#383 – Joshua Chong

Join us on this rich and provocative journey as we unravel the intricacies of the Toronto theatre scene with Joshua Chong, a seasoned reporter and performing arts critic from the Toronto Star. Our dialogue takes us into the heart of Toronto’s performing arts world, uncovering how initiatives like ticket deals and special offers are opening doors for diverse audiences. We look at the struggles and triumphs of prominent companies like the Canadian Stage, Soulpepper, National Ballet, and Mirvish in their quest to broaden their appeal and make theatre more accessible.

In this episode we talk about the challenges theatres faced during the pandemic, the decline in subscription audiences, and the pressing need to attract diverse viewers. With the rise in streaming services, we also discuss how to keep theatre relevant and make it a habit for people. We explore the risks and rewards of programming daring works and the need for the stage to reflect the diversity of the audience. Listen in for an enriching discussion on the future of theatre subscriptions, audience engagement, and a whole lot more!


Joshua Chong is a Toronto-based general assignment reporter and performing arts critic with the Toronto Star. His work can also be seen in the Globe and Mail, The Whole Note Magazine, The Dance Current, Intermission Magazine and Opera Canada Magazine. Joshua has earned two Youth Journalism International Awards for his criticism and a John H. McDonald Award for his investigative journalism.

Too white, too old, too well-to-do: why Toronto theatre companies need to appeal to broader audiences https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/stage/too-white-too-old-too-well-to-do-why-toronto-theatre-companies-need-to-appeal/article_dee3ddf9-79d5-5b0b-86c1-0017de63b6e3.html

Twitter: @joshualdwchong

Phil’s thoughts on the article: https://philrickaby.substack.com/p/toronto-star-too-white-too-old-too

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Transcript auto generated. 

0:00:04 – Phil Rickaby
I’m Phil Rickaby and I’ve been a writer and performer for almost 30 years, but I’ve realized 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 and indie artists you really should know, as we find out just what it takes to be Stageworthy. If you value the work that I do on Stageworthy, please consider leaving a donation, either as a one-time thing or on a recurring monthly basis. Stageworthy is created entirely by me and I give it to you free of charge, with no advertising or other sponsored messages. Your continuing support helps me to cover the cost of producing and distributing the show. Just four people donating $5 a month would help me cover the cost of podcast hosting alone. Help me continue to bring you this podcast. You can find a link to donate in the show notes, which you can find in your podcast app or at the website at Stageworthy.ca. Now onto the show.

Joshua Chong is a Toronto-based general assignment reporter and performing arts critic with the Toronto Star. I saw his article in the Star about theatre audiences and how theatres need to change to bring into audiences if they’re going to grow, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I invited Joshua to join me on the podcast to talk about it. Here’s our conversation, this article of yours from the Toronto Star too white, too old, too well to do. White Toronto theatre companies need to appeal to a broader audience. Before we jump into what’s in the article, I’m curious about what was the impetus for writing this article. How did the article itself come about?

0:02:26 – Joshua Chong
Well, I didn’t want to do this article for months and my editor was interested in it From the start of the year really, we were having discussions about when was the right time. I was really thinking about it from my personal experience, like how did I get into theatre? And it was through initiatives like the one that I was talking about, some of those that I was highlighting in my article and I was kind of wondering, in this kind of environment that we’re in right now, with the rising cost of living and all that, could someone like myself perhaps did not really have the means to be exposed to theatre be able to get that exposure without these types of initiatives? So we’re trying to figure out the right time to do it and we thought that towards the end of summer was a great time. Now it’s also covering Canadian stage Dream in High Park and wonderful 40 years of history there and started out and still is a free event Pay what you can and it’s a great way for people to come into the city and see theatre and for a lot of people it’s their only exposure to theatre each year.

Right, go down there and see how diverse it is, the audience that they go and all that. So I thought it would be kind of a good tie-in to that. But kind of, look where we are now, two years kind of, after reopening. Some theatres are playing it safe, others are trying to cast a wide net for other audiences. So, as the 2023-24 season opens up, we kind of wanted to do this feature looking at what some companies are doing and where they think they need to go.

0:03:59 – Phil Rickaby
It’s a lot. I mean, it’s the right time for asking these questions, since most theatres are announcing their season or launching their seasons, so it’s a really good time. Even Stratford is announcing its season for next year. Now, as far as you mentioned the initiatives that first got you into theatre, was that like Hiptics and things like that? What were the initiatives that first got you into theatre?

0:04:27 – Joshua Chong
Definitely Hiptics. What else? Even before I became a professional theatre critic I’ve only been a professional theatre critic for two years. So Soulpeppers, free under 25, I bring my friends. Whenever I want to bring my friends, I’ll say, hey, do you want to go see a Soulpepper show tonight? Then we’ll just see what’s on and grab a last minute free under 25 ticket. What else? The COC as well. They have wonderful under 30 deals. National Ballet I think for most people like myself we go through kind of like the mainstream theatres, right, because that’s what you know, that’s what you see the advertisements for and all that.

I know a lot of smaller independent companies have wonderful ticket initiatives as well. But I think I wanted to focus a lot in my article about some of the bigger companies, about the Dune, because that’s for a lot of theatre goers that’s their first exposure to the performing arts. So for me as well, like Mervish, they’re two for one deals. That’s really when my mom and I would go each year, like the Boxing Day deal, for example buy one, get one for $1, those kinds of stuff. And that’s how I found my way in, because otherwise most of the time it’s quite expensive, a lot of tickets.

