Struggling Canadian theater companies received $15 million donation from Slaight

Theater companies struggling to fill vacant seats say they hope a recently announced multimillion-dollar donation to key players in the sector will give them the boost they need.

The Slaight Family Foundation announced Wednesday that it will donate $15 million to 22 Canadian theater companies, which have failed during the COVID-19 pandemic. As live streaming venues, they were among the first to close and the last to open due to public health measures aimed at controlling viral outbreaks.

And even after restrictions were largely lifted across Canada, industry players say it has been difficult to get audiences back on stage.

“We have all become, over the last two years, much more aware of what we are spending our money on, the risks we are taking, if we are going to go out in public and continue to risk contracting COVID. The math is much more complicated now than it was before,” said Gideon Arthurs, general manager of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theater Company.

The company is set to receive a $1.5 million share of the Slaight Family Foundation donation, which Arthurs says will allow Soulpepper to take some eye-catching creative risks.

« People come out when they know the thing is…really a Capital E’ Experience.’ And that’s what we need to do as theater companies,” Arthurs said.

That could mean a production with a big cast, or it could mean tackling a big idea, he said.

« Brave plays, speaking truth to power, helping people whose voices have been silenced to speak out, » Arthurs said.

The donation will also allow passionate professionals to return to the vocation they see as more than a job, he added.

“It wasn’t just a matter of business interruption. You know, nobody works in the performing arts because it pays so well,” he said. “It’s a job that people do because it’s what feeds their soul.

« For a few years, so many people in the industry sat at home wondering if the thing they were most passionate about would ever come back. »

Gary Slaight, the broadcasting executive who now oversees the Slaight Family Foundation, said he was convinced to give the cash injection after seeing how the industry was struggling.

« We believe that all industries in the arts sector should have the opportunity to survive, » he said.

« The end goal was to create productions that theaters could show on stage so they could attract people to watch the plays. »

For the Obsidian Theater Company and its artistic director, Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, the $250,000 donation will mean some breathing room.

« We’re just thrilled to have the opportunity to dream and go out of a survival mode of trying to keep the art form alive…to have this money that we didn’t expect, » a- she declared.

Tindyebwa Otu said the company was pleased to see the pandemic restrictions lifted over the past year as she believed things would return to some semblance of normality.

Instead, the unpredictable virus added to the stress of live theater.

« You constantly pray that you don’t have to cancel a show or stop rehearsals, » she said. « And there’s so much uncertainty, in terms of not knowing what might happen. »

One of their productions had an outbreak in the rehearsal room, Tindyebwa Otu said.

« It was really difficult to be in a position then where you had to think very quickly about how not to lose the job – getting understudy and cutting or canceling performances. »

Tindyebwa Otu said the work of a culturally specific company like Obsidian is particularly important because its mandate is to produce plays while developing playwrights and uplifting black theater professionals, and a gift like the one they receive is rare.

« It’s so huge for us, this funding, because as a cultural organization, we historically haven’t had access to private donors, » she said. “We do not have these numbers in our contact list. It’s really exciting, and I hope it’s the start of a new chapter for the company.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on September 28, 2022.


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