Representatives from the Royal and McPherson Theatre Society voiced frustrations around the current rental situation at the Royal Theatre to Victoria city councillors at Thursday’s committee-of-the-whole meeting.
Detailing the challenges that “dark days” on the theatre’s calendar present to the society, Lorne DeLarge, president of the RMTS board of directors, was keen to give councillors the society’s perspective.
“The theatre sits dark the majority of the time through the prime part of the season of our year, September through May. That is what we are trying to improve,” he said.
Having the ability to book other acts on those days would help the society generate much-needed revenue, he said. “A single Broadway show will generate $1 million in ticket sales in one week, and that’s not including the economic spinoff of a single show.”
DeLarge presented a slide showing that the Victoria Symphony and Pacific Opera Victoria, the largest two user groups, combined to rent the Royal for 120 days in 2018-19, while performances happened on 49 of those days. “This, to us is the heart of the issue,” DeLarge said.
During discussions, councillors heard user groups rent the Royal for $2,000 on performance days and $500 on non-performance days. Similar theatres in Canada charge the same rate for either, said RMTS executive director Lloyd Fitzsimonds.
“Thirty years ago I guess that discount made great sense,” he said. “At this point in time we’re literally giving the Royal away, it is so cheap.”
The reduced rate makes it viable for non-profit arts groups to rent the theatre out for larger stretches of time, even if the number of performances is limited, Fitzsimonds added. He used the example of POV’s current production Countess Maritza, which booked the theatre for 21 days and will do four shows.
DeLarge noted that unlike local groups, which tend to schedule performances between Friday and Sunday, the Opera de Montreal utilizes every day of the week for its shows, thus condensing its venue rental needs and opening up desirable dates for other acts.
“We regularly turn away acts” for lack of dates, he said, listing such notables as blues guitarist Buddy Guy, magician David Blaine and singer Morrisey. Astronaut Chris Hadfield and former CBC comedy star Rick Mercer, found space at the Mary Winspear Centre in Sidney and quickly sold out.
While acknowledging the importance of vocal rest days, dress rehearsals and sound check days, he said, “the theatre does not need to be a rehearsal hall.” To address that issue, the society is looking into the cost and feasibility of building a rehearsal space on the City of Victoria-owned parking lot behind the theatre.
While theatre scheduling presents a financial challenge for the organization, municipal funding is another consideration.
Only Victoria, Saanich and Oak Bay contribute to its operation, but residents from around the region attend events there, Coun. Ben Isitt said. He suggested an increase in ticket prices might be a good motivator for other municipalities to consider helping fund the theatres’ operations.
“I think we should consider some sort of rebate or a fee discount for people who live in the participating municipalities,” he said, adding that other patrons would pay full price. “That’s a pretty strong price signal … to get users to lobby their respective councils to join in the service so they can realize that (pricing) benefit.”
The RMTS’s strategic plan aims to present a wider range of entertainment offerings, but also includes significant rent increases at the Royal. In March the society announced it was postponing the rent increases for two years and the booking policy changes or three years for the Symphony, Pacific Opera and Dance Victoria.
A public survey commissioned by RMTS found that among respondents stating definite opinions, the majority supported the society’s objectives and direction outlined in its strategic plan.
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