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YES, STC still legally separate, but co-producing ‘pilot’ season

Merger is still in the ‘feasibility stage’ during the upcoming 2022-23 season, says STC co-chair 

Although they are still legally two separate entities — at least for now — YES Theatre and Sudbury Theatre Centre will work together with combined resources and staffing to put on a joint 2022-2023 “pilot season.”

That pilot season is expected to include three mainstage plays, eight mainstage musicals, three or more concerts and three new works.

A visual presented in a Powerpoint presentation during a May 25 press conference espouses a vision for a “Stratford North,” including STC’s building and YES Theatre’s new Refettorio (outdoor theatre), which is to be built on Durham Street.

“Before we move into any notion of official merger, we are entering into a pilot season,” said STC board co-chair John Dow, speaking at the Tuesday press conference in which the two theatre companies announced their new relationship.

“This is our feasibility stage that we're going through this year, and there'll be a concerted effort to maximize overhead cost savings through a new business model that will create and increase opportunities for artists and audiences.”

Dow told Sudbury.com that at this point in time, the two theatre companies see the benefit of the two organizations joining together, “but in the end, if it doesn’t work out, that’s a possibility.”

If there’s an official merger after this initial pilot season, Dow said that’s where lawyers would get involved, including the merging of assets, and creating a brand new identity, and dissolving the previous ones.

“Theoretically, one could become a shell company and not dissolve,” he said. “There's different forms. And we'll take advice on that.”

Dow said he and other STC board members — including long-time member Helen Ghent, who also spoke during the press conference — are “here to ensure that the legacy of Sudbury Theatre Centre does not move into the night.”

YES Theatre artistic and managing director Alessandro Costantini, who’s also now the interim artistic director with STC, said “this has not and will not be an easy road.”

“Change imposes many hurdles, and we may not have all the answers to all the questions just yet,” Costantini said. “Every single person involved in this course these last weeks and months shares a common belief and that is that the theatre is sacred and important, and what we presented today is the beginning of a beautiful and renewed future.”

Concerned supporters of Sudbury Theatre Centre have raised some questions about the new relationship between the two theatre organizations, including the possibility of conflict of interest due to the overlap in personnel on the boards of STC and YES Theatre. Former artistic director John McHenry also shared his thoughts with Sudbury.com.

“Conflicts of interest, whether real or perceived, were declared,” Dow said. “Those members did not vote, and no conflict was of a financial interest. 

“Sudbury has an interconnected arts community, and it’s common for our members to be involved in more than one arts organization due to their passion for our community and seeing arts flourish within.”

Dow said that in the last decade, STC has struggled financially, and has had to make cuts continuously to live within its means. 

“We felt that the financial constraints had a crippling effect on the artistic world, and it was not possible to see a viable path forward under the existing model,” he said.

So in December 2021, STC reached out to YES Theatre. 

“After initial conversations about professional practice, the existing structures and forms we've determined afterwards that it's in the best interest of both organizations to become one combined entity,” Dow said.

Scott Denniston, interim general manager for STC, said the theatre centre has taken a hit over the past decade, with deficits and declining audiences. 

In 2010, STC had audiences of about 30,000 people annually, and this had declined to about 10,000 people by 2020, when, of course, the pandemic hit. 

“We’re now seeing audiences of between 2,500 and 3,500 people per year.”

Denniston explained the decline in audiences and “overly ambitious programming between the years of 2014 and 2017 caused some pretty massive deficits” ranging from $200,000 to $300,000 per year.

By 2017, there was an accumulated deficit of $554,000. At this point, STC’s board took action, changing its executive staff, and gaining financial support via a $200,000 grant from the City of Greater Sudbury and a “new mortgage of $190,000.”

“So, this funding was really beneficial to the company in terms of paying off some debts and, you know, getting us back to that zero point, but it wasn't enough to produce a season that resulted in a robust growth in audiences,” Denniston said.

Denniston, who’s also the general manager with YES Theatre, said YES is proud to share resources with STC, which, after all, has been its home since 2010.

“YES’s audience growth follows an opposite trend,” he said. “2021 saw us successfully fundraise $2.8 million for the construction of the Refettorio (outdoor theatre) over on Durham Street.”

In a press release issued earlier this month, it was revealed that STC’s Canada Council for the Arts funding was recently cut by 70 per cent, with a warning that if certain actions or changes were not taken, the funding would be lost altogether. 

A backgrounder issued by STC and YES Theatre on May 25 sheds more light on this situation.

The document said that funding from municipal, provincial and federal arts and culture programs are allocated through a peer-assessment structure. 

“Based on STC operations throughout the last number of years, the funding was drastically cut due to the concerns outlined in the peer assessment,” the document said.

Among the funders’ concerns was the size of the organization’s deficit, doubts that the possible proceeds from the sale of the space would remedy the organization’s financial situation and that there was very little in the way of confirmed programming going forward.

The backgrounder said STC and YES Theatre have had meetings with all three levels of government. Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council and the City of Greater Sudbury. “All three levels are encouraging this joint venture and recognize the potential value of the collaboration,” said the backgrounder.

Concerned STC supporters have also had questions about the theatre centre’s future as a professional theatre organization.

Costantini confirmed Sudbury Theatre Centre will no longer be a member of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (or PACT), which was one of the concerns raised by community members.

However, he said that with the collaboration of YES Theatre and STC, “our employment of Canadian Actors Equity Association (CAEA) members will increase by 24 positions this year.”

Central to the vision for the new collaboration between YES Theatre and STC is the concept of “citizen artistry.”

The citizen artistry model “encourages the participation of individuals from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences coming together to contribute to all facets of theatre creation,” explained the press release.

This might mean experienced professional actors such as Costantini performing alongside someone who might be in their first play.

Background information provided to reporters said that STC and YES Theatre will combine resources for the 2022-2023 season for a total of $1,205,478 going to artists, the majority of them local.

This will include 137 actor contracts, including 33 CAEA members, 65 musician contracts, and 65 creative team contracts.

In STC’s last season, the total payment to artists was $95,346, while YES Theatre’s was $162,178.

“This is a profound increase to our local artistic economy and will be achieved by executing the Citizen Artistry model and strengthening all areas of revenue,” said the press release.

As mentioned above, the pilot 2022-2023 season will include three mainstage plays, eight mainstage musicals, three or more concerts and three new works.

During the press conference, the staging of four upcoming musicals was announced: The Wizard of Oz, Ride the Cyclone, Into the Woods and Elf The Musical.

The partnership with Pat the Dog Theatre Creation, which puts on the Playsmelter new works festival at STC, will be maintained, as will Sudbury Theatre Centre’s educational programming.

Costantini said he was happy to be able to answer some of the questions community members have had about this new relationship between the two theatre companies.

“We're going to continue to have conversations with the community, because the theatre is nothing without the community,” he said. “And yeah, we're really excited for the future.”

Heidi Ulrichsen is the associate content editor at Sudbury.com. She also covers education and the arts scene.