All the world’s a shrinking stage

Campus thespians are short on space and fighting for funding; some theatre groups say they need help to keep the curtain up

The QMT audition panel belts out a tune. This year, QMT’s production of Into the Woods will be performed in Grant Hall from Jan. 16 to 21.
The QMT audition panel belts out a tune. This year, QMT’s production of Into the Woods will be performed in Grant Hall from Jan. 16 to 21.
Photo: 
Last year, QSOC saw ticket sales drop when they performed Les Dialogues des Carmelites in Grant Hall.
Last year, QSOC saw ticket sales drop when they performed Les Dialogues des Carmelites in Grant Hall.
Credit: 
Journal File Photo

Michael Murphy, ArtSci ’07, Queen’s Musical Theatre (QMT) artistic director, said he’s tired of feeling like a squatter in his own school.

“Sometimes to rehrease we actually sneak into classrooms at night, squat for the evening, and then put all the chairs and desks back,” he said. “That’s how desperate things have become.”

Murphy, who also runs Staged and Confused, a student theatre company that performs in Kingston and Toronto, said the dramatic arts at Queen’s need more space and more money.

This year, Murphy said Staged and Confused won’t be performing in Kingston because of shortages in venues and funding.

“Drama at Queen’s is terribly marginalized. We are in the basement of Theological Hall, and we are competing for space,” he said. “The department has three theatres: Convocation Hall, the Rotunda and the Vogt Studio, and they are in constant use for classes and rehearsals for the academic program.”

Murphy said the cramped space in the department means the 10 other student theatre groups on campus are in a bind too.

“This means that student groups scramble for space, and it is hard on campus to find areas that are big enough and that you can make noise in,” he said. “It is a mad scramble between booking space in the JDUC and in residence. It is a constant challenge.”

Murphy said he thinks university students want to support the unique experience of live theatre.

“There are a lot of people on campus who want to come out to shows and get involved,” he said. “The sheer engagement with actors and the theatre that you get with a live audience is unparalleled. Some of the talent that students here have is unbelievable.”

Craig Walker, the undergraduate chair of the drama department, said the department did what it could to help students.

“We currently have three theatres, a shop and three classrooms, and they are always booked to capacity,” he said. “Because the department knows about the problems with space, we do make our space available to student groups, but there is only so much that we can do.”

Walker said the department is struggling with rising enrollment; their current facilities can barely accommodate the influx of students.

“It’s true that our enrollment has increased a lot in the past few years, and we have increased the size of individual classes as far as they can go,” he said. “While 24 people in a class might not seem like a lot, in an acting class, you can’t get any larger than that.

“Something has to give, either more space or fewer students, and I don’t see enrollment going down,” he said.

Walker said he thought the city should do more to help student theatre groups connect with community members.

“The work of student groups is valuable, but city council has really been derelict in its responsibilities,” he said. “They’ve closed the Grand and Baby Grand Theatres without making any provisions for theatre in Kingston.”

Walker said the drama department hopes the proposed J.K. Tett Centre renovation on King Street will ease the burden for student theatre groups and the drama program.

In July, Queen’s alumnus Alfred Bader donated $14 million for the University to purchase the land east of campus from the city. The University has proposed to use the space for a new arts complex.

“It has been discussed that music, film, fine arts and drama could all be moved to this campus,” he said. “While the idea of building a new arts centre is interesting, we would expect the University to meet or exceed what we currently have now.”

Walker added that the proposal is still in planning stages.

“It won’t be seen by this generation of students.”

In the short term, campus theatre groups can look forward to the opening of the student centre at Macgillivary-Brown Hall this week.

Glenn Best, AMS student centre officer, said the facility includes a stage area that can accommodate an eighty person audience.

“This year the building will house club space, the AMS Foodbank, AMS offices, lounge space and bookable space that includes a stage and audience area,” he said. “Students and theatre groups will be able to book the stage for presentations, rehearsals and performances.”

Best said groups will need to supply their own lighting and technical equipment, and shows selling tickets will be charged a rental fee for the space.

Chris Oldfield, ArtSci ’08 and Gnu Ground Theatre Company co-producer said the group won’t be putting on any shows this year in part because of problems finding adequate space.

