The society running the Royal Theatre aims to make it the region’s hub for commercial live performance. But Langford may soon have a venue of its own.
IT'S A SUNDAY AFTERNOON, and folks are streaming into the Royal Theatre to see the Broadway musical Jersey Boys. Many came from up-Island: Courtenay, Cowichan, Mill Bay. One woman tells me she attended her high-school grad ceremony at the Royal in 1965; now she lives in Nanaimo. “We were in Vegas and we just missed the Jersey Boys,” she says. “Then we found out they’re playing in little old Victoria! So we came down.”
Such a remark is surely music to the ears of the Royal and McPherson Theatre Society, the entity that runs Downtown’s two historic theatres. Last autumn, the RMTS announced it was jacking the rates for nonprofits to rent the Royal — including the three main users, the Victoria Symphony, Pacific Opera Victoria, and Dance Victoria — from $1,800 a day to $2,500 on most weekdays and $4,000 on Fridays or Saturdays, closer to the higher rents it charges commercial users. The RMTS also imposed a new booking policy, requiring the nonprofits to leave one Thursday-Saturday weekend per month free for other presenters. “As the capital region’s population grows and the demographics change, there’s an obligation to make the theatre more accessible to a range of presenters and the audiences they serve,” said Randy Joynt, the RMTS’s manager of external affairs. In other words: less Jenůfa, more Jersey Boys.
Fewer nights for Pacific Opera Victoria productions like Countess Maritza may make the Royal more “accessible” to Cheech & Chong (Photo courtesy of Pacific Opera Victoria)
In December, the Symphony — based at the Royal for 78 years — said it was moving 18 of its 36 concerts to UVic’s Farquhar auditorium, and arguments about the rent hikes filled the opinion pages of the Times Colonist. In March, after meeting with the three main Royal users, the RMTS said it would phase in the increases over two years, but retain its new booking policy. The users called on the Capital Regional District, which oversees the RMTS, and the municipalities that own the Royal — Victoria, Saanich, and Oak Bay, which jointly contribute $580,000 per year for its upkeep and operations — to conduct a transparent, collaborative review of the future use of the theatre. Instead, this April and May, the RMTS pre-emptively stated its case to the three municipal councils — and the user groups, since not directly employed by the municipalities, and therefore not permitted to speak under council rules, could only send letters in rebuttal.
The dispute boils down to two concerns. The first is what the RMTS calls a problem of “dark days.” The nonprofits are allowed to book the Royal several years in advance so they can plan their seasons, but currently only pay a full rate on days of performances, and just $500 on days the theatre sits dark. That encourages them to save performances for more-lucrative weekends, the RMTS says, and let the venue sit empty during the week. The RMTS now wants the same rent whether the users perform that day or not.
“The theatre sits dark, the majority of the time, through the prime season of our year,” Lorne DeLarge, president of the RMTS board, told Victoria councillors. “That is what we are trying to improve.” The symphony and opera booked the Royal for 120 days in 2018-19, but only held performances on 49 of them, he said; increasing the rent would nudge them to use the theatre more efficiently, freeing it up for others. “We believe we’ve found a way to accommodate the needs of the not-for-profits, and increase use of the theatre.”
Pacific Opera Victoria CEO Ian Rye says the RMTS is “not being genuine” in its calculations. Every POV production needs four days for setup, four of rehearsal, and a vocal rest day between each performance, which is industry standard. On all those days, POV is paying rent — while most touring acts occupy a theatre for just one or two days, usually on a weekend. If POV now has to pay full rate on all the days it needs, it will spend $120,000 more annually on rent.
The second, broader issue concerns the purpose of the theatres, and the RMTS. Until 2017, the society’s mission was “To enrich the cultural life of the region, by operating and maintaining the civic theatres of the CRD.” Then it developed a new strategic plan — which did not involve Royal users, and wasn’t shared with its owners — with a revised mission: “Enriching the quality of life in the region, through a sustainable and relevant performing arts centre.” Tellingly, “cultural” was gone, along with “civic.” Instead, the new keywords are “sustainable” and “relevant” — shorthand for turning the Royal into a profitable roadhouse for commercial entertainment.
“The board is unanimous that this is the right direction,” DeLarge told Victoria councillors. “Not to move [the nonprofits] out, not to price them out, not to make them go bankrupt, not to limit their ability, but to share the theatre equally with more users for the benefit of the region.” True, the Symphony was already moving out half of its concerts, but DeLarge said those freed-up nights had been booked for RuPaul’s Drag Race, Relive The Music (a ’50s and ’60s nostalgia show), Cheech & Chong, and Supertramp frontman Roger Hodgson.
The RMTS is an odd society: according to its bylaws, its only members are its directors. Three are councillors from owner municipalities, with the rest appointed by the CRD at the RMTS’s recommendation, or elected by the board itself — a formula preventing motions or elections from the floor, and guaranteed to reduce debate. (In 2018, the councillors on the board were Victoria’s Marianne Alto, Oak Bay’s Tara Ney, and Saanich’s Vicki Sanders.) The RMTS has also done well financially, posting surpluses of $190,505 in 2016 and $182,217 in 2017, while salting away some $300,000 annually into a fund for upgrading the old theatres. (There’s currently $2.274 million in its Royal Theatre Capital Fund, though only $300,000 in the McPherson fund.) The RMTS posted a surplus of only $78,000 last year, though, and executive director Lloyd Fitzsimonds told me they’re facing big capital expenses — the Royal’s air conditioning needs replacing, at $2.5 million — and higher operating costs, including the employer health tax, rent on relocated offices, and hiring key staff. (Joynt is leaving this summer to head the Manitoba Arts Council, and Fitzsimonds retires at the end of this year.)
