Professional theatre in Ontario has evolved quite differently in English- and French-speaking communities over the past 40 to 50 years. While francophone theatre companies established and kept up a tradition of touring to mid-sized Ontario communities, many English-language theatre companies became building-based in larger urban centres and focused on local audiences.
A year ago, OAC launched Theatre Connects, an audience development pilot project for both language communities that is modelled on OAC’s successful dance counterpart, Ontario Dances. Theatre Connects is OAC’s effort to conduct some theatrical matchmaking between theatre companies and arts presenters around the province. To this end, we enlisted partners, Ontario Presents (formerly C.C.I.) and Réseau Ontario. Shortly after, an OAC jury selected arts presenters in Kingston (Grand Theatre), Milton (Milton Centre for the Arts), North Bay (Capitol Centre) and St. Catharines (Brock Centre for the Arts) to book anglophone theatre companies and arts presenters in Hamilton (Centre français Hamilton), Hearst (Conseil des arts de Hearst), Kingston (Centre culturel Frontenac) and Oshawa (Conseil des organismes francophones de la région de Durham) to book French-language theatre companies. According to Aengus Finnan, OAC’s former Touring and Development Officer, the project has a number of interesting components: “The pilot makes it possible for the presenters to see a range of theatre companies, styles and productions, and discuss a collective approach to bringing the selected plays to each of their communities, coupled with audience development activities.”
For the francophone pilot project, a community-based animator was hired in each location to plan and coordinate audience-development activities specific to each presenter. For the English-language theatres, one animator has been hired to work with all four presenters to develop a common yet flexible model. This varying approach echoes the differences between the two theatre worlds and their touring realities.
“It is up to the animator, working with each company and presenter, to develop activities for the audience that can enrich their relationship between the work, the company and the discipline of theatre,” added Aengus. “Fortunately for this directed activity, we have two very experienced coordinators working with the theatre companies – Judy Harquail with Ontario Presents and Denis Bertrand with Réseau.
From September to early 2015, the eight presenters have booked the following OAC-funded productions: