Running the Show

Props, actors, lighting, sound, marketing; these are some of the small but numerous little details which turn a “piece” into a “show.” These things need hands to make them happen and cost money – sometimes a lot of money.

Many of the shows put on in the Yukon are created by home-grown production company run by your friends and neighbours. So how do small production companies without big budgets manage to make it work?

Most small theatre companies are run as non-profits, even the Yukon Arts Centre, says Arlin McFarlane, whose newly-created theatre company, Whitehorse Independent Theatre (WIT) recently debuted My Brain is Plastic, in Watson Lake. Being a non-profit entity, she says, is often part of the necessary criteria to apply for many levels of government grants and funding on which WIT and many other performance companies rely.

“Theatre is almost always run a non-profit, because that’s the way the business is set up,” she says.

Funding is often granted on a per project basis and delivered in lump sums so often companies must complete an application and wait to hear back from the funding bodies before they even know if there will be any money for their project at all, a process which is labour intensive, says McFarlane.

Funding is, of course, never guaranteed, although at the territorial level it appears to be flowing. According to statistics provided by Ross Burnet of the Arts Section of the Cultural Services Branch of the Yukon Government, of the 11 theatre groups that applied for territorial funding in 2014, nine of them were awarded it.

Waiting for this money is often taxing on resources and creatively difficult, says Genevieve Doyon, the co-artistic director of Open Pit Theatre. Like WIT, Open Pit receives no core funding – funding that would provide for day to day operating expenses – but is funded on a project-to-project basis, along with whatever money they generate with fundraising and giving workshops.

“It often takes three years to create a play. It’s a challenge to be productive as an artist, but still be there and give back to the community (between projects)… to stay active as a company and still create quality work. It’s a lot of balls to juggle,” says Doyon.

Doyon notes that it would be impossible to run Open Pit, “like a real business.”

“Tickets would have to be, like, $200 to pay our people if we tried to run it as a business and not as a non-profit,” she says.

Nonetheless, there are a few performance companies who do go the for-profit route, such as the recent start-up created by Kate Fitzgerald and Rebecca Reynolds, called Velvet Antler Productions. Velvet Antler is for-hire and focuses on Vaudeville and burlesque-style performances.

“It’s about being creative and versatile,” Reynolds says.

“We were answering to a hole in the market,” says Fitzgerald. “And it gives professional dancers a place to find paying work… there are a lot of high caliber dancers in Whitehorse and now people can hire them locally instead of bringing them up from down south.”

Both Reynolds and Fitzgerald have day jobs to make ends meet, showing that it’s hard for artists whether they are for-profit or not-for-profit. Velvet Antler also pays their performers.

“Unless we do a charity event,” Fitzgerald adds. “When we don’t get paid, we can’t pay our dancers.”

This sentiment – when you aren’t paid, you can’t pay others – is true of both non-profit and for-profit companies, and many not-for-profits rely heavily on volunteers. In fact, in order to be a non-profit company says McFarlane, you must have an unpaid board of directors, who are fiscally responsible for it, so companies like WIT and Open Pit Theatre are literally run by volunteers.

Volunteers are an essential part of running a non-profit theatre group, says Doyon, although she adds that Open Pit Theatre does pay what it can and offered the musicians at their most recent fundraising event a “humble honorarium.”

“I can’t even count the number of hours I work for free for Open Pit,” Doyon says. “Because we work for free so often, we really make a point to pay our artists, and as well as we can.

McFarlane notes that theatre companies like hers are, “the work of individuals who care,” and that, in the end, as an artist, she pays herself, “last, to ensure (she) has a balanced budget.”

With all these things to worry about, it’s easy for both non-profit and for-profit theatre companies to get discouraged, says Doyon, but it, “can’t always be about the money.”

“You have to remember it’s for your art,” she says. “And remember to make that rise above everything else.”

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