0:05:37 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, but I do think that a lot of people their perception of theatre, especially the cost, is Mervish, because that’s the big ticket shows they have, like the sides of street cars and the posters all over the place that a lot of other theatres can’t afford to do. So that’s what people think of first and they think about those prices as soon as they see that show. And then they look and they see those prices and that gives people the because it’s the theatre that people see the most. I think it’s a lot of times what people think that’s the cost of theatre and people don’t go searching much further.

0:06:13 – Joshua Chong
It is. Yeah, it is unfortunate, and sometimes I like to tell my friends who don’t go to the theatre, as often you can get tickets that are cheaper than a movie ticket, sometimes right, if you find the right deal and go to the right theatre. There’s so many theatres offering nowadays, you know, paid what you can to get some kind of those tiered levels, and I think those are fantastic initiatives. It’s just hard for them to get the word out because, as he said, when people think theatre they think Mervish, right, the big Broadway touring shows, and those are really expensive unless you’re getting like a standing room or rush ticket. But even a rush ticket nowadays for like a Mervish show it’s like 59 bucks plus.

0:06:51 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, it’s not. It doesn’t feel like rush, because I know when I’ve been to a theatre in New York, a rush ticket feels like a rush ticket. You know, you do the lottery or whatever it is that you do, and you get the ticket pretty cheap, like comparatively, and then we come here and it’s still like $50 for a ticket, which isn’t that much lower than like a seat at the back of the balcony in some of Mervish theatres. No, no.

0:07:16 – Joshua Chong

0:07:18 – Phil Rickaby
So the price is definitely a I think it’s not price, the perception of price. That’s exactly it. Yeah, the perception of price. Also, you know, you mentioned the. You know the theatres have a difficult time getting the word out and that’s, I think that’s like number one challenge, because, mervish, like I said, they can get TV commercials and radio commercials and the side of a streetcar and all of that stuff, and if you go to a theatre like Pass, marais, tarragon, a factory, they can do that, and so people don’t sometimes don’t even know that those shows are available to them.

0:07:58 – Joshua Chong
Yeah, I think part of it too is what I’m noticing some theatres are doing and some are doing it more successfully than others are bringing theatres out of these traditional spaces to audiences themselves, and that helps get the word out. I’m finding Like on the bigger scale, thinking like the COC. For example, they announced their first concert series in North York. They’re leaving the Four Seasons Center for a few concerts to go to the George Weston Recital Hall in North York, so it’s more accessible to people up there. They’re heading to the Harborfront Center.

National Ballet has been doing concerts at the Harborfront Center on the Waterfront for years now, I think, and I think that plays a part as well. If you can’t get those, you know those advertisements bias side of a streetcar or bus. I think another great way of doing it, and what we’re seeing some companies do, is bring theatre out of traditional theatre spaces to audiences, be that like a park, for example, shakespeare on the park, these kinds of other initiatives, just to get that exposure for people like even just walking by who may never been to theatre before, just to get a glimpse of it.

0:09:10 – Phil Rickaby
There are some fascinating shows that happen in like the Donlass City theatre, with like a show that happens just in a park that you people stumble on. Those shows they’re actually. They’re like I walk on their dog and they’re like I’m going to stick around and watch this show, which is a really interesting way to sort of like come across theatre and sort of have it like in the space that you know you walk your dog in, and then now there’s a show, which is a really fun way, and then people will often come back and say I only saw part of the show, I’m going to see the whole thing. It’s really interesting to put theatre in those places.

0:09:43 – Joshua Chong
It is fantastic, just to take it out and I think people are getting I think part of it had to do with the pandemic and, like I’ll give credit to like Musical Stage Company you know their porch side concerts initiative you know how many people I saw in like social media posting saying like hey, what is this? And that other people kind of commented this is like you know, musical Stage Company and it’s a wonderful exposure for people who are just like walking by, probably never intended to go to theatres before, experienced theatre and are getting exposed to this and we’re seeing a lot more now, I think in continuation, of that kind of outdoor performances and all that outside of the theatre and helps make it, I think, less stuffy and much more accessible for people who may be a bit jaunted to go to the theatre, had maybe kind of worried like what is that environment like?

0:10:31 – Phil Rickaby
Well, I think there’s also. I mean, theatre is one of the only art forms that I’ve encountered where somebody will say something like I saw a play once and I didn’t like it, so I don’t like the theatre, and it’s like you watched a bad movie and you still went to the movies. Why is theatre, this, this thing do you? This is sort of not not in in the topic, but it’s sort of is is adjacent. Do you? Have you encountered that and do you? What do you say in that?

0:10:59 – Joshua Chong
situation. I totally get that. I’ll tell you a story back from from high school. My English class went to to Stratford and we saw a pretty awful Shakespeare production. You know how you know to call high school, you have to read a study of Shakespeare piece went over there, watched it and then had to analyze it. For a lot of my friends it was there first exposure to theatre or Shakespeare in a performance setting and a lot of them now, even like almost decade later, still don’t want to go back to the theatre because of that experience and I’m like, give it one more try, give it one more shot. But yeah, I think there’s this mentality that I’ve seen one one show, it isn’t good, I’m not going back again and I don’t know why. You’re right, you know you don’t do that with the television or movie. One movie you see one movie when you’re working, you’re a kid and you hate it. And then, yeah, that’s the movie theatre. At least I’ve never been sitting. One, no and no, nobody nobody says that.

0:12:03 – Phil Rickaby
Nobody says I saw one movie and I didn’t like it. I don’t like movies, nobody says that. But I do think I mean, if you’re sort of like hit on something where the way that we teach Shakespeare is not conducive to people actually liking Shakespeare and Shakespeare is usually the first thing that people go to see in in the theatre, especially when it’s not kids theatre. It’s like you know adult theatre and you have kids going to see to Stratford after spending weeks studying Shakespeare as though it is literature and not having a great experience of it, and then we take them to the theatre and say watch this show.

