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July 9, 2008, by

How Luminato failed Toronto

By Michael Wheeler


You have a $10,000 a year budget for transportation.


A) Rent a Lamborghini Countache for ten days, and drive it around like hell. Walk everywhere the other 50.5 weeks of the year.

B) Get a sensible sedan on a 12-month lease.

C) Alternate between a transit pass and bicycle. Use the savings to do something interesting.

This was my response to a co-worker who had seen BlackWatch the previous evening. He told me that although they had initially agreed with my earlier Lumi-not-go post, after seeing the production he had come to a different conclusion about the value of the festival. Anything that brings something that good to Toronto must be a good thing.

I really like Lamborghini Countaches too. A long time ago I had a poster of one above my bed. But option A is clearly ludicrous. It’s the same reason why spending $21.5 million over three years on an international festival that bring some of the best artistic work in the world to the T Dot for a short, extremely well publicized run, is also a very poor, frankly ignorant, decision.

Theatre at every level but the best of the most established institutions is in bad shape in this city right now. There’s a myriad of reasons for this best saved for another conversation, but the short version is as follows:

Mike Daisey is right and it’s the same situation up here. Being a theatre artist has ceased to become a profession you can make anything approaching a respectable living at in Toronto for all but handful of our very top practitioners. These lucky folks are still often working 12-hour days and six-day weeks for much less than what any of our non-thesbian friends make. Many of them probably do a little catering on the side to make ends meet. The earth is scorched. Anyone who puts economic well-being in their top-ten list of personal priorities would not come within a stone’s throw of this scene.

Yes, the theatre has always been in trouble. Yes, making art is hard. But the current theatrical economy is a graveyard for anyone who may have to pay bills, rent or student loans. We can see this in what has become of our grassroots institutions, places where the new generation of artists rehearse and perform:

Artword Theatre – gone.
Alchemy Theatre – gone.
Poor Alex Theatre – gone.
Equity Showcase Theatre – going, soon to be gone.

Not only are there few resources to create work, there is no longer anywhere affordable to put shows on.

In the wake of this grim reality, a couple of corporate head honchos who seem entirely unaware of any of this, waltzing in and deciding that they know best with what to do with the first increase in public money that’s been available to the performing arts in some time is a recipe for disaster. Lavishing much of those resources on smash hit shows from other places – a fellow indie theatre producer described it to me as, “putting makeup on a corpse.”

The Scottish Youth Theatre preps a new generation of performers.

Of course BlackWatch was amazing. Not only is Scotland, at roughly the size of New Brunswick home to the world’s premiere Fringe Festival, it has 300 youth theatres. Just for youth. The very best end up at the national chapter, The Scottish Youth Theatre. Many in the BlackWatch cast went through that system. The show represents the tip of a very large iceberg. The country has invested heavily in value of theatre and it is paying dividends – literally. It gets to tour to high-paying international festivals that rent the tips of other peoples icebergs because they don’t want the trouble of building their own.

My original idea for this piece was to throw out a number of options as to how this money could be used in different scenarios. Instead I settled on the 2007 Toronto Arts Council 2007 numbers because similar to Luminato, the TAC funds: Community Arts, Dance, Music, Literature and Theatre in Toronto. It’s a fair comparison. Well, not entirely fair. One does 10 days of programming and one does 365.

In 2007, The Toronto Arts Council distributed $9,738,829 – $247, 725 of which was for theatre project grants (which incidentally is the approximate value of one Lamborghini Countach) to be divided amongst 51 successful applicants. An even more interesting number is: $2,152,783. This is the total amount in project grants in all disciplines that were distributed, when you take out grants for operating funds and to large institutions.

What does it mean when you compare this to Luminato’s $21.5 Million over three years?

A) If we gave Luminato’s money to the TAC we could increase the TAC budget by more than 66%. This is a pedestrian statistic, but the impact of this would be massive.

B) You could more than double the amount of successful project grant applicants and double the amount each project receives.*

*$2,152,783 in project grants + 1 year of Luminato’s $21.5 million = $9,319,449.70
Twice as many project grants =$ 4,305,566 x 2 to double the grants = $8,611,132.00

Twice as many projects with twice as much municipal funding.

It would permanently change how art was created in this town. How much more, better work would go on year-round? How many artists would be able to stop working as waiters and temps and actually practice their craft for at least a couple of months? How many audience members and patrons could we get excited about this thing again by actually having the cash to create this massive wave of new, plausibly funded projects? How many of them could potentially turn in to the next BlackWatch?

