This past week in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a major victory for independent theatre funding- and the cultural value of the city- was announced. The Bus Stop Theatre Co-Op has been promised $250 000 by the Halifax Regional Municipality towards the company’s plans of purchasing and renovating the building that houses the theatre. While the campaign to purchase the estimated $750 000 property is not over yet, this is still a big win for one of Halifax’s last remaining independent theatre spaces, and one that gave me a sigh of relief from here in Montréal for the theatre that I still call home. But it also reminds me just how many have not had the same fortune with independent theatre funding.
It is no secret that a great many independent theatres struggle with keeping their doors open as of late. Crowd-funding campaigns, fundraisers, appeals for donations before and after shows, as well as the uphill battle of chasing government funding are all the reality for most independent organizations wishing to maintain a permanent physical space- a hot commodity in a climate full of housing crises and affordable neighbourhoods being clear-cut for trendy condos. The now necessary focus on these efforts to remain afloat sadly take away focus from the raison d’etre of any good theatre company- fostering the artistic voices of their communities. If a company needs to prioritize its resources for undertaking these drawn-out hardships, they’re not going to be able to offer as accessible a platform to those with nowhere else to take their art.
And the need for specific spaces is felt even more strongly by those in the performing arts. Sizeably open locations with neighbours or soundproofing design that won’t result in noise violation calls to the police are just two of the necessities for a performance space to run properly. Especially considering the vast majority of performance companies aren’t able to afford the full purchase of a property, it’s not the easiest sell to a potential lessor. Imagine telling your landlord that your production of Rent won’t be too loud, or that there’s only going to be one tap class per night in their building. If the choice is between that and a startup tech company in the space, they’ll likely go with the latter.
Looking away from the general difficulty of independent theatre funding, consider the ramifications that come from the severe lack of venues. It’s not that independent companies will simply have to appeal to larger regional theatres- their programs are already full. The works of these companies simply won’t have a home. Sure, this can result in interesting found-location theatre, necessity is the mother of invention, etc., but this should not have to be the case. So, the less independent performance spaces, the less independent voices. The less independent voices, the less representation in art. The less representation in art, the less support to communities needing it most. While many mid-to-large size companies are adopting a more progressive mandate, the fact is still that most are delivering par for the course theatre by status-quo playwrights that don’t actually challenge or benefit a city’s cultural climate. The narrower the spectrum of art becomes in an area, the worse we are for it.
I get extremely concerned at times at what the future could be for the artistic and communal wellbeing of my hometown when the welfare of our spaces is in jeopardy. It is not only theatre artists that are affected by this vanishing of venues: bands, film festivals, crafters, photographers, event planners, public speakers, community gatherings, school programs. These are all groups that can benefit tremendously from the openness of their local theatre. So if you happen to hear the call go out from your local venues, ask yourself what you might be able to do to support it, and what might be at stake if nobody does. But for the moment, I send out a beacon of joy and relief to the Bus Stop, and endless hope for independent theatre funding in every community.