0:12:41 – Joshua Chong
And you know, I think Shakespeare is important, but to a point up to a point, and I don’t think it should be taught.

My opinions that I don’t think it should be taught in all four years of high school, like for me, in my experience and I think for most students in Ontario, you learn a Shakespeare, one Shakespeare each year, if not more, like I remember for grade 11 we did two.

I think, and I don’t think so there’s so much more to to theatre than Shakespeare. Of course it is quite foundational and it’s important to know some Shakespeare. But but I think it’s important to get that exposure to other works of theatre as well, to offer kind of a way in for audiences and for students who just may not get Shakespeare. But I know that my high school, for example, I’m on the alumni board so I kind of know what’s going on and I think this past year they’re getting rid of Shakespeare in grade 11 and I think a lot of schools are doing that as well and doing it as a indigenous literature course, so they’re going to be studying like indigenous works and indigenous plays and all that. I think that’s. That’s great. I think like Shakespeare, maybe one or two years in high school and then the other two years do some other stuff.

0:13:56 – Phil Rickaby
I’m still not even sold that we need to teach Shakespeare in schools, just based on the way that we teach it. We are still stuck in our Victorian, that we treat this like literature. These plays were not meant to be read. They were meant to be seen, and by doing it the way that we do it, we and this is since this is the first experience that a lot of people have with theatre we tell them right out of high school you don’t like this theatre thing, which is a hard thing to to fight against, because high school is so foundational in terms of the things that you end up liking for almost the rest of your life.

0:14:26 – Joshua Chong
Yeah, I bet you, if we did the same things with with film, if we replace Shakespeare with film studies every year for four years and we had to look at like some classical films and study them like the Czechs, I think we’d have a lot of luck. Fewer film lovers than we do today absolutely, absolutely, yeah, definitely that.

0:14:48 – Phil Rickaby
That that’s certainly a problem now in terms of, in terms of the article itself. Are there things that that you that surprised you about, about, about theatres in their audience, that you didn’t expect when you went into, when you started writing it?

0:15:05 – Joshua Chong
you know, when I was going into write it, I was focusing quite a lot on the price aspect, like price accessibility, but as I was speaking with theatres and with experts um Sydney, sydney Lynch was an assistant professor, um of drama theatre and for foreign studies at U of T she brought up a really important point. That it’s it. It goes beyond just price accessibility. That is one factor, but it’s also putting on the programming that will attract diverse audiences as well. We go to the theatre, yes, sometimes to escape and and see and discover new experiences, but I think it’s important as well and and she highlighted highlighted this to see stories that reflect ourselves in some way, and I think we are seeing theatres now and artistic directors start to program their seasons in a bit more conscious way.

One of the interesting points that was brought up in my articles by one of the experts I’m not sure who was, either Signia or Kelsey was a Kelsey Jacobson assistant professor at Queens University is that the subscription model is dying and I was speaking with a few artistic directors and they said there are very few theatres in the world or in North America that are saying that their subscription audiences are growing and for some that is troubling for them because that is their base and that’s what they rely on, you know, to get that cash injection and that security.

But some of them are taking that as an opportunity. You know the subscription audiences are dwindling but people are selecting single tickets a bit more and they can cast their wider net so they don’t have to program their seasons just for one type of audience anymore. So they can. But now they can pick and choose more diverse works that can appeal to a broader range of audiences and bring more people in. So I think that’s really interesting and we’re gonna see more of that in the next decade. Really artistic directors kind of experimenting with their seasons and being a bit more bold and daring with them as they move away from the subscription model.

0:17:15 – Phil Rickaby
What’s interesting about that is, you know, subscriptions are like. The subscription audience is a bit of a crutch that a lot of theatres fell into because it was great for a while, and now, as they find that fewer younger people are buying subscriptions, that they’re sort of like almost tied to this. Like this is our audience, this is our subscription model. We cannot offend them. I’ll point out one of the comments on your article which I mentioned in my blog post about somebody who was like well, basically said, essentially, if they’re not willing to cater to me, I will take my money elsewhere, which is like. I think that is the danger that theatres face is like we don’t want to alienate this audience who already gives us money, and yet we need to bring in this other audience who hasn’t yet given us money. What do we do? And sometimes they continue to cater to the audience that is giving them money.

0:18:10 – Joshua Chong
It is such an issue right now, especially after the pandemic, because, you know, yes, there is audience attrition, yes, subscription bases are dwindling, but theatres are still at such a precarious point right now, at a point of recovery, that a lot of them are kind of, you know, debating, and I’ve heard this from multiple artistic directors do we play it safe and cater to that audience, to that subscription audience, who may be dwindling but they know we’ll come back and put in these like favorites for them, or do we take that risk and it’s a really big risk right now to program these daring works that may be a hit and may attract new audiences, or may be a complete dud and may cost us a lot of money and potentially, with the future, of the financial sustainability of the company. So I think those are some tough conversations happening right now.

0:19:09 – Phil Rickaby
It’s gotta be terrifying, because you look at a bunch of the theatres in the States that have either laid off a huge portions of their staff or shut entirely. Interestingly, these are a lot of the not-for-profit theatres that are facing that, whereas a lot of the for-profit theatres are continuing to sell tickets, which is an interesting dichotomy that these theatres where investors put a ton of money in and all this sort of they workshop and all this and then the show goes up and it runs for years, whereas you find these more repertory theatres that are taking some chances but also might not be taking huge chances, and they’re the ones that are facing the shortfall.

0:19:52 – Joshua Chong
Exactly, and I think one thing that I didn’t really get into in my article that I wish I did was the implications of that right of these companies perhaps not doing well, possibly failing you. Look at the US the public theatre, also the Mark T Perform in LA. These are the theatres that produce the original works, the most daring works, the works that perhaps may not be produced elsewhere. They’re willing to invest in that.

