Chapter 10: Air Farce on Tour (Or How We Came to See Canada)
As our confidence in radio grew through the latter half of the seventies, we were always looking for opportunities to hit the boards and, by 1980, we realized they wouldn't simply come to us--we had to create them. Our first taste of performing outside of Toronto taught us there was a market out in small and mid-size communities where people were eager to see entertaining shows and as eager to pay for it. But not much of a market, because the typical venue--a smallish theatre--meant a smallish return. The trick was going to be finding a way to make a tour economically viable.
We hooked up with Peter Sever, who was the founder, president, and chief cook and bottle washer of General Artists Management Inc., a small company that worked out of offices on Queen Street East, not far from CBC's five-storey design facility on Sackville Street. Peter had once managed a dance company in Toronto, and GAMI now managed individual artists--singers, musicians, and dancers--and booked their concerts and tours. This would be a change for both GAMI and Air Farce, as Peter was accustomed to dealing with a more high-falutin' level of artist than comedians, and we'd never worked with a tour promoter at all.
If we had a picture in our minds of what to expect before we met Peter, it would have been straight out of a New Yorker cartoon: someone exuding elegance, sophistication, and refinement, with impeccable manners, gesticulating with a cigarette holder and perhaps sporting a monocle. Peter was none of that. Passionate about the arts, he was meat-and-potatoes all the way, kind of rough around the edges, with the commercial instincts of a rug salesman in a souk. It was a good introduction to the economics of touring in Canada, especially for a troupe, because despite any aura of glamour that might hover over the enterprise, ultimately success comes down to squeezing every last drop of blood out of the touring stone; to have even a faint chance of making a profit, you've got to keep expenses low, low, low. If you're lucky and good, an unsubsidized troupe may even eke out a tiny profit.
Peter worked for a fee plus a percentage after expenses, so he had a keen interest in keeping costs low in order to increase profit. There was a downside to this as far as we were concerned because it meant minimal rehearsal time and maximum time on the road, "economy" accommodation and travel, and starvation-level per diems. ("What? No wine with dinner?!") We understood the wisdom of Peter's method, but we were hiring ourselves and didn't want to sleep in motels and eat at lunch counters, so after some meaningful negotiations, we arrived at a compromise: his margin wouldn't be as plump as he'd have liked (note the word "plump"; no one dreamed of margins being "fat"), and we'd be more comfortable than the casts of most travelling shows.
There were five of us in the cast, plus our stage manager, Ron Ward. That's six salaries, six per diems, six hotel rooms, and--the real killer when you're flying--six plane tickets every time you move from one venue to the next. By the time the tour was over, travel and accommodation would be our biggest expense. The only people sure to make a profit were the airlines.
The stress was as much mental as physical. Daily, you experienced a new environment filled with unfamiliar faces. New theatre, new stage crew, new airport, new hotel room, new restaurant, new local hosts who always arranged a post-show gathering at someone's house that you felt required to attend. That's why, after a week or so of a tour, there begins an unconscious, at first almost imperceptible, circling of the mental wagons. If you're not one of us, stay outside the boundary. Physical fatigue is easily recognizable. Your legs hurt or your arms are tired. But your brain never feels tired the way your body does, and it takes time for the realization to sink in that what's sloshing between your ears may once have been brain but is now cerebral mush. Mental fatigue manifests itself in ways that you do eventually notice. The primary signal is that you become incapable of absorbing new information. Your short-term memory disintegrates. You can't remember the name of your hotel, the name of the sponsor, what you just ate for lunch. You can't learn new lines, either. You become short-tempered and cranky. You can't sleep, but all you want to do is sleep. We had a day off in Calgary and no one got out of their bed. John managed a walk and was accosted by a hooker. The exchange went like this:
HOOKER: Hey mister, interested in a lady?
JOHN: Sure, do you know one?
We paid ourselves more than a normal cast-for-hire would probably earn because it was our show--we didn't believe another cast could perform it. The public wanted to see Roger, Don, John, Dave, and Luba, not people they didn't know. Excerpted from Air Farce. Copyright (c) 2011 by Roger Abbott and Don Ferguson. Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd.