Theatre debate: Changes will provide equitable access

The Royal and McPherson Theatres Society is charged with managing the Royal Theatre and the McPherson Playhouse effectively on behalf of their municipal owners and to encourage a broad range of programming so that they contribute to the quality of life of all citizens of the region.

The RMTS and its board of directors have identified the efficient use of the theatres, access to dates in the Royal Theatre and diversity of audiences and programming as critical issues in ensuring the relevance and sustainability of the theatres, now and into the future.

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The Royal Theatre is the largest soft-seat venue on Vancouver Island and, with the McPherson Playhouse, forms the region’s de facto performing-arts centre. Modern performing-arts centres provide classical, contemporary and popular forms of arts and entertainment, and endeavour to serve a wide, diverse citizenry. As the capital region’s population grows and its demographics change, there is an obligation to make the Royal Theatre accessible to a wider range of presenters and the diverse audiences they serve.

Currently, access to the Royal Theatre during peak season is controlled by a few not-for-profit entities. More than 90 per cent of all prime weekends and nearly 60 per cent of every day during this period are booked by just three groups (Pacific Opera Victoria, Victoria Symphony and Dance Victoria). The majority of these days are not performances. Rather, the Royal Theatre sits dark and empty, unable to be used by any other group — commercial or not-for-profit.

Multiple meetings have been held with these three organizations with requests such as reducing the number of days needed for setup, moving performances to other days of the week rather than Thursday through Saturday only, or taking smaller performances to the McPherson Playhouse.

All of these requests have been declined or ignored.

Annually, the Royal Theatre turns away numerous booking requests due to a lack of available dates. When they can be accommodated, these performances are well attended and earn significantly more revenue.

The outcome of this is that residents of the region have less access to arts and entertainment than they could have.

It is important to clarify that the RMTS did not earn a net profit of $500,000, as has been erroneously stated. Substantially all of that money is a building-improvement fee generated through ticket sales and is specifically restricted for use as capital funds to pay for the repair and upkeep for two 100-plus-year-old buildings. They are not and cannot be used for operating expenses.

The theatres society, itself a not-for profit organization, has been heavily subsidizing other not-for-profit organizations’ use of the theatre. In the past year, more than $440,000 in subsidies were provided to the three not-for-profits in the form of reduced rents and lower box-office charges.

Additionally, government support of the Royal Theatre has remained static for 20 years and stands at just five per cent of the operating budget.

The society can no longer continue to subsidize these entities to the levels they have enjoyed previously.

Going forward, all not-for-profit organizations will continue to receive subsidies in the form of reduced rents and low box-office costs at both the Royal Theatre and the McPherson Playhouse. The discounts at the Royal have simply decreased. Additionally, the three not-for-profit entities will continue to be given priority booking privileges two years into the future.

We respect their specific long-term planning needs and this courtesy is not provided to any other presenter, commercial or not-for profit.

The RMTS has a responsibility to ensure the fiscal sustainability of the Royal Theatre and McPherson Playhouse through prudent financial management.

Additionally, it must ensure efficient use of its theatres, encourage a diverse offering of entertainment and maximize the theatres’ availability for the betterment and enjoyment of the citizens of the region.

The society’s management and board remain committed to continuing its support of not-for-profit entities at both the Royal Theatre and the McPherson Playhouse. However, the Royal Theatre needs to be a performing-arts centre for all presenters, not just a few.

Lloyd Fitzsimonds is executive director and Lorne DeLarge is board president of the Royal and McPherson Theatres Society.

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