Take Unspun Theatre’s production of Minotaur: It was one of my favorite shows of the year. It was new, exciting, smart; full of young artists taking big risks. Well received, well reviewed. I really think they ought to take it on tour. The production received a total of $14,000 in public funding (through OAC and Canada Council). With Luminato’s $21.5 million money you could create 1,500 Minotaurs.

In any case, our government opted instead to give it to their friends for a ten-day play date. They’re likely at their cottages in Muskoka right now talking about how lovely the whole thing was with the glowing balls in Dundas Square (which is usually so dirty) and chuckling about how many times they heard the c-word in Blackwatch. Meanwhile we sit here in the heat wondering how we’ll ever make his thing work again. The opportunity was there, it’s gone, it sucks.

An Olive Branch:
Alright Luminato, I promise to stop hating on you, and all you have to do is one thing:

Return the interest you’re going to make on keeping our extra $15 million in the bank “for the future” back to Toronto’s artists. We’re frigging starving down here, and it’s breadcrumbs really, but we’ll take it. If we trust the math put forth by an anonymous commenter on my original post, that would be $450,000 a year. It would really help. It’s almost double what was distributed for theatre projects last year by the TAC. That’s two Lamborghini Countaches for those of you playing along at home.

Correction. My original Lumi-not-go post incorrectly stated Luminato CEO Janice Price was American. This is not true. Although she comes to us from The Kimmel Centre in Philadelphia, The Lincoln Centre in New York and is a previous vice president of The Shakespeare Association of America, she is in fact a Canadian. My bad.

This is the fourth and final in a series of four blog posts on theatre by Praxis Theatre Co-Artistic Director Michael Wheeler.

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  1. Michael says:

    Fantastic post Mike!

  2. shira says:

    thanks for this, it’s really wonderful. how can i help get the people who need to read this to read this?

  3. MK Piatkowski says:

    Mike, I utterly disagree with you on this. Yes, we need more funding. Yes, what Luminato got was disgusting. But to say that we should shun all outside work is insularism bullshit of the highest order. Seeing Black Watch has made me a better artist.

    And how hypocritical is it to say that you want Minotaur to tour but then to say that Black Watch shouldn’t have toured here?

    Hell, Australia gets less arts money than we do yet they manage to have international festivals and local work co-exist. And you know what? Their artists are better for it.

    I’m sorry Mike. I’m infuriated right now. And I was so looking forward to this article too.

  4. ian mackenzie says:

    Hey Mike,

    Normally, I’m pretty skeptical when artists wheel out the tired old no-money complaint. I mean, if we’re going to make work within the capitalist system, let’s stop complaining about lack of funds and start using business savvy to make the system work for us.

    That said, your two-post critique of Toronto’s Luminato arts festival is well thought out and persuasive.

    And I’d take 1,500 Minotaurs over three Lumi-not-gos any day. Where do I sign?

  5. mike says:

    Hey MK,

    It’s okay to be infuriated. It’s better to be talking about these things.

    I trained in the US and Russia, so I am actually all for more contact with international artists. I do think they should tour here. More contact with the outside world is a good thing. What I don’t understand is why they need public money to do it. And why now? Midsummer and Black Watch could easily tour here commercially.

    I also agree that there is a benefit to artists by experiencing great works. I will argue though that there is an even greater benefit to actually creating work.

    In general my argument stems from having that opinion, and the fact that there isn’t really any opportunity to do so here outside of The Fringe, Summerworks etc. We have no infrastructure other than what we cobble together ourselves. It needs to be addressed.

  6. MK Piatkowski says:

    Yes, those shows could tour commercially, but would they have been accessible to artists? Let me use Nicholas Nickleby as a contrast. I got to see the show because I worked at the theatre, but otherwise the cheapest option was $50 tickets, which until the end of the run was at the back of the balcony. Having seen the show from the whole theatre, that was the absolutely worst place to see it because you couldn’t see the actors faces at all. And the whole production was absolutely overwhelmed in the POW – it really needed to play in a smaller space.

    And if we leave it to the commercial sector to bring us that work, will we even be able to see it? I had a storyteller friend who desperately wanted to see NN but had a serious cash flow situation. Thankfully I got comps so she could go. Otherwise she would have missed it.

    The only reason that NN even made it here was because Mirvish had the subscription season to support it. But they’ll only take a risk like that maybe once per season. After the small houses for Sweeney and for NN, will they take that risk again? It’ll be up to Spring Awakening, I think – a show they only programmed because of the DanCap threat. But then again, musicals are an easier sell. Also notice what DanCap’s 2009 season has in it. Or really, just notice how freakin’ safe it is.

    I was able to get $20 rush tickets for both Black Watch and Midsummers. For Midsummers I was 10 rows back, dead centre. Didn’t miss anything. Would those tickets have been available for a commercial run? Nicholas Nickleby would tell us no.

