08 September 2013
A big thing happened to Toronto’s commercial theatre scene in 2012: Dancap Productions closed its doors. That’s huge. It essentially cuts big-budget theatre in half in the city. It reflects the massive (negative) shift in tourism over the last decade and leaves Mirvish Productions with a total monopoly over the presentation of Broadway hits and National Tours in Toronto.
But instead of focusing on where their departure leaves us, let’s celebrate that Dancap was here at all. Money-minded business man and earnest theatre patron Aubrey Dan started the company in 2007 and, in the 5 years that followed, kept David Mirvish on his toes by bringing in the exact sort of tourist-catered big-ticket Broadway fare that had made the Toronto dynasty so successful. Dan filled the massive gap left by the downfall of Phantom impresario Garth Drabinsky and gave musical theatre fans just a little too far north of New York the opportunity to see Broadway’s artistic successes like Next to Normal and In the Heights that might never have come to town otherwise.
The smash success of the Dancap’s production of Jersey Boys gave the city hope of being the theatrical centre it had been in the 90s, with a healthy competition between at least two major presenters. But damning border legislation and a creative rut in New York cut down theatrical tourism too drastically during Dancap’s tenure and the tricky business of big-risk theatre finally stopped making financial sense. Though the door is open for Dan to come galloping back in on the back of the Next Big Thing, for now the short golden years of Dancap are over. They will be missed.
To thank him for the daring and exuberant years he spent multiplying the scope of Toronto commercial theatre, we’re naming Aubrey Dan and Dancap Productions our Honorary My Theatre Award Winner for this year.
Below is an exit interview of sorts, a profile of a ballsy company and a celebratory look back on the who, what, why and how of Dan’s dream of theatrical domination:
Do you remember the moment you fell in love with theatre?
I have loved theatre always, from the sense that I’ve gone to the shows many, many times, and I remember going to New York a lot to visit my cousins, and being around 13 years old and seeing the production of Hair. So you can imagine being 13 years old and here you are with a stage full of all nude actors [Laughs]. I thought it was pretty cool, the fact that it was free spirit, it was engaging, the fact that I got in was pretty cool. So it was a combination of going to New York and developing an interest in theatre, but I can tell you that I was always an audience member. I never sang, I never performed—I, unfortunately, can’t do either. But I always developed an affinity.
Now, going to the next stage of “Why create a Dancap Productions?” that was a different moment in time. That was really when the first show- Urinetown, that I collaborated on with CanStage- where I really connected with the actors. The Canadian talent and their appreciation of getting the job and being able to perform in this kind of a quality show really hit me. Just, “Oh my gosh. How appreciative and wonderful and approachable these actors are.” I mean, you have to give them tremendous credit for what they have to do, performance after performance. To be an artist, you’re doing it for the love of. So, when you develop that appreciation for the art and the people doing the art, that sort of really compelled me to go, “Okay, now I’m sort of doing this as a hobby, maybe this can develop further.” So there’s really distinct stages- being one who was just an audience member, to one going, “Okay, I’m sort of involved, but I’m doing this as a major hobby,” the general partner really was CanStage, and I was an investor, to then moving to the next stage of, “Now I’m going to actually be involved and present.” So then from there, I began to morph into being able to produce and being involved in Broadway and the West End. So it’s really a multi-stage love affair.
Did you feel a responsibility, as an arts patron, to create more opportunities for performers?
Not at all. It was a simple question. The question was—and it was put to the Artistic Director of CanStage—“Why isn’t there more Broadway theatre in Toronto?” It’s a much bigger, broader picture. From there, once you answer that question, the rest follows.
So you’ve always had an affinity for the big musicals?
Yup. But at the same token, I still enjoy going to plays. I am an incredible supporter to the Shaw Festival, I’ve been going literally every summer for at least 20 years, and I make it a special retreat. So going to see unique shows that may be of a smaller type, for sure. So it depends. It’s the story—for sure I love big musicals, and the more you get into theatre, the more you realize that the business model lends to musicals as opposed to plays. Because of the opportunity that they’ll last longer. And you’ll make more money. That’s the business side of me.
Something that has always been remarkable about you is your enthusiasm. Did you find that jumping from attending and then presenting theatre as a hobby to making it a business hampered that enthusiasm at all?
I would say that going from the hobby side to running my own show was incredibly thrilling because it was—not that I had to be the center of attention, but I enjoyed being the ringmaster. I enjoyed creating the opportunity to, basically, make my personal mark—my personal connection with those members of the audience. If you’re doing it with another company, it’s not you. My philosophy has been to make a personal contact of every single person, wherever I could, to come see my show. Whether it’s the actors, the musicians, the stage crew, the front of house, it didn’t matter. But it was running my show, if that makes sense. So it literally puts you onto it. If I thought about strictly the money side only, I would have stopped after my first show. Because that is not the driver. Yes, you want to make money, you want to cover your costs, you want to build and grow, but whoever knows about theatre, you don’t do it for the money. It’s comparable to sports teams. Unless you own a specific piece to The Toronto Maple Leafs, you don’t invest in sports teams because you are doing it for the money. There are other ways to make money.