So if these theatres collapse or are not even at their fullest potential, how does that impact the creation of art? And I think that’s what’s most concerning to me and a lot of really concerning to theatre artists as well. And oftentimes these things won’t fly under the radar of the general theatre audience because when they think theatre, as we said, they think of, like the for-profit theatre, the big theatre companies that are producing the commercial hit shows. But I think this will affect things down the line and with the length of time that it takes to create theatre, you may not see the impacts of this till five, 10 years down the road, which is sad. Yeah, yeah.

0:21:06 – Phil Rickaby
No, absolutely, absolutely. It’s something that is gonna have an impact that we’re not going to see for quite some time, just because it’s important that people as far as bringing audiences, people need to make theatre a habit right. And if your theatre habit is, I’m gonna go see Book of Mormon at a Mervis theatre when it comes in, or I’m gonna see the Panto if there is a Panto anymore, because they’re not doing that anymore in Toronto that’s what I do with the kids. We go to see a kid show at Christmas and we go to see the Book of Mormon or a equivalent show when it comes to Toronto. That’s not a theatre habit. That’s sort of like these are the things. I do this for the kids and I do this for me every four years or so when the show comes, or something. We need to bring people into the theatre. People need a reason to get off the couch when they have essentially the world of video to come to the theatre, and that’s another challenge at theatres.

0:22:09 – Joshua Chong
Well, that’s exactly. We’ve lost the habit, right, especially over the pandemic, and while that habit is gone, we have so many more offerings now with streaming and all that. You think back, like before the rise of streaming or even like real home entertainment, you had to, like, go out to see a movie, right, you had to go out to see theatre. So that was always that habit of kind of making an event out of it, going out to consume those forms of media. And you don’t have that anymore, right, you can just open up your laptop, connect to your television and just stream a show. So I think that’s the other uphill challenge that theatres are facing while reopening is kind of making that habit again of going to the theatre. And I’m not sure what the answer is because yeah, yeah, it’s a question, I mean.

0:23:06 – Phil Rickaby
I also think I think that theatre can be an experience and people will pay for experiences. You know, you look at, you know the Van Gogh experience, which was like giant projections. We will go and pay $50 each for a projection for 20 minutes Because that event has very successfully drawn people in for the experience. And I think that we are out of habit of talking to people who don’t go to the theatre regularly to tell them what they’re going to get from the experience of being at the theatre. Yeah, I did not get that.

0:23:50 – Joshua Chong
To be honest, those, you know, those production cell things, but I guess to each their own. But I agree, you need to make an experience out of it and I think part of it is opening up theatres, like the building itself, so that it’s more than just a theatre, more than just a space for performing arts, and we’re seeing that a lot. You see, like what Buddies is doing, right, there’s space. They’ve been doing it for ages the cabaret, the bar and all that. It’s more than just a performing arts space, it’s a community hub. Coc has been doing it for a season center with their free events.

What else? Oh, I was talking to Anthony Chimolino Stratford how and he was mentioning how the Tom Patterson theatre has really become a hub in the past two years since it’s opened, and I think that is the way forward, because you have these, you know, structures just standing in the middle of the city. You can put on what? Eight shows a week, that’s how many hours in a week, maybe, like, I don’t know, 16 hours a week that it’s filled. There’s so much potential in those buildings that are unused and I think a way to attract people in is to create experiences in different ways for them to use that space.

I think a lot of people like my generation and younger people, they wanna make an experience out of it. They don’t wanna just go to the theatre, just see a show and leave. Maybe go to the theatre, do some stuff afterwards, have a talk back, have some community activities, go for a dinner beforehand, mingle, mix and mingle, that type of things and I think that will get more people in rather than just like come in for curtain and then see the show, bow, everyone leave and go home. Yeah.

0:25:32 – Phil Rickaby
I mean it’s so. I mean, one of my favorite theatres that I’ve ever been in is the staircase in Hamilton, which has a cafe slash restaurant in the lobby. That’s the lobby. It says cafe slash restaurant, as you can go in at any time of day, have a coffee, have a pastry, have a sandwich, which sort of like opens that up to be like this is a place to be. And then sometimes people will go see a show where some people didn’t even know it was a theatre until somebody they saw a bunch of people going in and they thought, oh, maybe I’ll check that out because I’m comfortable in this space, which is, I think, as far as like bringing people into the theatre. We have to give up the idea of some of our theatre traditions. We need people to feel comfortable in this space.

0:26:20 – Joshua Chong
Yeah, and I think the most successful companies that were the ones that don’t treat those periphery and those ancillary activities as a means to an end to bring people in. Just create those initiatives out there for the community. It doesn’t matter if those people that are using those initiatives, using those spaces, come to the theatre in the end, but just having it as kind of like a community hub for the community, I think that’s what makes that’s what’s most successful for companies. Yes, yeah.

0:26:51 – Phil Rickaby
Absolutely. I think that there is. If you look at diversity in the theatre, when people go to the theatre, if they decide they’re gonna go see a show and they see, for example, if they’re a person of color and they go to the theatre and it’s just a sea of white people, or then it seems like there’s all these rules and I don’t understand what’s going on. Like what’s this? And now we’re applauding at this point oh, there’s a break, like what’s happening. I think that sometimes those spaces can seem unfriendly to people who don’t go to the theatre regularly and if we’re going to bring people into those spaces, we have to make them accessible, make them more friendly to everybody, and maybe that is bringing people in when it’s not a show. Yeah.