    So no, I don’t think we can trust the commercial sector to bring us these shows.

    I’ve seen arts festivals do two other things. One is bring in international artists to work with local artists. World Stage used to do this. If Luminato brought in Peter Brook to work with us, who wouldn’t be jumping at the chance?

    The other is commission large-scale work, which is what Luminato says they’re going to do with a lot of that money they got. This is where the Australian companies have really benefited from their festivals.

    Yes, there is a great benefit to creating work and we absolutely need more resources to do it. I don’t dispute that, and some of that money definitely should have come down to us. But I just can’t buy into your idea that we shouldn’t have an arts festival.

    Part of what I’m seeing, and it does disturb me, is that more and more film is being used as a point of reference and inspiration for what is on our stages. I’m not saying that is bad of itself, but if we’re not balancing that with seeing innovative theatre work as well, then are we doing theatre anymore?

    You got to train in the US and Russia. That’s great. I desperately want to train in London. But I have no idea how to get the cash to do it. So for me, things like Luminato are what I have to grow in a way that doing a Summerworks show last year didn’t give me.

    I completely agree with you that we need a better infrastructure to create work. I would love to see what we could do as a community if we felt we had no restrictions. But I don’t believe in an either/or. I want both.

  7. mike says:

    Hey MK,

    You comments send me in a number of directions:

    1 Luminato did their damnedest not to publicize their arts worker tickets available at TO TIX. Almost all of us only found out about them after the good folks at TAPA started sending emails 1/2 way through the festival.

    2 I’m not against international festivals as a rule. Just giving this much money, to this festival, at this time, in this place. I’m glad you brought up World Stage. They already do this very well.

    3 I’m also glad you brought up Australian Festivals. I had the opportunity to have a couple of pints at the Crooked Star with Kristy Edmunds, Artistic Director of The Melbourne International Arts Festival when she was here this winter, through the Harbourfront/Theatre Centre Pitch-Fest. Mostly she asked about how our local artists were finding the resources to make new work and where we were going to get our new audiences from? I had no answers for her.

    4 If the trade off is a vibrant, and functioning theatre community, but you have to save up $50 to see a Mirvish show, I am so alright with that.

  8. shama shima says:

    Mike, I agree, with you that Luminato received a lot of money and it does not seem fair. However, I would not bite my nose off to spite my face, so instead, I decided to see how my tax dollars were being ‘wasted’.

    Friday, June 6th, I decided to go to Yonge/Dundas Square since it was close to my apartment and it was free! To my delight, I saw this little girl, named Nicki Yanofsky, who could sing like Ella Fitzgerald. The street was alive and filled with emotion. Everyone was laughing and dancing on the Square! For a minute, I forgot I was in Toronto, this seemed much more like a festival in Montreal were the streets were so vibrant.

    I was so thrilled, I bought a ticket to Canadian Songbook at Massey Hall. I thought I was witnessing possibly the beginning of a career of a new superstar. I am the first to admit, I know nothing about technique, or talent, but I knew I was enjoying it and so was the rest of the audience. Nicki did not disappoint, but she only did 2 songs.

    At Canadian songbook, I was delighted to see another young Canadian talent named Merika Bernacki. She is about 17 and did a renditition of Oh Canada that brought the house down. I began to think, maybe this festival will help launch the careers of some young Canadian talent.

    I had heard great things about Blackwatch, so Thursday night, I bought a ticket. The theatre was Varsity arena, which was very warm and we sat in plastic chairs which were very uncomfortable. As the show progressed, it felt like I was experiencing war! I now truly believe that my discomofort added to the experience. Being part Scottish, made it easy for me to understand the accents, and by the end of the play, I could not hold back my tears. It was nearly embarrassing. I have never been so moved in my 30 years of theatre going.
    I fully understand that because of the language, it would have been very difficult for a mainstream Arts promoter like Mirvish productions to mount such a play. Hmmm… maybe the $1 of my taxes that went to this festival was worth it?
    Friday night, I went to see the Mark Morris dancers, since they received rave reviews. I am not a dance fan, but I went for my partner. The show was an experience I will not forget. Again I am not a dancer, or claim to know antything about dance, but to watch this group of dancers all perform with such grace, and being in perfect sync with the other dancers and the music, it was easy for me to recognize that this the the creme de la creme.
    Again, I was amazed to find out that the Mark Morris dancers had not been in Canada for more than 20 years. I began to think, well, maybe we really need this festival, and perhaps my thinking was a bit narrow minded to consider that if something cannot survive without being subsidized by the government, then it should not exist. I truly feel, Luminato enriched my life.

    So, in conclusion, yes, Luminato did receive a lot of money, but by the end of the festival, I actually did not begrudge them a penny of the money the government gave them. By going to events, I also learned that this is not their only source of funding! Although Luminato has not sold out to their sponsors like some other festivals, it receives major funding from major corporations and private donors. The sponsors and donors were duly thanked, but Luminato is what I remember, not that L’Oreal was the major sponsor. Bravo Luminato, maybe the goverment has actually wisely spent my tax dollars? Seems to good to be true…. and yes, I can see Mike is doing his best to ruin my 10 days of fun, so it probably won’t last.

  9. MK Piatkowski says:

    Hey Mike, enjoying the debate.

    1. I actually found out about the arts worker tickets in the back page of the program. I can understand Luminato not wanting to publicize it because if people heard about it through arts organizations, then you could guarantee they’re actually arts workers.

    2. The problem is that World Stage nearly died 5 years ago and even now is on a form of life support. Tina has done a fantastic job of programming but when you look at the scope of the shows she’s brought in, it’s obvious she has a very limited budget to work with. We can’t count on Harbourfront to do this alone.

    Nice to see you come out for international festivals. From your post, you presented the completely opposite viewpoint.

    3. I wanted to chat with Kristy, but I was stuck working that whole weekend at the POW. I’m envious!

    As for the resources, that’s what Luminato says they’re going to use most of the money for. I’m prepared to wait and see what happens in the next year.

    4. $50 to see an internationally acclaimed theatre production or groceries/TTC/rent? Is your vibrant/functioning theatre community going to resolve that dilemma? Because until it does, it becomes an either/or situation, which points to public funding to subsidize tickets.

  10. mike says:

    no shama(?) you misjudge my intent. i want to prolong your fun. all year long. if your money was spent more wisely you could have those sorts of wonderful experiences whenever you liked. by local artists and international ones who would come here without the conservative dancaps and mirvishes because we would be a destination for that sort of thing. more importantly we would have created an audience base that supported it.

    and yeah, it better not be their only source of funding – if you already have 21.5 mill in the bank and you can’t find a corporate sponsor to jump in bed with you, well that’s not possible because you have to be pretty machiavellian to pull off what they did in the first place.

    also. i suspect you work for/are associated with Luminato. you seem a little too knowledgeable about artist names, dates and reviews. tell us who you are and prove me wrong. i’m wrong all the time.

  11. mike says:

    yes MK i agree. it is a good debate and i am enjoying it too. i believe we have distilled a long conversation to one key question:

    would it be better to have:

    a plausible funding model for the arts in Toronto, but also have issues with high ticket prices to big budget international shows


    a wasteland of an economy for local artists (and audiences) but access to reasonably-priced world class performances for 10 days of the year.

    i am proposing an either/or. you can’t rent the lamborghini and have money left over for the bus pass.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Mike, my main point was that even though you seem bitter that the money was not allocated differently, you missed out by not going to see Luminato.

    My real name is not shama, and I don’t reveal myself on blogs. I don’t work for Luminato, I am a computer geek, who loves the theatre, reads newspapers and I have a good memory.

    Maybe one day I will check out your work one day to see how a much smaller portion of my tax dollars are being spent. Are you currently working on anything?

  13. mike says:

    Cool Shamanonymous. You seem legit.

    Yes, maybe I should have jumped in the lamborghini for the ten days of unadulterated fun, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

    Praxis has put on a play every summer since 2003 – but not this year. It’s too bad you haven’t seen one, because every single production was unfunded by any of your tax dollars. You could just sit back and enjoy it, unencumbered by considerations of whether it was a good public investment .

    If you wanted to do some math in your head, you could do this though:

    Our last 2 fringe productions did really well, so much so that everyone made around $250!

    Around 100 hours of work (minimum) per participant= Working @ $2.50/hour. So if we lost you for a couple minutes in the middle of the show, and you wanted to consider the broad economic forces giving value to the work, the real question would be:

    How much is the sweat equity that these people put into this, just because they love doing it so much, subsidizing the cost of entertainment in Toronto?

    Sorry, I digress, our next show is called Stranger. It’s an original adaptation of L’Etranger by Camus coming this winter. Although all 3 workshops done over the last year were unfunded, the production does have some public funding, accounting for 10% of the total budget. Please come check it out. We love new audience members.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Great, I will look for it. I read L’Etranger in French class more years ago than I care to remember.

    Maybe then, I will reveal my true identity to you, since I know who you are!

    Good luck.

  15. MK Piatkowski says:

    And I believe you can have the bus pass and still get to rent the Lamborghini. So I guess we’re at an impass.