With the rise of cinema a century ago, the experts began predicting the imminent death of live theatre. The invention of television a few decades later surely would hammer the final nails into theatre's coffin. Yet it survives, if not exactly central to our culture, at least as an enduring aspect of it.
The 25th Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, which began its 12-day run on Wednesday, provides much evidence for a continued healthy prognosis. The fringe's organizers at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre are hoping to sell 100,000 tickets this year. Anything over 88,000 would be a record high, as are the number of productions this year, 172, in 31 separate venues.
The city's downtown, specifically the Exchange District around Old Market Square, never feels livelier than it does during the Fringe. Summer heat, throngs of playgoers, visitors from all over, crazy sights and sounds -- eat your heart out, Greenwich Village.
While people from all demographics watch TV and go to the movies, mainstream theatre's audience has become, primarily, well-heeled, white and older. That's why the Fringe quickens the blood of theatre administrators; it attracts teenagers and 20-somethings, who flock to the improv and sketch-comedy productions.
Unfortunately, the younger audiences at the Fringe have not transfused much new blood into mainstream theatre, in Winnipeg or elsewhere. A Fringe ticket, mind you, is $10, about the same as an admission to the movie multiplex, while a ticket to RMTC is five or 10 times that.
Mainstream theatre audiences in Winnipeg have stayed relatively stable in recent years. Last year's return of the Jets may have siphoned off some discretionary entertainment dollars -- even the folk festival's audience dropped this year -- but the connection remains a matter of speculation. RMTC saw a 10 per cent decline in subscribers to 15,000 this past season, though to be fair, its patron base is higher than of any other regional theatre in Canada.
Historically, Winnipeg has long been a good theatre town. St. Boniface's Le Cercle Molière is the country's oldest professional company and RMTC is the first regional English-language company, if you don't count Ontario's Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Among other Winnipeg boasts: Canada's only outdoor theatre devoted to musicals, Rainbow Stage; an outdoor Shakespeare company, Shakespeare in the Ruins; one of Canada's two children's theatre companies, Manitoba Theatre for Young People; and RMTC's Master Playwright Festival, a dead-of-January event that no other northern city this side of Moscow would even conceive.
We also support several secondary stages. The best-established among them, Prairie Theatre Exchange, grew out of RMTC's old theatre school in the late '70s, and since 1988, when it relocated to the third floor of the Portage Place Shopping Centre, has been devoted mostly to Canadian plays. Having originated such Manitoba classics as Wendy Lill's The Fighting Days and Patrick Friesen's The Shunning, PTE remains a model of responsibly managed arts groups, of which Winnipeg has several.
Public subsidy remains a necessity if Canada is to have a performing arts sector, and in this theatre is no different from ballet, opera or the visual arts. Numerous studies have shown the spinoff impact of arts subsidies more than repays their investment. The Harper government, with its largely undeserved reputation for unfriendliness toward the arts, has not tinkered much with the formula, as it should not.
Goodness knows, challenges remain. PTE has initiated a campaign to raise $4 million for two endowment funds. MTYP has a deficit of $1.6 million and RMTC lost $420,000 this past season, its first significant loss in years. All this in a climate of fundraising overshadowed by the shortfall facing the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. One could read the tea leaves and pronounce the imminent death of the theatre. But the experts have been wrong before.