David van Belle is not happy. Pumphouse Theatre’s recent announcement that it is significantly increasing its rental rates has the co-artistic director of Ghost River Theatre questioning how small theatre companies can survive in Calgary.
“A doubling in fees over two years, plus cleaning fees, plus increased surcharges, plus additional fees for two performance days. This is not going to help the space crisis we’re facing in Calgary theatre at all,” van Belle says. “I understand why they’re (Pumphouse) in that boat.... But it’s kind of crazy that it’s got to go on the backs of artists who don’t have a ton of dough.”
The Pumphouse sent a letter to companies that regularly rent its theatre space that the rising costs of doing business combined with a public funding decrease has forced it to move toward “a cost-recovery model in order to continue to operate the building.”
The increases come after the Pumphouse announced in December. 2011 that it was suspending its $13 million expansion plans, which would add an additional theatre, a restaurant, an art gallery, rehearsal spaces and a cultural business centre.
“I can understand David is upset that the rates are going up. It costs money to run these buildings,” says Scott McTavish, Pumphouse Theatre’s executive director.
McTavish and van Belle do agree that the problem isn’t really an increase in the Pumphouse’s rates, which are still the lowest among Calgary theatre houses. The problem is the cost of producing live theatre in a town with a chronic lack of performance space.
“Calgary’s always had a chronic lack of, I would say ‘appropriate’ cultural spaces,” says McTavish. “The biggest gap in this city isn’t in the 500-seat range. It’s in the 100, 200 kind of seat range.”
Calgary’s 16 small and mid-size live theatre spaces are booked solid through the season, but that doesn’t mean they’re getting rich. McTavish says the money Pumphouse earns by renting its space for performances falls short of covering its operating costs by $150,000 per year. It relies on government grants and private donations to survive.
Pumphouse’s Victor Mitchell Theatre, which seats a maximum of 315 people, costs approximately $6,900 for a two-week run, including technical support, according to a breakdown of costs sent out by Pumphouse. The same comparison sheet says Theatre Junction Grand, which has a capacity of 384 people, comes in at approximately $43,500. Tod Peterson, managing director of Theatre Junction says that figure is grossly inaccurate and that the actual cost to rent Theatre Junction Grand is approximately $14,576.
Van Belle says these are costs that most performance groups can’t afford, but McTavish argues prices are already as low as possible.
“They charge what they charge because that’s what it costs to operate the building,” McTavish says.
“I don’t think that the fees are going to come down, it’s just a question of, what is that going to do to our community and our emerging artists,” says van Belle. “I’m not sure what the long-term solution is.” He suggests at least three more low-cost theatre spaces be created in the near future if existing companies are to survive.
Pumphouse’s two theatres host approximately 15 different performance companies annually, leading to some 400 shows a year with 50,000 attendees. Two to three of those productions are created by Ghost River Theatre.
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