0:27:40 – Joshua Chong
I think so too, and it goes. Something else I didn’t mention were our pieces like the lax performances, right, those types of initiatives that open it up to more people who may not feel comfortable attending a regular performance. And I think we’ve progressed leaps and bounds in terms of accessibility in the theatre in those respects and having those options, but I think there’s still ways to go. I was speaking with a friend from Singapore I’m originally from Singapore and she and her family came over to visit and she works in accessibility in theatre in Singapore and the idea for a relaxed performance is totally foreign to her and in Singapore and in many other parts of the world and I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here but, yeah, I think we’ve progressed a lot in terms of that respect, but there’s still more to go, like the frequency of those relaxed performances.

If you look at, like Mervish for example, those accessible performances, they don’t really come very often. It’s like maybe once, once in a run if you’re lucky. There’s a lot more in the small, the smaller theatre companies. But yeah, that’s an important aspect as well in order to bring people in and make them feel comfortable.

0:29:02 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, I think it’s hard for shows. A lot of the shows of the mervis mervis is bringing. They’ll decide if they’re gonna do something, they’re gonna. The production will decide. They can be asked if they want to do something, but then you, the stage manager, has to decide Okay, now we have to do everything different and maybe it’s too much for them to Put in the effort to do because they’ve been running the show this way for so long. It is a missed opportunity for those shows because I think you know bringing people into the audience is such, bringing people into the theatre is so important and any way that we get them in is a way to get them in.

0:29:34 – Joshua Chong
Yeah, I agree. And Going back to programming for a bit, I think that you know it’s really interesting right now to see what companies are doing, in which companies are Programming their works and how they program a season through the accessibility and all that. What am I trying to say? But yeah, whether they’re programming for a subscription audience or not oh sorry, I lost my train of thought there that’s okay, that’s okay.

0:30:09 – Phil Rickaby
I think that there’s something to be said for, for you know there’s People go to see movies. You know there’s two kinds of, say movie audiences. There’s people go to see film and there people go to see a movie, right, so Tiff is on. So people who go to see film, they’re going to see those. As we record this, tiff is on. And other people they want to go see like the latest, like fun movie, the latest, whether it’s a horror movie, whether it’s a superhero movie, whether it’s whatever it might be.

theatre doesn’t really give us that often. theatre gives us important stuff, people gives it. theatre often gives us the idea of a movie. theatre often gives us the equivalent of film On stage as opposed to like just a fun movie, and I think that’s something that I think, like I think I’ve been, you know, talking about with some people, about you know, where is the popcorn theatre?

Where’s like the just the fun theatre that people go to see and it’s, and sometimes that’s the marvishes and that’s like that, that, that for profit theatre. But it’s sometimes in order to see that just fun theatre, we have to go to really indie theatres like the Red Sandcastle and Eldridge theatre and some of the stuff that’s happening at the assembly theatre in order to see, like, like, pure, just like. This is just, this is fun. There might be a message, but we, this is, this is fun. theatre and and programming, I think, is like yes, we, we want to program for diversity, but we also want to program to like bring people in just for the fun of it, and then maybe they’ll take the chance on the film theatre.

0:31:37 – Joshua Chong
Yeah, kid or different audiences, and that’s what concerns me. Going back to like Ross Petty, right, panto, we not have that anymore. That option come, come the holidays, right. For some people that’s their way into theatre. It’s not, yeah, there, the film, art house style theatre, that’s not their way in. So I think we do need those kind of options.

And then the fun here at the high brow theatre, the low brow theatre, all those kinds of options for people, and I’m not really sure that’s the case here in Toronto, as, as a critic you know, most critics you know frown on the jukebox, musical and those things, I don’t really mind them, like sure they may not be artistically that the most sophisticated thing, but if it gets people into the theatre and it’s a way in for them, right, if they can connect to it because of the music it’s something they’ve listed, listen to on the radio before, all the better, right, and I think that’s that’s missing. On the other hand, though, I think we could, it’s Possible that that you could swing all the other way and you can have, like, you know, all this like fun theatre where it’s hyper commercialized, and you’re seeing that in some theatre centers and I think we’re quite fortunate here in Toronto that we aren’t at that point yet and hopefully never where everything is kind of based on Existing IPs and all that just like kind of the fun stuff. You know, I’m planning to a trip to London in October in a couple months time and Looking mainly at West End stuff. What to see?

Before I was looking at something like the smaller Not-for-profit independent theatre companies and almost everything in the West End. If it’s not one of those long-running shows, it is like a jukebox musical, a movie based on a musical based on a movie, a musical based on a book or something like that. And it’s so hard to get this original work yeah, nowadays yeah, yeah it is.

0:33:40 – Phil Rickaby
It is because I think I think when you’re looking at things from a purely for-profit Point of view, you’re just like whatever gets Bums in seats. People like back to the future, they like mean girls, they like they like Harry Potter, they like whatever it is. We’re just gonna put that out there and that’ll get the Bums in the seats. I think that one of the things that we have the advantage of in in the way that we create theatre, in in Toronto, in the way that we produce theatre, is we do have these, these companies like theatre pass, mariah Terragon factory, who, who do sort of like, I guess you know a lot of times more of the the quote-unquote film type theatre, but they could, in their program, in their programming, throw in a popcorn show, you know, without disrupting their season so much completely because they have they create a season that runs over a finite period of time and they are not beholden to investors or things like that in order to put those shows on.

