In the wake of Apr. 13's announcement that Garth Drabinsky is stepping down as CEO of Livent Inc., the Toronto theatre community has been evaluating Drabinsky's immense contribution to the Toronto/Canadian theatre scene.
Since 1989, when Drabinsky and partner Myron Gottlieb created their company, the face of Toronto theatre has changed irrevocably. As Richard Ozounian, who has worked for Drabinsky as a director and is now creative head of TVO (Ontario's equivalent to PBS), told the Toronto Star: "He raised the stakes. He increased the amount of product, helping make Toronto a very significant centre for musical theatre. And he changed the way you sold things.
"Drabinksy's thunderous method of advertising -- centred around multiple full-page ads -- has made the marketing of live theatre an exercise in shouting. That's a blessing and a curse. It did wonders for The Phantom of the Opera, yet the cost of marketing forced ticket prices way up.
"And at the same time, those big ads took all the impact out of that little ad down in the corner of the page, where a small company might be trumpeting the fact that it had the best play of the year according to all the critics. That's the downside."
Richard Monette, Stratford Festival's artistic director, responded to The Star: "People don't come to Toronto because we have hotels, they come for the culture. Garth has been a dynamo in building that. It makes the city rich, alive." And Martin Bragg, general manager of Canada's largest not-for-profit theatre, Canadian Stage, told the paper: "Garth's presence has had a huge trickle-down effect on us. He has had a lot to do with developing an enormous new audience. And after people saw Phantom and a few other big productions, they began to make a habit of looking at the entertainment sections for their next night out.
"Incrementally, over the years, we've seen a crossover audience develop that's been very, very beneficial to us. And no, we can't compete with those big ads -- but that's forced us to push our limits, artistically, and in terms of production and marketing. He's forced us to raise the bar."
Whatever happens next (and Drabinsky is insisting that his planned new theatre and office tower next to The Pantages announced only one month ago, is still a go), there is fear in the great White North that Ovitz will move Livent's office base to the States, thus robbing Canada of both a major producing force and a major cultural employer.
As Bragg put it to The Star: "The fact that a Canadian became a major force in the international theatre world and chose to develop his shows here in Toronto created a tremendous amount of work for Canadians. So what happens next will be critical."
There is also a very real question as to how much power Drabinksy will have in the future to realize his big bucks visions -- which to date have put Livent Inc. into the hole for C$44 million.
By Mira Friedlander