GCTC, U of O’s department of theatre aim for increased visibility

Starting in their 2018 season, the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC) will be turning one of their plays into a podcast and releasing it to the public, free of charge, as a way to grow their audience—something that many theatres, including the University of Ottawa’s department of theatre, are attempting to do.

The initiative was started several years before by Toronto’s Expect Theatre to put out productions from independent theatres, and has since expanded to several major theatres, including the GCTC.

Expect Theatre is primarily a theatre company but has recently started expanding into multimedia, with the podcast series PlayMe being their flagship project.

“What we loved about theatre was the ephemeral element of it, that you have to be at that place in that specific time to be able to catch that piece or else it’s gone,” said Chris Tolley, co-artistic director of Expect Theatre. “That’s kind of magical, but that’s also kind of a drawback because it means people around the country miss some really amazing work that’s happening because you can’t get to it or you’re just not there when it’s available.”

The podcast is the solution to this problem, giving people anywhere in the world access to independent—and now mainstream—Canadian theatre.

“A lot of people listen to podcasts now. It brings and connects a young, tech-savvy, on-demand, and diverse audience to theatre,” Tolley said.

Issues with public outreach are not limited to large companies. The U of O’s department of theatre is also seeking the same goal as the GCTC: to bring more people to its productions. The typical play’s audience is family and friends of the cast, and the department is working to bring in a wider range of students.

Older models of outreach, such as Facebook or press releases don’t work as well as they used to, explained Sylvain Schryburt, chair of the theatre department. No single outlet reaches all students, meaning that the department must spread its public outreach across multiple platforms, which can be hard without a devoted and consistent team.

“We’re trying to get more collaborations with other departments,” Schryburt said. “And so, we are starting to do publicity exchanges.” What the school of music is doing, for instance, is advertised to theatre students, and vice versa.

Master of Arts candidate and public outreach officer Louise Allaine identified other issues with the theatre’s image, explaining that students aren’t aware of what the theatre is doing. They either have preconceptions about old theatre and carry those with them, or make assumptions about contemporary theatre.

Schryburt identified another issue at the core of theatre—people are quick to judge, and carry those judgments with them. One bad theatre experience, Schryburt said, can turn someone off theatre for a long time.

“When you see a movie, and you see an average movie, you will still go back to movies,” Schryburt said. ‘When you see an average piece of theatre, generally, you’re much harder on it, and you tend to apply it to every piece of theatre. The reverse idea of that is that when you see an excellent piece of theatre, it exceeds your expectations.”

The department is hoping to beat those preconceptions with the opening of LabO. The downtown, off-campus theatre will be a major boost for public visibility, Schryburt hopes, and will stage daring new productions featuring collaborations with local artists and authors. Their opening production, for instance, will feature many new technologies and collaborations that the department has never attempted before.

Both student and professional theatre groups are facing a declining audience, but are finding innovative ways to bring theatre back into the spotlight by making it more accessible for potential theatregoers.