W(h)ither a National Theatre? (corrected below)

The impetus for this post comes from Michael Wheeler (Artistic Director of the politically minded Praxis Theatre Company), whose new project is called SpiderWebShow, described as “A theatrical space where Canada, the Internet and performance minds intersect” (the absent Oxford comma is, I assure you, thoroughly sic). Both Mr. Wheeler & Praxis are rare creatures of at least the Torontonian theatre scene that I know, in that they are interested not just in the creation of performances, but in seriously pursuing the “Why” of theatre in Canada. Practitioners too often leave these questions to academics – Holger Syme, for example – & adopt a sort of “See No Evil” attitude which ultimately manifests in the work. Not to say the work is bad, per se; merely that a lot of times it seems disconnected from a public discourse about theatrical teleology. Even in the way plays are marketed (& reviewed) they adopt the qualities of commercial products, of things which are bought & sold but not necessarily important, vital, or immediate.

Apropos, SpiderWebShow’s media arm, #CdnCult Times, asks:  “Is it possible to have a National Theatre of Canada?” Which to me is as much to ask, would such an institution help entrench the value of theatre into Canadian culture? In much the same way that the UK has (for better or worse) subsumed a proto-mythological Shakespeare into its national identity (a ticklish phrase, “national identity”; I’ll get to that in a bit), would it be possible for a National Theatre of Canada to make theatre part of the Canadian zeitgeist, & thereby increase its (i.e., theatre’s) production, support, & audience?

These are, at least, the questions I infer from Wheeler’s, & they’re hardly original ones. The issue of a National Theatre of Canada (hereafter referred to as NTC), is a perennial one in this country. The fact of the matter is, we Canadians are deeply insecure about most things, & our theatre scene (I’m being hugely Toronto-centric in this, note; Toronto’s all I know, really), rubbed ragged by putative audience’s defection (c.f. Brendan Healey’s fairly bellicose op-ed a few months ago) has an inferiority complex for which “Napoleonic” is putting it mildly. I can see the appeal of an NTC; it has the ring of something official about it, a lovely patina of government-funded love & attention. But it is my contention that these are illusory charms, the sigh of an oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless circumstance.

One good place to start w/r/t a national theatre is with a pretty basic question: What, exactly, is a national theatre? What distinguishes such a thing from any other kind of non-profit theatre? This turns out to be a difficult question to answer. I think a pretty fair précis of the concept might be: a permanent theatre company which is funded by the federal government, given its own space, & whose design is to be a sort of avatar of the country’s theatrical aesthetic.

The problem with this definition is that it tells us almost nothing. Certainly, the federal government’s monies do nothing to make a theatre “national.” This point is almost always overlooked. If the problem were merely one of government funding, than frankly we already have a national theatre. In fact, we have several. Let me demonstrate.

According to the Royal National Theatre’s 2011-2012 Annual Report, the “government subsidy” (Arts Council England) grants accounts for 23% of the Theatre’s revenue for that year. The total revenue breakdown is as thus:

Royal National Theatre

  1. ACE grants: 23%
  2. Fundraising: 8%
  3. Box Office: 25%
  4. War Horse London & International: 22%
  5. Trading & other income: 13%
  6. Other UK transfers: 9%

This hardly amounts to depending on government funds for fiscal solvency. For the sake of comparison, take a look at the revenue streams for our own National Arts Centre, selected because it has, for all intents & purposes, tried awfully hard to brand itself as the closest thing to a NTC.

National Arts Centre

  1. Parliamentary appropriations: 48%
  2. Commercial operations: 20%
  3. Programming: 16%
  4. Amortization of capital funding: 7%
  5. Grant from the NAC Foundation: 7%
  6. Investments and other: 1%
  7. Facility fees: 1%

Yeah, you’re reading that right; as a percentage of overall revenue, the National Arts Centre actually absorbs more in federal funding than the UK’s Royal National Theatre. There are probably many reasons for this; for one thing, there’s every indication that Brits go to the theatre a great deal more than Canadians do, & so box office revenue is somewhat more reliable. However, if our primary questions are about the “What” and “Why” of a NTC, this shouldn’t be much of a concern. The fact of the matter is if we’re going to seriously consider creating such an establishment, we have to acknowledge the fact that as a means of investing in Canadian theatre, it is neither new nor particularly innovative. It would at best be a rebranding of existing funding structures, a rehashing of old (& decidedly conservative) attitudes towards public monies for the arts. It would be a measure of affect, rather than effects.

Which isn’t to say that all theatres in Canada necessarily function this way; the Stratford Festival, for example only receives 5% of its budget from government funding, & Toronto’s Soulpepper,  a mere 8% (don’t quote me on that number, I’m working off of memory & can’t find the salient data online). But Canadian Stage gets somewhere in the neighborhood of 30% of its operating revenues in grants, & the Tarragon Theatre sits at 35% according to its website.

It (hopefully) goes without saying that all of these theatres have relatively distinct mandates, audience capacities & operating costs. What I think is germane about noting these figures simply this: a national theatre is not structurally any different than any other non-profit theatre.

Moreover, why are we talking about a National Theatre of Canada? Even in most countries where they’ve found national theatres congenial, there is not this weird idea that there could (or should) be any one particular theatre to be representative. In England, both the Royal National & the Royal Shakespeare Company are national theatres, plus – in the greater UK – national theatres in Wales & Scotland; in a country as small as Croatia, there are no fewer than three national theatres (in Zagreb, Osijek, & Mostar), same with Portugal, Romania, & Germany. Greece & Spain have two; Hungary & Japan each have five (!).  The benefits of having a single, centralized NTC seem to me minimal. Mostly it might just spare the government’s pocket a bit, which is not, I don’t think, the goal of the exercise.