“Last year we went up in Douglas Library, which was a huge hassle and really alienated some of our audience members,” he said. “Performing in spaces like that makes you think twice about doing another show.”

Even if larger venues are available, Oldfield said, the cost of renting them exceeds the budget of most student groups.

“If you want the official theatres, like the Rotunda or Vogt, that costs $600 a week or more,” he said. “Unless you’re putting on a big show, you can’t make that kind of money.”

Oldfield said free spaces like the Douglas Library and the Red Room in Kingston Hall are available but they aren’t designed for performing.

“The free rooms don’t have lighting boards or large seating capacities, and they just aren’t accessible,” he said. “Last year we did a show in the Red Room and when we moved our stuff in at noon, another group still had to move their stuff out. The space really isn’t easy to use.”

Student theatre has also been affected by the 2005 closure of the Grand and Baby Grand Theatres on Princess Street for renovations.

David Smith, the theatres’ acting general manager, said he anticipates the theatres won’t re-open until 2008.

“I understand that there is a crunch there, and we want to support the arts in Kingston,” he said. “We had a very good relationship with Queen’s theatre groups and students there, and it is our hope that they will come back to us in the future.”

Before the theatres closed, both QMT and Queen’s Student Opera Club (QSOC) rented the Grand for $850, half the commercial rental rate.

Ian Everdell, PhD candidate and QSOC production manager, said the group will perform in Duncan McArthur Hall this year because other spaces either weren’t adequate or were already booked.

“Last year we were in Grant Hall, but this year there was an event booked for a Monday night, and that meant we couldn’t get the space for a full week,” he said. “We’re anxiously awaiting the Grand to re-open.”

Everdell also said ticket sales decreased by 200 last year with the closing of the Grand—meaning QSOC now has less money to fund this year’s show.

“Two hundred doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is when we only hope to get 1,000 people out,” he said. “Our biggest struggle is money, and we depend mostly on ticket sales.”

Murphy agreed that student groups depend on ticket sales to keep shows running.

“For the most part, student theatre relies on box office, which is challenging. There is always that push to produce commercially viable work,” he said.

Murphy also said University students support theatre, but the Kingston community was reluctant to attend shows after the Grand’s closing.

“The closing of the Grand really killed our community audience,” he said. “Back in QMT’s heyday, when we performed at the Grand, we attracted audiences upwards of 5,000 people. We estimate that around 2,000 of that was Queen’s students, the rest were community.”

Murphy and Everdell both said their groups have reduced ticket prices this year in hopes of filling more seats.

“We lowered prices to $12 for students this year, because we’re performing on west campus and we need to motivate people to come see the show,” Everdell said. “At the same time, we need profit, so we can only cut prices so much, trying to balance ticket sales and making money.”

Besides box office profits, student groups can apply to be on the AMS opt-out ballot and are eligible for AMS grants.

Murphy said grants from the AMS were hard to come by.

“We’ve applied for University, AMS and ASUS grants in the past, and we are often told that we aren’t charitable enough,” he said. “There are other social causes that kind of trump the arts in terms of funding.”

Ben McNelly, AMS deputy commissioner of internal affairs, said any group could receive a grant.

“We offer two kinds of grants: club grants and assembly grants,” he said. “We tend to be impartial—we want to promote Queen’s, so if a group wants to use the money to do this, they could definitely get a grant. It’s not limited to social issues groups.”

McNelly said the AMS offers $5,000 in club grants to ratified groups and $1,000 in assembly grants for any student group on campus. However, McNelly said he did not know if any student theatre groups had received AMS grants last year.

Murphy also said that applying for municipal or provincial grants wasn’t an option for most student theatre groups.

“Municipal and provincial arts grants usually won’t recognize you unless you are a professional, out of school for at least two years, and until you are an incorporated not-for-profit organization,” he said.

Julian Brown, the treasurer for the Kingston Arts Council, said the council was willing to let student groups use their charitable status to apply for grants.

“With the applications to the Ontario Arts Council, you need to put in a great deal of work, and the applications are not quick,” he said. “By the time you’ve applied, waited and gotten any money, the school year is pretty well over.”

No matter where groups find funding, Oldfield said they need help to keep the curtain up.

“Student support for theatre is a lot bigger than I thought it was,” he said. “The problem is that while there is support, there aren’t resources. If we had more resources, we could do so much more.”

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