Wrapped in the language of “accessibility,” the RMTS presentation went largely unchallenged by the three councils. Victoria’s otherwise-progressive Ben Isitt said he found it “persuasive,” which was strange, as the hearing was effectively structured like a tenancy dispute where only the landlord was allowed to speak. The exception was in Oak Bay, where residents got to speak before the RMTS did.
“The talented local professionals in these [arts] organizations teach music, dance and theatre, they teach at our schools and they volunteer in our community,” said Carrie Smart, an architect. “What an amazing community asset we have. Can we keep it? Or will we lose it with these changes?” Councillor Hazel Braithwaite later noted that Oak Bay helped buy the Royal in 1973 specifically to serve as a civic theatre: “I have a little trouble with these three groups not being able to continue on,” she said, “in something we originally paid money to keep within our communities.”
In the end, the owner municipalities handed the problem off to the CRD. Recently the region reformed a committee to oversee the RMTS (it had not met for many years, for reasons unknown), which so far has only discussed tweaking the property-tax calculations for funding the theatres. But CRD chair Colin Plant wants a wider discussion, with a select committee to assess arts facilities across the region, and determine if we need a new theatre or concert hall. That may be an uphill battle: earlier this year, Sidney withdrew its financial support from the CRD’s arts service, and when Plant proposed the task force to the CRD’s governance and finance committee on June 5, CRD staff said they were too busy developing the CRD Arts website, and wanted the facilities discussion deferred to 2020.
UNTIL POLITICIANS COME UP WITH a direction for the Royal, its users are left hanging, uncertain what the coming seasons will bring. In March, the Victoria Symphony started selling its subscription series, and sales are slightly better than last year. “That suggests that our longtime subscribers are, to a large majority, prepared to move with us,” says CEO Kathryn Laurin, but how many individual tickets sell for each UVic concert remains to be seen. So far, she can work with the move: the surround-style Farquhar has better acoustics and more comfortable seats than the 1913-built Royal, and its $2,700 daily rent includes $1,400 worth of labour, for which RMTS bills separately, and at far higher rates. “There are significant savings for us to be at the Farquhar.”
Opera and dance need a proscenium stage, though, with wings for sets and performers to wait in, and they have no alternative to the Royal. POV’s Rye says they could reduce “dark days” by moving five weekend performances to weekdays, but that will cut ticket sales by seven percent. “Needless to say, reducing attendance is not [our] mission,” he says, “nor does the loss in ticket revenue help offset the hundreds of free and subsidized seats we extend to the community each production.”
Besides, how many more shows will the Royal get? The RMTS says it had to turn away concerts by Buddy Guy and Morrissey, and talks by Rick Mercer and astronaut Chris Hadfield (who ended up at Sidney’s Mary Winspear Centre) because nonprofits had tied up the theatre. But the biggest money is made from Broadway shows like Jersey Boys, which held eight performances in six days, and the presenter who brings them here says what he can do is limited by the theatre itself.
“The technical aspects of the Royal Theatre are way outdated,” says Henry Kolenko. “It’s a [rope-rigged] ‘hemp house,’ so it can’t fly the pieces we need to do bigger shows. More importantly, it doesn’t have the wing space or the depth.” Kolenko is based in Vancouver, but he grew up in Victoria, and finds it weird that a provincial capital still doesn’t have a modern theatre. “I can bring The Lion King to Thunder Bay, but I can’t bring it to the Royal Theatre because it just won’t fit.” (The RMTS has studied extending the Royal’s backstage, but that would cost millions and shutter the venue for months.)
Kolenko’s shows may soon find a new home, though — in Langford. “The next big project is a theatre,” Mayor Stew Young tells me over the phone. Now that Langford’s built its infrastructure and recreation facilities — with the expansion of Westhills Stadium nearly complete, 18 months after it was announced — he says, “it’s time to start planning something.”
Langford’s economic development committee will start studying the needs, costs, and private partners for a new theatre in the coming year. “I need the private sector excited and involved,” Young says. “I don’t want politicians driving it, I want real people in the room.” It could be part of a development, or a film studio, potentially on four acres next to Costco. He wants classrooms there too, so students can perform on the same stage they train upon. “I want it to be used by the public every day.”
Young was at the Victoria premiere of Jersey Boys, talking up the possibilities. Back in 2013, the City of Victoria refused to let Kolenko promote Stomp! with a huge banner on the side of the Royal building, so he got in touch with Young, who shut down Goldstream Avenue for a free show by Stomp! performers. The Royal run sold out, and ever since then, Langford’s economic development committee has regularly sponsored Kolenko’s productions. “We’d like some shows out our way,” Young says.
He’s likely to get them, and when he does, the RMTS may be begging its anchor tenants to return.
“We have to support our local artists. Otherwise, we will have no art.” Ross Crockford didn’t say that, but wishes he did.
Edited by Ross Crockford