adorable and she’ll just, she wouldn’t be popular in a happy time.

It would be sickening. Um, and then also some really dark, um, artsy and then into the forties getting into the film noir kind of stuff. And I think that’s where the, um, What This is Us, is that what it was called? The the fungus show? That sort of thing, uh, comes in is we either want a happy distraction or we get kind of masochistic and are like, yeah, show me all these awful things.

But there’s always a separation, and I think that’s what’s key. Um, if you are currently depressed because you’re isolated and poor and worried about sickness and war, you probably don’t wanna go and watch a play about someone who’s isolated, poor and worried about sickness and war, who it’s too, it’s too close.

But if you have something where people are turning into zombies, there’s that separation. If you do a, uh, period production e and they did that in the thirties too. Uh, well into the forties especially. They’d have movies that were about, that were about World War ii. It’s always set in World War I there’s, there’s no question.

You look at, um, mash, of course it’s about the Vietnam War, but it’s not, it’s about the Korean War, right? There has to be some kind of separation there. So that. You can go in and feel it, but still be able to take a step back and be like, okay, this is not what’s happening to me. Um, my company just does period productions and so that’s something, um, we are always looking at is how can it be something that’s relevant now, but also could have happened, uh, a long time ago.

Um, and we seemed to have had success with that. We just did a production of the Birds, um, that was like a new thing inspired by Hitchcock’s, uh, the birds. Um, and so it was set in the sixties and uh, it’s, uh, these people stuck in a, um, a small cottage just over like a 24 hour period, but it had all the stuff about, you know, isolation and someone who was drinking too much and the paranoia and relationships and everything.

Um, but it, it wasn’t, uh, stressful or exhausting because there was a potential of maybe some kind of weird. Verging on supernatural element with the birds and the, the, um, the fact that it’s set in the past. So I didn’t have any audience members say anything about like, oh, it was stressful, or it was like, you know, they just found it enjoyable because you, you have that separation to keep yourself sane and to be able to say after, like, okay, now it’s done, and turn it off.

Um, and I think that’s the sort of thing, and I suspect that’s why, part of why the, the puppet shows also do really well. You can have a puppet show about any horrific thing and it’s, it’s puppets. Um, you know, avenue Q now is, is very dated and, uh, no longer seems edgy, so much as borderline offensive, but when it came out, it was, it was great because if you just had actors saying that, people would’ve been boycotting it.

But, oh no, it’s a, it’s a puppet singing about being racist. , it’s kind of funny and you’re like, okay, well I don’t have to take it so seriously. Um, you know, the adult cartoons you see on tv, the Simpsons has always been able to say edgier things than, um, what, like a, a live action sitcom could do. So I think if we are looking to keep doing stories about serious topics, we need to think of how we can have that separation.

Whether it’s something ridiculous and it’s puppets or musical or it’s just got a distance because of time or something supernatural. We need to give people a break. And, um, even if it’s tempting to go on stage and sort of work through your traumas, um, no one wants to watch your therapy session. And it’s, uh, I don’t think it’s healthy for either side.

So finding a way to have that inform what you do instead of just be, I’m gonna lay myself bare on stage, I think will help bringing in audiences.

Adrianna: So according to Emily, everybody needs to see an Eldridge Theater show. Just say thank you. Thank you, Emily Puppet.

Phil: Yeah. Uh, Laura, go.

Laura: Thanks. I’d like to go a little rogue if I may, because Phil, when you first posed this question about the disappearing audience, it, it’s, it, um, it jogged my memory of something I’ve been perkin percolating on for a little while, which is I don’t think that us as artists, Canadian artists, are particularly good audience members.

I think something I look to America for so, so rarely, but America is obsessed with itself. They have talk show after talk, show after talk show to interview each other about how amazing they each are for the doing the same thing we’re doing over here. But we have this complex of, well, we gotta get out. I have to be good to get out and in order to get out it.

You have to be best. You have to be doing, you have to be always on top. You have to be searching for that, uh, the evidence to get your A one. You have to be, you’re, you’re, we’re working towards a goal that doesn’t look back and say, Hey, I’m actually hurting myself because I’m stifling my own industry in the pursuit to get out of it.

And I think a couple years ago I had a, a just a, an overwhelming feeling to myself like, nobody’s coming to this show. But did I go, how many shows did I go to? I’m so focused as an artist with no money and no time on what am I doing? What’s my next step? What am I producing? What am I producing? How can I get them to come to my show?