0:34:34 – Joshua Chong
It’s a unique opportunity, I think and we’ve strong pipelines for creation as well. We have so many companies here that are dedicated to present and help develop new work, and oftentimes, new work that is not, that is truly original, I’m not based on something that is safe, right and we’ll get guaranteed Bums in seats, and I think that that we’re really fortunate here, and sometimes we need to mention that a bit more and and give it to those companies that do that, because it is scary and oftentimes you don’t know. Like you know, oftentimes most shows don’t succeed right and it often takes multiple runs and tweaks and workshops to get a show to a point when it is presentable on the main stage and, yeah, I think we’re pretty fortunate in that regard and that helps bring audiences in as well. Having investing in these original works, yes, those original IPs will get a certain demographic of audiences in that are familiar, but Producing original works as well and having that kind of interest and following it along, I think appeals to different sort of audience.

0:35:53 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, absolutely one of the one of the tragedies, I think, of the way that we do our theatre in Canada is everybody, because of the nature of our theatres, we’re always chasing premieres. So we have some, sometimes we’re doing some rolling premieres, which means it’s a premiere in different cities, but a lot of theatres are chasing the premiere. We want to be the first to do this show, which means that a show can be great in a city and nobody else will see it because it’s not a premiere. And I think that’s one of the downsides to chasing the premiere of a show, because this show you know you might want to do, we should do it in Calgary, we should do it in Edmonton, but because it’s not a premiere, those people will never see it.

0:36:35 – Joshua Chong
That’s one of my arcs or pet peeves about companies. So, yes, I praised them for developing new works and original works. But then usually it gets like the big world premiere. There’s a lot of fanfare and sometimes these works are fantastic, right, and often like in my reviews, and I say, oh, I wish that it has more life afterwards somewhere else. And often that just goes unheard and then you never hear of it again. And it’s such a pity because often these works are so wonderful and should be seen by others, and even the works that perhaps aren’t successful, they just need a tweak or two right.

You can learn so much from just presenting in front of audience, audience and just pick it up and take it somewhere else and do the work on it and, you know, present it again in a new production. And I think that’s one of the problems we have in Canada is the pipeline from not-for-profit to commercial and making that jump. And you know they’re great programs here, especially like for musicals, the Canadian musical theatre projects that Michael Rubinoff did. You know the success have come from away. Then the few shows after, like life after, and all that they were able to make that jump. But I think it’s incredibly rare for plays in Canada to be able to make that leap, unless you know you have like a co-production and co-presenters, or Mervish picks it up and puts it in their off-Mervish season. It’s really rare for.

0:38:13 – Phil Rickaby
And it’s also probably other than Mervish. We don’t have a lot of options for commercial theatre. It’s hard there’s not many places to go to to make the jump from not-for-profit to commercial. One of the show I remember a few years ago, kat Sandler had a show in Edmonton. I don’t remember the name of the show, but it was meant to be done simultaneously in one theatre and another, and so characters would go from one theatre to the other and they would cross over, and if you wanted the whole thing you would go back twice. But the shows ran simultaneously and so somebody would walk off stage from this theatre, run up the stairs and then walk on in that other theatre. And I have wanted to see that show ever since I heard about it. But of course it because of that pipeline, of the way that we create shows. It happened in Edmonton and it’s not a premiere, so it’s unlikely to be seen somewhere else.

0:39:08 – Joshua Chong
It sounds so cool, though that almost reminds me of the Winter Garden and Elgin theatre here in Toronto in the old days when they used to run like a vaudeville house. Actors would go up and down. But I think that’s going back to the issue about the lack of companies picking up works afterwards. I think really it’s so rare for it to happen. It only happens if you get commercial producers attached from the beginning or your big name, and I think the last play that had a rolling world premiere that I can remember is Bad Parent in Detroit follow up play to Kim’s Convenience. I think that happened like a year and a half ago. It was like Soul Pepper. Then it went to Ferry theatre Change out west and I think the Vancouver on theatres there. But it’s so rare unless you’re a name or you have commercial producers from the beginning, which is such a pity, I think, because it’s an important part of theatre to have that runway for development.

0:40:11 – Phil Rickaby
Absolutely, joshua. This is a rare opportunity for me because I’ve only in the past I’ve spoken to two other theatre reviewers I talked to Glenn Sumi and I talked to Janine Marley from A View From the Box and I find I think we rarely get to talk to people who write about theatre, both in terms of the theatre industry and also reviewing theatre. You mentioned about how your first entry into theatre was. You know the hip-ticks and things like that and also those cheap seats to the Mervis shows. What made you want to write about theatre? How did that start for you?

0:40:53 – Joshua Chong
It goes back to high school really. I was really fortunate to go to a high school that had a student newspaper, a student-produced newspaper. We had a really strong art section. I always loved theatre, even before high school. I did community theatre, acting, some directing, some stage management and all that. I’m not really passionate about journalism as well.

My day job actually nowadays is as a general assignment reporter at the Toronto Star Night, do theatre criticism on the side, and I loved how I could marry both my passion for writing and theatre, getting to analyze complex works and translate it for an audience from the stage to a page. It’s a difficult process for me and I’m still learning, but I get a lot of joy from writing about theatre and trying to analyze it for an audience. So that’s how I got into it. In high school I was quite lucky that someone from Mervis saw my high school paper and I reviewed a show and then they offered season critics tickets for my student newspaper and I was like the critic for one year. Then after that I did the Toronto Fringe Tanger Reviewers Program.

I think it’s called the New Yellow Reviewers Program now, but the year that I did it, karen Fricker, who’s now my colleague at the Star was my mentor there, so that’s how I formally got into theatre criticism. Then she encouraged me to do the Emergent Arts Critics Program that was run out of the National Ballet along with Opera Canada, soul, pepper and TSO Toronto’s Supreme Orchestra. Unfortunately it’s not around anymore. Hopefully it can be revived. I’m hoping to get some people to revive it because it was a fantastic program that exposed me to dance criticism, opera criticism, classical music criticism and theatre criticism. So it was really a holistic approach to criticism that I really appreciated. And then, after that, I started to work at the Star, first as a reporter, first, because I did journalism throughout university, and then I offered to do some performing arts reviews and then I guess the rest of this history just to get on the side now.

