Calgary's theatre community comes together to confront challenges ahead

A diverse mix of people working in Calgary's performing arts sector got together Sunday night to talk about how best to move forward in tough times.

'Yeah, times are tough, and we’re really good at working through tough times'

Mark Hopkins, co-artistic director at Swallow-a-Bicycle Theatre, says times are challenging, but he says arts groups in Calgary are resilient. (CBC)

A diverse mix of people working in Calgary's performing arts sector got together Sunday night to talk about how best to move forward in tough times.

One of the biggest challenges is that Calgary's arts groups receive among the lowest municipal funding per capita in the country, said Mark Hopkins, who organized the event Sunday at Vertigo Theatre that drew about 140 participants.

"And on top of that the support that Alberta receives from the Canada Council for the Arts in among the lowest per capita in the country, as well," said Hopkins, who is co-artistic director at Swallow-a-Bicycle Theatre.

Hopkins says such a scarcity of public resources can lead to unsustainable business practices or to a situation where arts groups become protective of their own little pieces of the pie.

"I think it's absolutely true that there is a lot of anxiety in the theatre community these days. It's been a bit of a rough time," he said.

Arts groups in Calgary were some of the earliest casualties of corporate cost-cutting as Alberta's economy started to sputter in 2014 with the collapse in the price of oil.

For example, Alberta Theatre Projects (ATP) said its corporate sponsorship dollars dropped by 70 per cent when the recession hit.

Last summer, city council approved $2 million in bridge funding for 10 of Calgary's top arts organizations — including ATP, Alberta Ballet, Calgary Opera and the National Music Centre — to help them continue to cope with the downturn.

In the past several years, the city's arts sector has taken several other hits on the chin, including the closure of the Calgary International Children's Festival, the cancellation of the theatre arts diploma program at MRU, and the demise of two local culture magazines, Fast Forward and Swerve.

Mark Hopkins speaks to his fellow members of the performing arts community about the state of their sector at a gathering Sunday night in Calgary. (CBC)

But it's not all bad news in Calgary's performing arts community, Hopkins said.

"Yeah, times are tough, and we're really good at working through tough times, so let's figure out how to keep doing that, and do it better together."

Sharon Pollock, a well-known Calgary playwright, actor and director, has been involved in the industry for more than 50 years. She says there will always be challenges.

"We've been telling stories since the beginning of time and getting up and acting them out, and we'll continue to do so, no matter what," she said.

Hopkins added that the discussions that need to take place among his peers aren't just about money.

"Questions of representation, how are we responsibly working with populations that aren't represented on our stages? So that might be newcomers, Indigenous people, people of colour, that could be people with disabilities — that could be any number of communities that aren't represented here," he said.