So we turn therefore to more teleological questions. What is the point of a national theatre, & is a national theatre the best way of fulfilling it? On this, there’s virtually no agreement outside of vague notions of (to quote Wheeler) “collectivity.” What exactly is meant by this, I frankly can’t tell. Michael Wheeler’s one of the smartest guys in Canadian theatre, so I know he can’t possibly mean the kind of “collectivity” which usually implied by nationalism – a rallying point around a theatre whose Canadian-ness is its most important feature (of course, proponents of a national theatre always stress this Canadian-ness before then nodding sagely and saying things like, “the quality would have to be there,” as if couldn’t be taken simply as a matter of course that we should be doing good theatre, instead of bad.)

A theatrical nationalism is, like all forms of nationalism, an ideological construct. Ultimately, its concern is not with people, but with a particular state, the abstract “Canada” to which we supposedly belong. Howard Barker’s thinking on this struck me as apt (albeit invidious), & worth quoting at length. Barker, in my opinion one of Britain’s greatest playwrights, was famously ostracized from the National Theatre for decades, until a recent staging of his play Scenes from an Execution. This extraction is from a 2004 interview with Nick Hobbes:

 “…a National Theatre is an ideological construct, it is not a benign provider of facilities to serious artists. Hall, Eyre, Nunn, Hytner [NT bigwigs], all knew of my work and its reputation, internationally as well as locally. Yet they have all resolutely declined to stage it. One might argue this neglect runs counter to their remit, which is to offer the best work in the English language. But that’s never the issue. They are there to cultivate the national ideology, which might have been at one time, patriotic royalism, but is now liberal humanism. Still, it is an ideological function. Quality is not the first consideration, the first consideration is whether the text is compatible with the prejudices of the age, as interpreted by these carefully chosen individuals. It’s not so far from the model of Soviet communism. You have a police force, but it’s done at the level of the appointments. Let me say however, I shouldn’t have declined the opportunity of this place staging my work because I write big plays and they have big theatres. At the same time I think there should not be a national theatre, the huge resources wasted here should be bestowed on a dozen vigorous independent companies.”

The “collectivity” Mr. Wheeler seems to yearn for is belied by the fact that a national theatre is by definition run by individuals, appointed by individuals. It would simply not be served by giving a particular theatre in a particular part of Canada exclusive claim to the “national” brand.

There are probably few, if any, readers of this who don’t support increased funding for the arts, & for theatre in particular. I vehemently, whole-heartedly support such initiatives. But a National Theatre of Canada is an otiose idea. Plus, it could potentially have deleterious effect on the ability of smaller theatres to fundraise, especially from non-governmental sources – donors want to invest in “the best.” A NTC would almost undoubtedly not be that, but in today’s world, brand is everything.

I think “collectivity” is the opposite of what’s needed. I think a diverse, well-funded theatre community of a whole bunch of different aesthetics, tastes, & sensibilities makes for a more interesting & – in a fairly bizarre twist of irony – more Canadian theatrical market. If it’s true that we are a “mosaic,” let our theatre reflect that. We do not need the homogenization offered by a national theatre.

Which brings me by a certain commodious vicus to my last question, which is this: Is there another way to conceive of a national theatre? I believe there is. But it would look very different than the Burgtheater, or the RSC, or even the NAC. For a theatre to truly be about some kind of political/popular “collectivity,” it must be of people & not for them. I would like to see a theatre based on the models offered by Paolo Freire & Grotowski, a theatre which is participatory, class-conscious, & independent of the paradigms of an elitist, commercial theatre. A theatre which is alive, for everyone, something which we are made of.

Then of course, there is the alternate “national theater.” It’s been around for decades, & usually produces farces. Increasingly, its material has become darker, verging on outright tragedy. You can visit it any time; the address is 111 Wellington St, Ottawa.

(correction – 18/10/2013, 9:19 AM)

Through my own haste & stupidity, I innacurately ascribed authorship for the SpiderWebShow article to solely to Michael Wheeler; it was of course co-written by both Mr. Wheeler & Sarah Garton Stanley, Associate Artistic Director of English Theatre at the National Arts Centre. The project is a joint venture between Praxis & the NAC. Apologies to both of them, & my sincere best wishes; I look forward to ongoing discussions on this& other issues.

2 Comments W(h)ither a National Theatre? (corrected below)

  1. Michael and Sarah

    Hi Alexander,

    We are looking forward to engaging with you. It is a truly involving post and we would like to share it and keep this conversation going.

    Before we do, it’s important to draw your attention to the piece you refer to in your post by its accurate authorship. The piece is co-written by us both, Michael and Sarah and the site is jointly created by Praxis and NAC English Theatre.

    You can find out more on the Makers page.

    Thanks again for responding to our opening thoughts. We look forward to more. Much more

    Sarah and Michael

    1. AlexanderAlexander

      Michael & Sarah,

      Sincerest apologies w/r/t authorship! An oversight on my part. I’ll update the post as necessary. I look forward to long engagement with you – SpiderWebShow is just the kind of discussion platform we’ve needed!

      Deepest respect,


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