0:43:12 – Phil Rickaby
I mean you have your byline is quite extensive. Looking at the Toronto Stars page, you’re covering a lot and it’s interesting to see you go from talking about the arts to talking about politics, to talking about all of the things that you do cover. Do you feel like sometimes the arts coverage is something you sort of sneak in, or is it something that you’re able to focus on as much as you might want?

0:43:33 – Joshua Chong
I sneak it in because it’s not my day job, it’s not what I get paid to do. My nine to five job is as a general assignment reporter and then I’m kind of like the secondary theatre critic and I pitch stuff on the side to the arts team. In a way, I enjoy that in this point in my career getting to do theatre and then also exploring you know my other passions like business reporting, political reporting and all that, and I think it complements each other, while getting to cover current events and then sometimes tying it in to the shows that I’m analyzing, the plays that I’m reviewing, and all that gives a different perspective perhaps, compared to if I’m a full-time theatre critic. I would love to focus in theatre more. In the performing arts. There’s a lot of stories that I want to do, larger features, investigations and all that that I can’t do right now because I just don’t have the time to dedicate. But that’s probably for the down the line.

0:44:37 – Phil Rickaby
When you say investigations. Are there other topics that you think that we are not diving into in theatre? Because, I will say, I was shocked that I didn’t see people talking about this article that you wrote. I see a lot of discourse about it and I feel like it needs the discourse, the conversation needs to happen. So are there other things that sort of like in that vein that you feel like we should be talking about in the theatre and we just aren’t?

0:45:05 – Joshua Chong
What are some of the big topics in the theatre? I think accessibility is a big one. So, like this piece, I’m really also interested in the intersection of business and performing arts, especially now Funding models are changing, government subsidies are drying up after the pandemic and all that. How we fund theatre in general is undergoing a huge major shift right now, as I said, with the demise of the subscription model, and I think that needs to be investigated more to shine a light on, because it impacts not just theatre companies but the process of making art as well and how we are funding the creation of art. So I think that’s a big topic there.

I’m really interested in big trends in theatre, something I want to focus on. Maybe this is years down the line, but looking at, you know, musical theatre. I’m really passionate about Canadian musical theatre not just come from where you are, but pre-come from away as well and how that ecosystem has changed. I think we’re really in a golden age of Canadian musical theatre right now and kind of looking at that arc of how we got here, where we’re potentially going and the voice, our distinctive voice, for the genre of Canadian musical theatre, if you can call it that.

0:46:32 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, I think that’s fascinating because I remember when I was in theatres back in the ancient days in the early 90s, we were seeing some stuff and then all of a sudden we started hearing about this new Canadian musical and we’re excited because we’re like new Canadian musical. We haven’t heard of a Canadian musical before and it turned out it was a musical called Napoleon and we were just like why is this a Canadian musical? Why is this the show that we’ve decided is we’re going to call the new Canadian musical? When it’s about Napoleon of all things, it’s just like one of those like how do you make that decision? Like you’re just gonna do a show about somebody that anybody could do a show about, like Napoleon could be done by anybody. Why did we do this here?

Yeah, that’s crazy right, how I was labeled the big thing in Canadian theatre that now probably audiences have never heard of it Exactly exactly, Joshua, I have a bit of a pointed question that I don’t know if you can answer the question, but a lot of times, especially, this happens a lot in the major publications in the Toronto Star, in the Globe and Mail, things like that. We talk about theatres of a certain size. We’re talking, we see articles about crows, we see articles about Passmerai, Tarragon factory, but we there’s some other indie theatres that sort of get looked over who are doing exciting work Is there, and the question is, is it space in the pages or is there? Does the paper specifically have to focus on theatres of a specific size in order to justify the print?

0:48:07 – Joshua Chong
I think it’s a bit of both.

I think our audiences, because we don’t have as much resources as we once did.

We don’t have as many theatre reporters or critics as we once did Like currently at the star. Right now there is me, there is Karen Fricker and then Glenn Sumi helps out a bit, but none of us are full-time at the star and I think we would love to focus more on those indie theatres, that the Fly Under the Radar. But if we do cover them instead of like the big show that’s going on, I think our readers will ask why aren’t you covering this big, obvious thing that is here, which is unfortunate, I think part of it has to do is, ideally, if we had a media ecosystem where we had the mainstream players, like the star and the globe, but also, you know, the strong indie papers like what once was the now magazines and all that, we could have that comprehensive coverage. But right now, unfortunately, I don’t think there’s that kind of middle player anymore in Toronto, media that can go out and cover those indie shows, those comedy bars, those one-night concerts, one-night performances, and it’s hard for the mainstream players, I think, to just cover that breadth.

0:49:35 – Phil Rickaby
Sure, because we’re asking a lot of the big newspapers, right, I think one of the. You know, we have talked with a few people about the fact that I remember, not this French festival but the French festival last year, the question that everybody had because Moonie on Theatre was no longer publishing and everybody was wondering, you know, now is hardly publishing, you know, it’s just Glenn how are we going to get media reviews? And that was the question that year because the ecosystem of theatre criticism seemed to be kind of dead. This year, we see, the Toronto Star was covering some French shows, glenn was covering French shows. We had a bunch of indie, indie, indie reviewers, which was great. One of the tragedies that, I think, is there’s a, you know, online publications like, for example, blogto, that have the eyes. They just have no interest in covering the arts, unless it’s a sponsored post. Every so often I’d be like, oh, they covered the arts and then I look and it was a sponsored post.

