Emerging companies are an essential part of the arts ecosystem and we need to produce innovative work to inspire and support the work of our bigger compatriots.
Ad-hoc performing arts collectives, such as Against the Grain Theatre (AtG), often don’t qualify for operating funds. For these collectives, the scramble for resources is an ever-present challenge. Yet it’s amazing how often the most unique and creative works, even when they’re reinventions of oft-produced classics, come out of such collectives when every production can make or break them.
One such production is AtG’s upcoming adaptation of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, titled Figaro’s Wedding (May 29-June 2, 2013, Burroughes Building, 6th Floor), which takes place in contemporary Toronto and is intended to make audiences feel as if they were attendees of a wedding rather than an opera performance. The unconventional setting and new English libretto offers a new way of connecting with an old classic, and we’re pleased to be doing a two-part feature on the team behind the scene!
In the first of the two-part Q & A with Against the Grain Theatre, general manager Nancy Hitzig gives us a glimpse of the kinds of challenges faced by ad-hoc theatre collectives.
How would you describe your role in the performing arts? Is it what you had set out to achieve when you began your career, or did it change along the way?
I originally started out as a singer! The first opera I ever saw was Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro put on by Opera Atelier at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. I remember thinking that it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I very much wanted to sing the role of Susanna.
I love performing, but about midway through my studies, I realized that I loved the art of business and felt my talents were better suited to helping my fellow artists. I was lucky enough to land a job working at Opera Atelier as its manager of education and marketing, and that experience solidified my desire to produce great art.
What was the impetus behind the founding of Against the Grain Theatre a couple of years ago? What has been the reception so far?
Joel [Ivany] started Against the Grain (AtG) as an opportunity to self-produce, but it has grown into something much more. We are a team, a collective, a group of highly competent “opera pros.” We are perceived to be bigger than we are in number, but there are only five of us at the core. We have no operating funds, and each show is a huge risk. We wrestle with the same challenges that all companies face but without a safety net.
We are so lucky to have built a reputation that makes extremely gifted artists want to work with us. We’re fun! And it really is a collaborative process, which changes the dynamic of the performance—and I believe the audience feels that.
Tell us more about your upcoming production of Figaro’s Wedding. What kind of experience can the audience expect?
The audience will certainly feel a part of the action. Each person will feel as though he or she is attending a contemporary wedding. It will certainly be different from the Figaro you know and love, but still masterful. I know Joel, Toph [Christopher Mokrzewski] (AtG music director), and our cast and creative team will knock your socks off.
What do you see as the main challenges for opera in particular and performing arts in general? Could you share some examples of the kinds of challenges that you have faced yourself as a performing artist?
The main challenge: resources, both financial and material. As an ad-hoc (and somewhat cheap and cheerful) collective, we struggle for resources and aren’t eligible for operating funds. We also have difficulties finding pianos across the city in these unusual venues. We were lucky enough to have the support of Robert Lowrey Piano Experts for our last show at the Extension Room—which made a world of difference—but we aren’t always so lucky. Toph has played some pretty battered instruments!
What words of advice do you wish you had been given when you were first starting out?
Make a budget that reflects real numbers. What does it cost to hire an ADC designer? How much are Equity singers per week? How do the RRSP and fees change that number? And don’t be discouraged. Emerging companies are an essential part of the arts ecosystem, and we need to produce innovative work to inspire and support the work of our bigger compatriots. No matter what size your organization is, you will always have to raise funds.
Oh, and have fun. Live in that moment when the audience applauds. You helped bring them to that room. Savour it.