Do you have an absolute favorite show that you did?
I would say—there are so many favorite shows. One show that I’ve done the most, and for sure really has put my mark on Toronto is Jersey Boys. What was unique about that, was- I enjoyed touring casts, but nothing is better when you have your own Canadian cast members, your own musicians, your own team where you are integrated from A to Z. We were literally part of a team in all respects. Nothing is better and stronger than when you have that kind of relationship with people. Because night after night after night after night, and seeing what it does to the audience—that was, to me, the greatest joy.
If you could present any show in the world, what would you have picked?
Well, when you’re thinking about shows, you don’t think about what could have been done, you don’t think about what’s next. In fact, your mind is two or three years ahead. So when I’m thinking about shows—if I were to present—I’m already done [thinking through] two, three years—or even invested in shows—waiting to see how shows will develop and morph, and seeing how they’ll react. The show that I’m quite excited about is Matilda. It did incredibly well at The West End, with the Oliviers, and it’s done just as well in New York.
You brought in quite a few shows that were big Tony winners but weren’t as huge commercial hits in New York. Things like Next to Normal that attracted hardcore musical theatre audiences more than the average person. Was that part of the plan, to focus on quality, almost niche productions?
I would say that was part of the plan. Some of my investments a long time ago were in these shows. And again, when you develop a member base- and we had many thousands of members- part of it is not just to do great Broadway shows that aren’t totally known, but to introduce people to get them to experience shows that they might not have [seen otherwise], but are of that really high caliber. Next to Normal was an unbelievable cast. Jeremy Kushnier was part of that cast, Alice Ripley was in the original—brilliant. Many, many people wrote and communicated to me saying; “totally blown away.”
In the Heights was a show I invested in when it was off-Broadway, invested into the Broadway, invested into the tour, so I have a long history with that show, and I really wanted—because of the history, because of the fact that it is not your typical mass show, it’s a little bit different, but it’s got this wonderful charm—why not bring it to Toronto, and share? Because the philosophy that we had really was—and is—bring the best of Broadway. Period. That’s the mandate. If you’re only doing commercial shows, totally, you may only do one or two shows a year. So it’s really about selection—choice—and making sure that people learn.
The first time that we launched the company, we did The Drowsy Chaperone. And for a lot of people, they’d never seen it. They’d sort of heard—it’s in Toronto, it’s at the Fringe, it moved around, it went to New York, it won a bunch of Tony’s—but, what’s this show? And a lot of people, especially men, just were blown away. So, it started that first love affair—for me, it was great to bring home a Canadian production, and to have Bob Martin star in it.
Theatre is very random. There isn’t a formula. Period. So you have to be opportunistic. Sometimes you win some, sometimes you lose some, sometimes when you think that you’ve lost you’ve actually won.
For shows like In the Heights, which was actually my favorite one that you did, you got some criticism for bringing in a Non-Equity cast. Do you think that was a fair criticism?
Do I think [it had an effect on the production value]? No. It doesn’t have an effect in the sense that the sets, the lighting, the whole bit. They were all in New York. It was all from New York. Many of the New York actors who performed on Broadway started out as Non-Equity, and got their Equity card. When you’re renting a show, you don’t always have a choice of whether it’s going to be Non-Equity or Equity. When I got that show, and I did want it, because I had invested in it, that’s what was available. So you either take the show or you don’t. And I decided it was worth the risk to take it.
How has the theatre landscape changed since the heyday of theatrical tourism in the 90’s, and how does that affect Dancap, do you think?
Oh, it had a huge impact. Absolute massive impact. The biggest impact was that, in the 90’s, up to 40%, I was told, were Americans. Well, we all know what happened to the border. We all know what happened to the currency. During our two-year run of Jersey Boys, where 2 million people saw the show, there were 1-2% Americans coming to see the show. They’re not coming to Canada, they don’t need to—unless you have a bonafide megahit that you can’t get in the US, why come to Canada? And with the currency difference… First of all, 65% of Americans do not have passports, where a lot more Canadians do. So they’re not coming over. When you travel by car or bus, it’s a 1-3 hour waiting line [at the border]. And the key states—whether it be New York, Ohio, or Michigan—are manufacturing-based; we know what happened to them [in the 2008 financial crisis]. We got decimated [by the legal and financial restrictions for Americans crossing the border]. A friend of mine runs the Buffalo-Rochester circuit. He’s doing great—cause they’re all staying there—but the ticket prices are a fraction of what we’re charging here. But then again, their overheads are very different. So, massive impact [with the absence of] the Americans.
