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UPDATE: SummerWorks pulls in $34,000 in donations after losing grant

Annual theatre festival scrambled after losing Heritage Canada grant weeks before opening

Ecce Homo Theatre's The Pastor Phelps Project was a major hit at the 2008 SummerWorks Festival and helped to launch the company in Toronto. Credit: Ecce Homo Theatre
The SummerWorks Theatre Festival announced that it has received more than $34,000 in donations from more than 400 donors less than two weeks after announcing that Heritage Canada had rejected its $48,000 funding request for this year.
 
Heritage Canada’s decision left the festival scrambling for cash with only six weeks to go before the festival was set to begin.
 
SummerWorks sent out a call for donations from its past participants and patrons, asking for minimum donations of $21 to celebrate its 21st year. In response, several high-profile artists announced large donations to the festival and asked their friends to contribute as well.
 
Among those who pledged $1,000 were Mark Ellis and Stephanie Morgenstern, the creators of the TV show Flashpoint. Ellis and Morgenstern met at SummerWorks 15 years ago and challenged their show’s fans on Twitter to donate to the festival, promising to raffle off an autographed script to the donors.
 
Thanks to the fundraising, SummerWorks is able to continue its national series programming and will reinstate funding that had been cut from its advertising and outdoor events budget. The previously announced ticket-price hike will remain in place as the festival continues to cushion the festival against the instability of future grant revenue.
 

SummerWorks has also announced that it hopes to continue its fundraising efforts year-round and is looking for a large, long-term financial sponsor.

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JULY 4: The annual SummerWorks Theatre Festival was left scrambling for funds after a phone call from Heritage Canada informed the organization that it would not be receiving a $48,000 grant just six weeks before the festival is set to launch.

 
SummerWorks had received a grant from the Canada Arts Presentation Fund for each of the last five years, and it came to represent about 20 percent of its total budget. The annual festival presents independent theatre productions from across Canada and is widely seen as an incubator of innovative Canadian theatre. It also has a reputation for presenting politically challenging and queer theatre works.
 
Last summer, a series of articles in the Sun chain of magazines called SummerWorks’ government funding into question in reaction to a play it had programmed, called Homegrown, which, the articles said, offered a “sympathetic portrayal” of one of the accused in the Toronto 18 terrorism plot.
 
A spokesperson at the Prime Minister’s Office said at the time, “We are extremely disappointed that public money is being used to fund plays that glorify terrorism.”
 
The Sun later reported that SummerWorks’ application to Heritage Canada arrived weeks past the deadline and was backdated by Heritage Canada staffers so that it would qualify for grants. SummerWorks’ artistic director Michael Rubenfeld disputes the Sun’s account, and says the application was only one week late.
 
Rubenfeld also says that Heritage Canada did not give him a clear reason for the rejection, other than that the department was looking for “tangible results and value for money.”
 
A spokesperson for Heritage Canada refused to give Xtra a clear reason for the rejection but did note that the department had decided to fund a major new festival in Toronto this year: the Canada Walk of Fame Festival, which received $500,000.
 
Many in the media and theatre community have speculated that the decision relates directly to the controversies the grant generated last year in the rightwing newspapers.
 
The ongoing controversy fuelled a sharp response from artists and supporters who campaigned for private donations to replace the missing funding. More than 400 donations came in to SummerWorks’ online donation portal over the course of a week, ranging from a minimum of $21 to a handful of $1,000 donations. The festival is still accepting donations.
 
“The thing about SummerWorks is that the majority of the Canadian theatre population has been somehow directly linked to the festival, so the value of the festival is firsthand to a lot of people,” says Rubenfeld. “There are people from all over the country who got their start at SummerWorks whose careers wouldn’t exist without it.”
 
But Brendan Healy, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s artistic director, suggests that the funding decision may simply be a result of more companies applying for fewer resources.
“There’s much more competition because of the cuts to other programs,” he says.
 
Buddies also had a grant application for its Rhubarb Festival rejected by Heritage Canada this year. That application went to a different program, called Building Communities Through Arts and Heritage. As a result, Buddies shortened the festival from three weeks to two weeks.
 
“The reason why was not an issue of censorship,” he says of Buddies’ application. “They love the artistic things we do. What we failed on was the number of volunteer hours and volunteer engagement.”
 
SummerWorks is also planning to cut back its advertising budget, eliminate some planned outdoor events and raise ticket prices from $10 to $15 to balance its budget.
 
These moves are worrisome to some of the small theatre companies who are producing shows in this year’s festival. They depend on the festival’s group marketing to drive audiences to their shows, and they usually take home 85 percent of the box office for their work. Rubenfeld has confirmed that the additional $5 on each ticket will not be shared with the producing companies, in effect reducing their share of the box office while making it harder to sell tickets.
 
But artists appear to be concerned mostly about the long-term health of the festival.
 
“SummerWorks occupies a unique and important location in the arts scene in Canada,” says Alistair Newton, whose company Ecce Homo Theatre has produced shows at the festival for the last three seasons. “It’s a feeder to a lot of the independent theatres. There’s a certain kind of exposure that comes from presenting at SummerWorks that is essential to emerging artists.”
 
While Newton says he won’t self-censor his work in the face of what may be politically charged funding decisions, the implications for the arts may be dire.
 
“If they are making decisions based on [the Homegrown controversy], it is kind of a scary thing,” he says. “That kind of censorship at the state level is always the death of the arts.”