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Manitoba theatre companies still struggling to bring audiences back

A Winnipeg theatre company has pulled the plug on an upcoming production in an effort to keep the lights on for another season.

It’s just one of many difficult financial choices arts organizations are facing in the aftermath of the pandemic, experts say.

Winnipeg Jewish Theatre (WJT) artistic director Dan Petrenko and board president Miriam Kohn announced in an email to patrons on Monday the company had made the difficult decision to cancel a production of “Songs for a New World,” the Jason Robert Brown musical that was initially slated to close out its current season.

They said the production was no longer feasible due to “lingering financial challenges” stemming from the past season.

Instead, WJT’s upcoming production of “Address Unknown” by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor will be the company’s final offering of its 36th season.

When speaking with CTV News Winnipeg, Petrenko said even after a very successful fundraising campaign and significant changes to the company’s operations, including cuts to the administrative team, the move was necessary to keep the company afloat into next season.

“Like many companies around the country, Winnipeg Jewish Theatre has been struggling,” he said. “As a result of our last season, we saw increased costs to producing theatre, and the return of patrons to the theatre is not the same as the pre-pandemic levels. I think that’s a trend that’s all over the industry, all over the non-profit arts sector.”

Seth Zosky and CJ Capital are shown in an undated promotional video for their theatrical piece “Pain to Power: A Kanye West Musical Protest”, which was Winnipeg Jewish Theatre’s most recent production. (Winnipeg Jewish Theatre/Facebook)

As noted, WJT is not the only arts company to feel the pinch. Prairie Theatre Exchange (PTE) announced in a November 2023 community update a loss of revenue of over $300,000, which it said could exceed $500,000 this season.

A Winnipeg Free Press report in January said a restructuring at PTE resulted in layoffs, reduced workloads and task amalgamations.

When contacted by CTV News Winnipeg on Tuesday, PTE declined to comment.

Leaner seasons, more co-productions part of post-pandemic pivots

They are challenges all too familiar throughout Manitoba’s arts sector. Royal Manitoba Theatre Company (RMTC) has also battled rising costs and a slower audience return post-COVID lockdowns.

Its executive director Camilla Holland says while subscriptions are still down, the company has seen promising numbers this season driven by single-ticket buyers and audience favourite shows like “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” and “The Sound of Music.”

“That is putting us in a good position currently, but we still had a sizable deficit last year, and that was just the reality of the audience return, slower than anticipated and slower than the costs.”

The cast of Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s 2023 production of “The Sound of Music” is shown in an undated photo. (Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre/Instagram)

Holland says the company has navigated these uncertain seasons through a combination of co-productions with other companies across Canada, a more restrained season at RMTC Warehouse, and strategic programming of popular shows aimed at getting bums in seats.

The ultimate goal, Holland said, is higher subscriber numbers reminiscent of pre-COVID days.

“We use a dating analogy always, that subscription is the marriage at the end of a long series of great dates, and we want to make sure that we’re giving a lot of Manitobans the chance to have that first and second and third date with us.”

Manitoba Theatre for Young People is also facing similar financial strains, although its challenges are unique. That organization relies heavily on school performances, which have also struggled to return to pre-pandemic levels.

To compensate for the financial loss, MTYP offered six shows this season, as opposed to its traditional seven.

While they’ve been able to avoid layoffs, executive director Debra Zoerb says the leaner season is being felt.

“The artists associated don’t have that opportunity to work because we’re not programming that show, so there’s definitely impacts that are felt throughout the larger community in terms of the availability of opportunities.”

A scene from “Narnia”, a musical adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ works that ran on the MTYP Mainstage last December is shown in an undated image. (Leif Norman/Manitoba Theatre for Young People)

As the road to recovery continues, all three companies share a similar sentiment – show your support to the organizations you cherish.

“If you love these events and you love these institutions and you love these companies, then do support them, and that means our colleagues at the festival circuit, our colleagues in the visual arts and performing arts,” Holland said.

As for Petrenko, he says WJT is planning for the future despite recent challenges.

“We’re launching all these different types of initiatives to rebuild and retain our audience, and I’m hopeful,” he said.

“I believe that we are on the right path right now. It’s just about ensuring a sustainable model that will help us get to next year.”

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