Toronto
3 min

Back-to-basics theatre

There exists an acting troupe in the tiny southern Turkish town of Arslanköy that serves as a reminder of the universal appeal of theatre and its ability to change lives. In 2000, after seeing a play for the first time at a local high school, a group of middle-aged women there formed Arslanköy Women’s Theatre. Their company was recently profiled in The New Yorker, and a documentary about one of their shows, Women’s Outcry, was awarded prizes at the Trieste and Tribeca film festivals in 2006. Women’s Outcry, like most of the group’s plays, tackles social issues common in the region, including forced marriage and domestic abuse. In 2009 they performed Hamlet for people in their town. 

 
“It can be difficult to grasp just how remarkable these achievements are,” writes Elif Batuman in The New Yorker. “[They come] from a world where women don’t read books, control their finances, or leave home in the evenings.”
 
Batuman’s piece shows how theatre has remodelled these women’s lives, as well as the lives of those around them. The troupe now travels the region, presenting their plays in conjunction with women’s outreach organizations and health educators. 
 
Xtra recently looked at the mushrooming of similarly humble theatre groups in Toronto at a time when arts funding is perpetually at risk of being dumped out of government gravy boats. However, for all the recent hysteria from our shop-of-horrors city hall, there was some good news in January when council committed to a four-year plan to direct Toronto’s billboard tax to arts and culture — amounting to a $6-million investment in 2013. It’s a welcome injection, yet compared to most other Canadian cities, Toronto remains at the bottom in terms of per-capita arts investment. 
 
Possibly because it’s been starved for so long, theatre in Toronto is changing, says Bruce Barton, the associate director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies. Barton sees the city’s arts community redefining what an audience is, and what a night at the theatre looks like. This means the addition of new, diverse spaces, like those we profile in this issue. It also means an increase in interdisciplinary collaboration — what Barton calls “the most exciting work in the city.” 
 
In addition, he sees a dichotomy emerging that will surely affect Toronto’s theatre community in the coming years: the cost of performance spaces is rising at the same time as funding and audiences are decreasing. Add to this an escalation in the number of people wanting to make theatre, all competing for the same dwindling pool of funds. 
 
Through this lens, small start-up performance spaces like Videofag are revolutionary. I recently caught a show at this intimate Kensington Market spot, and it was blissful. I paid $5 for entry and $5 for a glass of red wine (served in a real wine glass!) and settled into a comfy chair for two hours of entertainment and interaction. It’s a cost-effective, back-to-basics approach that resonates — so distinct from the Cirque du Soleil–type spectacles many of the established companies compete to showcase. 
 
And for all the money spent, the theatre majors too often get it wrong, staging plays or musicals that fail to connect viscerally with audiences. It’s surprising in the same way we gawked when Rob Ford fell after a botched attempt to toss a football at a Grey Cup media event — aren’t they supposed to be the experts? 
 
Barton says it will be interesting to watch how the new arts money is spent, considering there is a precedent for such funds to go to those institutions that already have money. Yet in the current climate even the larger, established houses are feeling the pinch. 
 
The big guys should take notice of the type of magic being reawakened in some of the city’s smaller arts spaces. If fiscal bad news forces the government to play Medea again in a few years, theirs might just be the theatre model that triumphs.