And it’s like, I’m not, I wasn’t being a good audience because I wasn’t going to their show and nobody was going to each other’s shows. And I caught myself feeling offended at about. People not coming to my first, first solo production or my, their first musical or whatever the thing I was doing. And I was like, I can’t believe, I can’t believe my friends and contemporaries aren’t here.

And then I thought, well, I better fix the problem. I better be part of that solution if I’m gonna start assigning blame to other people. And I think one of the aspects of growing the audience is reframing ourselves to being obsessed with each other. Find local heroes. Get become obsessed with what we’re doing here.

Find the talented people you really like. Pick ’em up out of that crowd. Create something with them. Be the industry that you wanted to escape to. We’ve got it. We have the talent, we have the venues, we have human beings. Toronto’s huge, it’s, it’s multicultural, it’s exciting, it’s alive. It’s cult, but it’s, it bring ’em inside.

We, we have the ability, but. There’s just for so long been this road to get good enough in Canada to get outta here. And it, and it just self perpetuates this, this lack of attention from artists towards other artists. And, and even in this discussion so far, we’ve been talking about audiences, audiences, audiences.

We haven’t even talked about the artists in the audience. And that in and of itself is kind of just proves that we’re like, ah, they’re not coming. They don’t have any money. They don’t have any times. They don’t care. Like, it almost is like obvious that we wouldn’t talk about ourselves as artists going, it’s different.

I think, um, producers will go see it. It, but I think on the ground level, just as an an artist myself, it’s like I look around and I think we’re all, we’re all on stage and none of us are in the audience.

Phil: I know that we’re at our hour mark and I, I, uh, I know that we’re gonna have to, to, to go in, in a little bit, but I wanted to go a little bit rogue with you, Laura. Um, and. What I wanna say in response to that is, yes, it’s great, it’s great to have, uh, other artists in the audience, but if our target audience is artists, then we have no real audience.

Um, we should like, we need Audi people who are not our fellow Audi artists in the audience. Otherwise, I wonder if we are at all relevant. So while it’s great to have our fellow artists support and we should support our fellow artists 100%. Um, I cannot, I don’t, we shouldn’t be targeting, how to say it. The, our fellow artists are not necessarily our target audience.

Um, because that is, that’s just a ouroboros. That’s the snake eating its own tail is as far as the art goes.

Laura: Thanks. Sorry. Just an opportunity to respond and, and clarify. You’re totally right, because the, uh, even when I’m talking to my friends about my solo show, it’s like, I don’t want you to come to this show as a favor to me or as an industry obligation or as a, uh, not to be a hypocrite. You’re totally right.

The, the, the success of the, the industry depends on strangers wanting to come see your work. And I, I totally agree with you. I just, I wanted to highlight one aspect of, of how if art artists aren’t the audience, then the, then it doesn’t perpetuate itself properly. Um, but you’re totally right. It’s the, we we need, we can’t be, we can’t be a room of like circling around each other like, you are great.

Watch me, you are great. Watch me again. You’re, you’re so.

Phil: Absolutely. This is such a, a big topic. Um, and we are, uh, a group of people who are in the, uh, greater Toronto area and, uh, it’s, it’s something that affects, uh, all over Canada. And I’m, I, I, I’m curious and hopefully I’ll be able to have similar conversations with other artists in different parts of Canada to find out what, what the scene is like there.

I think that that, because it’s a complicated, uh, question, there’s no simple answer, but I think maybe we’ve gotten it a couple of things and maybe, uh, number one is programming and number two is advertising somehow. Um, that’s a bigger question that we can’t really address here. Um, but uh, I think there are solutions, um, that they’re just gonna take time to find.

Thank you all for joining me, uh, tonight. I really appreciate, uh, your time.

This has been an episode of Stageworthy. Stageworthy is produced, hosted and edited by Phil Rickaby. That’s me. If you enjoyed this podcast and you listen on Apple podcasts or Spotify, you can leave a five star rating. And if you’re listening on Apple podcast, you can also leave a review those reviews and ratings helps new people find the show. If you want to keep up with what’s going on with Stageworthy and my other projects, you can subscribe to my newsletter by going to philrickaby.com/subscribe. And remember, if you want to leave a tip, you’ll find a link to the virtual tip jar in the show notes or on the website. You can find Stageworthy on Twitter and Instagram at @stageworthypod. And you can find the website but the complete archive of all episodes at stageworthy.ca. If you want to find me, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram at PhilRickaby and as I mentioned, my website is philrickaby.com. See you next week for another episode of Stageworthy