Toronto theatre – defining the landscape

SWOT-ing the industry
By M.K. Piatkowski

A standard business practice for an organization as part of its strategic planning is to do a SWOT analysis. This looks at the internal realities of the organization (Strengths, Weaknesses) and the environment in which it operates (Opportunities, Threats).

Looking around the not-for-profit theatre industry in Toronto, this is what I see:


  • A group of diversely talented people who are as good as anywhere in the world.
  • A community that is very supportive of others.
  • Good debates happening on what we do and where we’re going, reflecting a community that is very open-minded.
  • A willingness to try new ideas and ways of working.
  • Intelligent audiences who are willing to follow favourite artists and to take risks.
  • Plenty of festivals creating many opportunities to develop work
  • Mid-size theatres actively partnering with the independent community.
  • Commitment to diversifying the stage.
  • The beginnings of collaboration of all forms of performing arts in the city (e.g. Tapestry New Opera Works using emerging playwrights, Jacob Zimmer dramaturging at Dancemakers).
  • A group of companies (Rasik Arts, Company Theatre, Mackenzie Ro, one big umbrella) are committed to producing international work. Theatrefront and Mammilian Driving Reflex are collaborating with companies/festivals internationally. Harbourfront and Luminato are bringing in the some of the best theatre from the world.
  • The international touring success of Volcano and MDR has placed our community on the international radar.
  • The Fringe and Summerworks grow every year, bringing in new audiences.
  • Tarragon Theatre, Theatre Passe Muraille, Factory Theatre and Buddies in Bad Times are all in stable financial positions.
  • Small size transfers are now possible with the Diesel Playhouse.


  • Tendency to find inspiration from film rather than innovative world theatre.
  • Tied in with the above, serious lack of director training and support.
  • Too insular, not looking at what’s going on in the rest of the country nor support it when it’s here. Factory Theatre, The Fringe, and SummerWorks are the big exceptions in this regard, so there are baby steps being taken in this direction.
  • Great divide between Soulpepper and CanStage, and the rest of the community – and each other. (The Canadian Opera Company can probably be added to this group.)
  • Lack of mid-size transfer house for successful work.
  • Small audiences for most independent work.


  • Concentration of condo development along the subway lines has created a new potential theatre audience, especially in North York.
  • Changing of the guard at CanStage could lead to a greater partnership with the independent theatre community.
  • Economic downturns usually leads to stronger market for entertainment products and more local consumption of them.
  • Recently announced touring money from the Ontario Arts Council provides opportunity for work to survive and thrive outside the community.


  • Lack of resources – especially venues. Condo development has made it almost impossible to run a small-size independent venue.
  • Economic downturn could endanger the mid-size companies and the Diesel.
  • Hostility towards artists and arts funding could cut off support for the industry at a time of growth.
  • Falling Canadian dollar makes international touring much more difficult.

Suggested Actions

  • CanStage needs to figure out who they are and what they are bringing to the table for this community.
  • Soulpepper needs to mingle more with everyone else and stop scheduling conflicting opening nights.
  • The independent community needs much better and more targeted marketing. Some are starting to leverage social networking but much more needs to be done. Collaboration between companies and creating a pool of marketing talent that could be supported by the community as a whole would strengthen this immensely.
  • A concerted effort on the part of the entire community to explain who they are and what they do to the public at large will help cut down the hostility. I discovered during the election campaign that most people are really ignorant of how we work and what role funding plays into supporting that work but they are willing to be educated.
  • A serious, encompassing discussion across artists of all disciplines to look at new models of financial support. The recent arts cuts have provided a great opportunity to look at this issue. There is a desire for change, so by leading the discussion we can ensure that the change happens in a way that is beneficial to our community.
  • Development of a multi-theatre venue that provide space for small independent companies and mid-size companies/transfers. I personally would love to see the old typesetting factory just south of Tarragon be converted to that purpose.
  • Develop greater supports for the artistic growth of directors. I’m not sure what those would be (personally, I want to go to London and get my mind blown working with some of their innovative directors) but I would like to have a discussion.
  • More support to bring national and international companies to the city. The new venue could help in this regard, as well as our attendance.

In summary, our industry has a tremendous amount of upside potential, but we need to work together to fully maximize our opportunities.

To read more from M.K. Piatkowski, visit her blog: One Big Umbrella.

6 thoughts on “Toronto theatre – defining the landscape

  1. Hi MK,

    This is a powerful document. I could quibble with a couple of points, but it would really be the 5% i perceive differently and additional Threats that are not helpfully addressed in a public forum.

    In general, it is an accurate snapshot of the community at this point in time, which is a significant accomplishment. A grad student researching the growth of indie arts in our era will lose their shit if they find this in the course of their research.

    Thanks for this. Now what are we going to do about it?

  2. I agree. This is a keen and valuable set of observations.

    I wonder if we could find funding to commission a white paper that falls from this analysis. That would be wonderful.

    Question: I’m not sure what a transfer house is MK. Could you elaborate on what they are and why we need them?

  3. Thanks guys. I’m glad this is proving useful.

    Ian, a transfer house is a venue that doesn’t have a resident company. It allows for a successful production to quickly move once its initial scheduled run is completed and it can no longer stay in its original venue. Off-Broadway has venues that do exactly this, allowing something that has developed in a small venue to reach out to a wider audience.

    Now these types of venues have to be managed carefully. It was once hoped that the Elgin/Winter Garden would serve this function but it turned out to be too large and expensive for this purpose. Ideally, I see it as a two theatre venue: 300 – 500 seat house to move something that’s a hit on the mainstages of the mid-size theatres, and a 150 seat black-box for the shows that have been in smaller spaces. (Diesel’s larger space is 200, but it has a wide stage and a cabaret feel that wouldn’t work for some shows.) The trick is to have great marketing (building up TO Tix’s profile could assist this in a major way like TKTS does for Off-Broadway in NY), and venue management that can skillfully manage the times when there isn’t a big hit.

    Imagine if we had this venue last year when East of Berlin and Scorched took off. Instead of Tarragon trying to squeeze them in where it could this season, they could have moved right away when buzz was at its highest and ran for months. Tarragon would have to split money with the venue, but they wouldn’t have had to go through a repeat rehearsal process and would have had more money coming to them in the long run by being in a larger venue, even if they only ran for as long as the remounts are now.

    Now what are we going to do about it?

    That’s the key question, isn’t it? I have further thoughts on some of this issues that I’m going to be writing in my blog, especially about the national/international aspect and the venues. In terms of the funding/PR challenges, the groups that came up around the funding cuts and the election are a good place to start these dialogues. I like Ian’s idea of a white paper, although most of those these days don’t usually lead to much change.

    But most of all, I really think we need to have more opportunities to talk to each other. That’s the key that kept popping up in my analysis. There’s so many silos and that, more than anything, needs to change. Thankfully, the internet is a great tool to start with.

  4. i think this is totally bang on, and important. It is essential to evaluate our community. In fact I would add that the city should conduct a theatre economy survey ala New York, which did a financial audit of off and off broadway for the first time. Knowing how much money is in our industry would help focus it a bit more

  5. Liza, TAPA has done just that sort of study here. We know what we contribute, it’s more about getting the word out there to further investment in our industry.

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