The show can’t go on

Red Deer’s theatre scene is drying up because local venues are either too expensive, too big, or too booked up for smaller-budget productions, say some directors.

Red Deer’s theatre scene is drying up because local venues are either too expensive, too big, or too booked up for smaller-budget productions, say some directors.

“I’ve been at this a decade and it’s never been worse than it is now,” said Matt Grue, artistic director of Ignition Theatre, who cancelled last year’s season because of a lack of affordable, accessible venue space.

“We had two productions lined up and ready to go, but we could not make dates work at the Scott Block.”

With other facilities being “astronomically expensive” to rent, the affordable Scott Block is getting a lot of use by local companies, added Grue.

Jenna Goldade of Against the Wall Theatre and Bull Skit, who operates the privately owned venue, is working towards a goal of having something happening most weekends at the Scott Block, including wedding receptions, meetings and conferences, and performances by both in-town and out-of-town musicians and entertainers.

Grue noted Bull Skit sketch comedy and improv, Red Deer Players, Tree House Youth Theatre, Slumland Productions and other troupes are all booking the downtown space, so it’s difficult to get in on consecutive weekends — “and by difficult, I mean literally impossible.”

The venue situation has caused Grue to also pass on having a 2016-17 Ignition Theatre season.

With the “battle” for space adding to his struggle to find large enough audiences for Ignition’s cutting-edge shows, he wonders whether Red Deer has much appetite for semi-professional theatre. The Red Deer College theatre graduate, who still laments the 2011 closure of the private The Matchbox theatre due to a lack of municipal funding support, plans to instead focus on making a local feature film.

Lori Lane, a member of Red Deer Players, believes problems around finding performance and rehearsal spaces have resulted in far fewer theatre options than when Red Deer’s population was smaller and people still turned up in droves to watch large-cast community musicals, such as Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar.

“We used to have the kind of shows that would excite people,” said Lane. “But there’s no way we could cover the costs now …”

She carried out a personal survey to prove rental fees have become a big hurdle. Lane called each venue to see if she could book a local space over three consecutive weekends for staging a local non-profit group’s production.

She wasn’t surprised to find that the only real option was the Scott Block.

Only about $7 of each $25 theatre ticket would go towards paying for the Scott Block venue. By comparison, the expense of renting the 300-seat theatre in Red Deer College’s Welikoklad Event Centre would eat up $20 of each $25 theatre ticket, said Lane. “It’s three times the cost.”

But the trouble with the Scott Block is that a three-weekend block of time needs to be booked about 10 months in advance, she added — long before most volunteer-run theatre groups can solidify their production plans.

All of Red Deer College’s facilities were found by Lane to be too expensive for extended theatrical runs. The RDC Arts Centre, Margaret Parsons Theatre and Studio A are also nearly booked up with college-related events, such as student and faculty recitals and plays.

Jason Frizzell, dean of Red Deer College’s School of Creative Arts, confirmed teaching and learning “takes priority over trying to encourage community use” of RDC facilities.

As for the time that’s left over for non-school uses, Frizzell maintained rental costs are comparable to that of similar venues in other cities.

Although he declined to release rental amounts for RDC venues because of many variables, online price lists can be found for comparable venues at the University of Calgary. The 500-seat University Theatre and 384-seat Eckhardt-Gramatte Hall each have a one-day single performance fee of $1,100, as well as an additional fee of $550 for a second performance or rehearsal held on the same day.

“The rates for all our facilities are (determined) on a case-by-case basis,” said Frizzell, noting the price depends on who the user is, what kind of times are needed, and how much technical support is written into the deal. Fees must cover the salaries of unionized college technicians and security staff — which are needed to be on hand for liability reasons, he added. “We try to be competitive. We do market comparisons.”

The most underused RDC facility is the downtown Welikoklad Event Centre’s 300-seat theatre, which Frizzell said still needs to be properly marketed. Lane doesn’t know why this facility, an ideal size for most local theatre productions, can’t be made more accessible to the community.

Some Red Deer artists have suggested the City of Red Deer offer to subsidize the rental cost of this facility for local groups. But neither the college nor the city have discussed this option.

Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer suggests it could be a less-than-ideal arrangement since the city wouldn’t have control over what happens with a college-owned venue. Although city officials answer regular calls of complaint from the community about the high cost of RDC facilities, Veer said they can only pass these concerns on to the college.

“We can’t make RDC change its rates,” said Tara O’Donnell, the city’s culture superintendent, who sits on the board that negotiates public access with college representatives.

The city does have more control over the first of two smaller venues that Lane also checked out — the Snell Auditorium in the Red Deer Public Library. But she found both the Snell and the Nickle Studio (upstairs at Central Alberta Theatre’s studio) had serious space limitations for theatrical productions. “You can’t sell enough tickets to make up your costs.”

As for Red Deer’s Second World War-era Memorial Centre, operated by Central Alberta Theatre, Lane concluded the 700-seat venue is too big and too booked up. It can also be expensive. The rental rate ranges from $1,200 a day for out-of-town users to a daily $400 minimum for local non-profit groups.

But that minimum rate could be applied for the entire three-week period, even if a play was only running Thursday to Saturday for three consecutive weeks. Lane was told that with a theatre set taking up the entire stage, the venue might not be usable for other groups for the dates between performances.

In that case, she said, “we can’t even consider a three-week block.”

The Memorial Centre’s technical/operations manager Darrel Dixon said he tries to work out rates to fit small budgets without depriving the non-profit CAT of rental revenue. Dixon believes the $400 daily minimum wouldn’t be too big a burden for non-profit groups that can fill the whole Memorial Centre with a paying audience. But for groups that can’t, it would be a challenge, he admitted.

Lane feels Red Deer should follow the example of many smaller communities, such as Medicine Hat, St. Albert and Morinville and build its own municipal performing arts space. The Red Deer Symphony, which now uses the 600-seat RDC Arts Centre Mainstage, has also been lobbying for the construction of an acoustically excellent theatre so the orchestra can expand its audience.

Even the general Red Deer populace put a new performing arts centre at No. 4 on a local wish list for capital projects.

In spite of this, Red Deer City Council still pushed the project way down its own priority list, to a decade or more in the future.

But a feasibility study could happen much sooner. Veer said local arts groups will have a say starting in 2017, when the city starts a community consultation process.

If enough public demand is shown for a new performing arts centre, she added it could be moved up the list.

Lane hopes to get local arts groups rallying for the project for the sake of a more artistically vibrant community.