Theatre department treading water
Despite URSU funding alleviating some concerns, the department’s long-term financial future is still in question
Fact: students like free shit. Fact: students don’t like paying for things that they used to be able to get for free. The theatre department knows it. Every year, the department puts on between three and four productions that the students are able to go and watch for free. Recent cuts to their budget have been pushing the department closer and closer to having to charge students admission to get into the shows.
Prior to this year, the department has been a relatively autonomous, miniature theatre company within the university, receiving funding from the administration, but not from the University of Regina Students’ Union. However, this changed in February when URSU granted the theatre department $1500 for the current season.
“Pedagogically, that’s how we see ourselves; we operate as a small theatre company and that enables actors, technical students, and designers to feed into that season like a professional artist, which is kind of unique within the university environment – to have a theatre company that operates in that way,” explained department head Kathleen Irwin. “We’ve done this for the past 40 years really; this is typically how we operate. We are reasonably well supported by the university, but in the past ten years our budgets have diminished and diminished and diminished. Right across the faculty there’s been a lot of belt-tightening going on, and we’re certainly feeling the ramifications of [it] so that our budgets have not increased in the past ten years, but the cost of production increases.”
The department still has been able to maintain the usual quota of productions per season, but budget cuts are inducing drastic effects on the productions. Recently, the department’s policy of allowing students to view shows for free with a valid student ID was called into serious question.
“At this point we looked at our budget, and we’re really at the tipping point as to whether we can maintain that open-door policy,” Irwin said. “At that point I thought ‘I’m desperate; we’re not going to get any more money from the administration at the university. This is a really great surface, I feel, for the students; maybe URSU could help us.’”
URSU’s contribution has enabled the theatre department to maintain free admittance to students, although it’s far from a cure-all.
“Starting the ball rolling with $1500 is a … nice inducement to continue the open-door policy,” Irwin said. “For the time being, we are able to do it.”
One of the biggest pressures for the department is to make back $6000, which is to be remitted to the Faculty of Fine Arts’ budget. Failure to recoup this money means that the deficit is taken out of the theatre department’s budget for the following year.
“Historically, that was not the case; [in the past] if we had box office, we would bring it in and recycle it into the shows. Now this $6000 is becoming increasingly onerous and increasing pressure. We’re in a bind … We don’t want it trailing behind us because obviously it will continue to reduce what we do twelve months forward.”
While the theatre department has been able to adapt to receiving less money annually, each year has its consequences: smaller shows, less elaborate costumes, and recycled props. Yet, even with all of these money-saving strategies, the cost of production rises with each year. Combined, these realities have an effect on the performances that the students put on. And the performances put on by the theatre department are more than just entertainment; the production season is real-life work experience for the students involved with the program.
“Our theatre season is as much like a professional theatre season as we can make it, but part of it is that the season is there to serve our pedagogy,” Irwin said. “We have actors that need a good acting experience on the main stage … on the small, environmental … theatre; we have technical students that need to learn how to hang lights and fly flies. [We] have sound design, light design, design students that need to learn how to paint sets and make costumes and design on the big stage and small stage. As we reduce, we end up not being able to provide good opportunities for the students.”
Hypothetically speaking, if the theatre department has to start charging admission for students, what are the implications? Surely, they can’t be too drastic. Irwin believes the contrary.
“If we institute a charge, fee, or ticket price to students – even if it’s five dollars, which is nominal – students, with everything else they have on their plate, frequently will say, ‘No, we’re busy. I’d rather take the five dollars and go to the Owl or whatever.’ And I respect that; students have a lot of pressure on their lives. But they do come if it’s free … We’re obliged to disseminate what we do, get it out there, and educate students about the fine arts and about the theatre and keep it attractive for them. That’s what I want to do. If Kyle [Addison] hadn’t come forward with support, I’m not sure what we would do.”
For the time being, URSU’s injection of funding will have to suffice. Irwin doesn’t expect to gain much more than what they’ve received in the short term. Long-term financial support is dependent on more than convincing the new executive to continue the funding, says Irwin.
“Long-term depends on Saskatchewan’s fiscal situation. We seem to be in good times, and yet the university is not reaping the benefit of those good times. As a consequence, the theatre department is not reaping the benefits of the good times … We’re in a climate right now where I think increasingly, the fine arts are seen as ‘the gravy’ in an education, something less than necessary, something that can be easily cut. We are a liberal arts institution, and within the liberal arts the fine arts play a very important role.”
Part of the problem with funding the Faculty of Fine Arts is the amount it costs to teach the programs. Teaching Theatre 262 is much different from a Biology lecture where it is possible to fill a lecture hall with hundreds of students. These students need spaces to work, and hands-on experience doing so.
“In a climate where statistics are all-important, the fine arts are seen as being a discipline where it costs a lot to educate a fine arts student. You have to run a theatre in order to teach thirty students. You have to run an art gallery, or provide computers with fancy software in order to teach intermedia students. It’s expensive to teach fine arts students. That’s always looked at critically.
“You want large numbers; you want to be able to lecture large numbers, and you can’t teach an artist about their craft by lecturing to them. They need studios; they need hands-on; they need spaces to learn; they need to be able to maintain a theatre. Those are expensive subjects to teach, and that’s what’s going to be scrutinized increasingly, unfortunately.”