And I’m like, oh see, that’s, that’s is that? How is that? The only way we can get coverage in this online publication is to sponsor a post. It’s kind of sad that that it’s there and they don’t have to worry about pages. They can have infinite online pages and they just won’t cover it. It’s sad, I think.

0:50:49 – Joshua Chong
Yeah, going back to the fringe, that was a big conversation we had last year because we really ramped up the Toronto Star, ramped up its fringe coverage last year and because we noticed that, you know, moonie wasn’t covering now wasn’t covering. But there were some difficult conversations happening behind the scenes like how much should a mainstream publication be covering and is it fair? Like, what kind of reviews should we be publishing? Should we only be publishing the critics picks? Is it fair to publish a negative review, that for a show that’s still under development and it’s posted everywhere for this huge audience?

So those are the difficult conversations that we’re having and in the end, for last year, what we decided was we were only going to do like the critics picks online. So we saw, like between Karen Ali and I, like 60, 70 shows that would only review like the best ones. And then this year we kind of pivoted a bit and we we’ve reviewed everything but on almost like a tweet style, like really short. So we’re still playing around with it and trying to figure out, like, what our role is and I think a lot of publications are doing the same as well, as theatre coverage in the city is changing like what is our role as a mainstream player here, should we be covering this?

is this fair to the artists if we’re publishing reviews for this small show that’s in development on this huge, huge platform?

0:52:16 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, no, absolutely it is a question. I mean you look at the Edmonton Forints and all the newspapers cover Edmonton Forints because it’s massive, it’s so important to that city, same in Winnipeg. And then you go to other cities Montreal there’s a few small papers that they review. It is hard to find that balance because I definitely see the concern, like here’s this artist who’s starting out, let’s say, and they get a bad review. Have we destroyed their confidence because we published a review, something that wasn’t quite just quite ready yet? And I think I’m happy that I saw more reviews this year. I don’t need them to be long, just like I think artists just honestly have been on the fringe tour. You just want a poll quote, you just want something, and if there’s stars, that’s good too, but like you just want a poll quote and just to get it is certainly helpful, so it’s good. I was happy to see the increased but smaller length reviews this year.

0:53:14 – Joshua Chong
Okay, good to know. Yeah, that’s great feedback. We’re trying to get feedback from theatre makers and artists about that, because we’re still figuring stuff out. Then we have like next stage coming up next month and all that, yeah, but I think as well, theatres are putting too I feel personally, even as one who works in mainstream either are putting too much focus on you know what the big critics and the big publications say, as if it’s the end, all be, all. It never was and especially now, it never is. I think there needs to be more focus on, like some, what some of the independent players are doing so the bloggers and all that there’s some great other online publications out there doing stuff and focus on the work that they’re doing and play it up as well, because the mainstream publications will never be able to cover everything in the city because there’s so much going on and it’s unfortunate. But I know that a lot of smaller publications bloggers, online media are filling, trying to fill those gaps.

0:54:23 – Phil Rickaby
Absolutely, absolutely. It’s hard because you know it’s not just. You know, honestly I’ve taken a pull quote from like the blog nobody’s heard of, just because it’s something on the poster. But like it’s hard because it’s so hard to get an audience to see a show. You need something and sometimes you could put like the name of like the star in there. Then it’s like it’s a bonus right, because somebody might come to see it because they recognize the newspaper. It’s such a hard thing because when you’re doing indie theatre it can be hard to get the audience out. But it’s the dichotomy, I think, between the media and the artist who’s. We have two different goals Exactly yeah, I get it.

0:55:09 – Joshua Chong
I see where artists are coming from, like they need to sell tickets, they need to get those bumps and seasons. Sometimes you know, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star has that weight to it when they get to pull the quote. But then for me and I think for most theatre critics, our goal is never to. Our goal is never to help sell tickets. Even if we’re raving about a show, it is to start in conversation with an audience and kind of start that dialogue about the piece that we’re seeing. But and sometimes it’s hard to reconcile both of those but I see where where theatre artists are coming from when they just need that pull quote right.

0:55:48 – Phil Rickaby
I do think that’s the conversation that sometimes needs to happen, because I think that artists often don’t understand the critics and what their goal is. They’re just thinking about how can I use this to sell tickets, and we don’t have that conversation back and forth between the artist and the the reviewer to say, no, I’m not trying to sell tickets for you, I’m just trying to talk about a show and talk about it, have a conversation that gets started and the artist is pulled in a different way. It’s one of those unfortunate things and I think that if we can get artists and reviewers together to talk more often which I think doesn’t happen very often it’s something that they could help us to understand each other’s differing points of view.

0:56:32 – Joshua Chong
I totally agree and I’m all for kind of breaking down that, that firewall between artists and critics that used to be there that whole. I think that was that that did quite a lot of harm, right, that firewall that you know as a critic allowed to interact with artists at all and then vice versa. But I think it’s important to have that conversation, that dialogue, because we’re still all in the same ecosystem after all. Of course there are boundaries like you shouldn’t be reviewing your family members show and all that. But I think it’s good in a way, that those barriers are starting to slowly break down and we’re having a bit more of those conversations about what the purpose of theatre criticism is, how it fits in the landscape, and especially nowadays when media and theatre is changing so rapidly.

0:57:21 – Phil Rickaby
Absolutely, absolutely. Well, Joshua, thank you so much for joining me for this conversation, thank you for the article and thank you for a great conversation. I really enjoyed this.

0:57:29 – Joshua Chong
Thanks so much for having me and, likewise, this was a fantastic conversation.

0:57:39 – Phil Rickaby
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 listen on Apple Podcasts, you can also leave a review. Those reviews and ratings help 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 with 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.