We also have a change of technology. Technology! Our biggest competitor, you figure, would be the entertainment world of sports and TV. It’s computers. It’s Netflix. If you can pay $8 and get whatever you want, whenever you want, on your internet, why go to a live show? Unless you actually love live shows. So you have to have people who are predisposed, or it becomes such a perceived event that you must go. So. It’s very different, much more challenging to pull people out of their seats, because when they’re home, they’re comfortable. If you compare a home market to a Broadway market- on Broadway, 65% are tourists. In Toronto, 90-85% of our customers are from the GTA. So you have to convince them to get out of their homes, you have to hit them more times. When you’re in New York, you’re already predisposed to go to a show. It’s on your bucket list. Toronto, you gotta actually work, and spend a lot of marketing money to convince people to reach into their pocket and spend.
Do you think any of that has to do with the sort of shows that are available on the market these days? There aren’t as many Les Mis’s and Phantom’s.
No. It’s really a consciousness. We had a two year run with Jersey Boys– that was the longest running show at the Toronto Center for The Arts, it wasn’t a location downtown—if it’s a phenomenal show and a phenomenal cast, people will come. Period. It wasn’t really, so much, the show quality—quite frankly, the taste of the audience has changed. The Miss Saigons, the big musicals of the 90’s—most of them were sung-through. People’s tastes today are not in favor of sing-through’s. They find them a little painful, quite frankly. They like to have a bit of a book, a bit of interaction. More entertainment, per se. And even today, now on Broadway, a Broadway show doesn’t know what a Broadway show should be. So it’s morphing, and evolving. Whether you had your jukebox musicals, whether you had your Christian shows, whether you had a lot of revivals, your Leap of Faiths, it’s really really hard to break through and to be something unique and differentiated. Much much different.
Can you walk me through the decision to close the doors on Dancap productions?
Sure. The decision is simple. The decision is a lack of inventory. The amount of shows in the last couple of years—and we could see it coming—shows that were mediocre to good. If that. Not enough really good to great shows. So when you start to put together a season you go, “I don’t even think I can put five shows together that I would want and be proud to present”. There are shows where the production quality’s been compromised, and again the same component of the economics of these shows became more and more challenging. The expectations of people seeing shows in Toronto are very high. So when I couldn’t put together those shows, and didn’t have the confidence that people would spend—because you literally have to invest millions of dollars, not just into the shows, but into the infrastructure as well—the people, the overheads, you name it. To run a business like this, it costs millions of dollars a year. So it came to the point where I was going, “I’m not seeing anything good.” And I have an advantage and a disadvantage. My advantage is that I don’t own a theatre. Because in the sense that, if I want to contract, I can. If I owned a theatre, then I would be forced to put on whatever shows I had to at least cover some of the overhead—regardless of what the audience wanted. So, there’s pros and cons to both. You have to look at the longer picture. So really the decision came down to the lack of quality of shows coming from Broadway. I had invested in a show called Ghost. It came from the West End, it went on to Broadway, I have the Canadian rights for it—it got killed. The critics killed the show. You start investing in some of those, you go, “Okay, well, great caliber, but not good enough.” You realize maybe the best thing to do is just to fold the tent for a while. If need be, prop it back up.
So the doors are open to come back in future seasons?
Absolutely. Who knows? It all comes down to, this is a content-driven business. It’s similar to the movies, in that if you’ve great movies coming out, the cinemas will be full. If there’s no great movies, they’re empty. They’re dead. We run the same way. Through the economic times—and we’re going through recessionary times, from 2008 forward— The fact is, we launched the company in the fall of 2007, and it started to fall off [last] summer, and the fact that we lasted so long during the recession is pretty incredible. But, in my opinion, it’s going to be at least a couple of years before things start turning around. And what happens is—two things—from a producer perspective, there aren’t enough investors to invest in shows to take risk. So that’s the first thing— lack of capital. The second thing being that producers who do, because they need an income, typically will produce more revivals. Because they’re safe. They may not make a lot of money on the show, but they get producer fees and so forth—that’s how they get their money. Because my business is complex—I mean, investments and Broadway shows—I’m not dependent on basically just Dancap productions. My analogy is: Dancap Productions has always been the sizzle of my steak. My investments are my steak. Which help me afford to have the sizzle. So if it doesn’t make sense from an economic [point of view] [Claps] don’t think twice about it. Pause. Wait. And see if it makes sense. That’s what business is all about. I mean, at the end of the day, I feel really good because there are no investors that got burned, there are no government grants—this is my business and I can do what I want. Nobody’s affected except that maybe there’s no great shows coming for a period of time. But the amount of real estate now in Toronto dedicated to shows—we have too much capacity. And I find that shortly after I announced [a hiatus for Dancap], my competitor decided to close his theatre and to build condos. And if you think about it, from a business perspective, that’s a wise move. If you look at dollars and cents, the economics make sense.
So you think there’s not enough room for another major commercial producer in Toronto?
No. Not until the content picks up. If there was incredibly robust content, maybe. For sure. I mean, the fact that I stepped up to the plate, had five great years—for sure. But you have to have a lot of content, a lot of product. Broadway does have a lot, but you have to think about it, that there’s a 15% success rate, and 85% failure rate. You think about that. Your odds are better to go to Casino Rama. From a business perspective.
Whatever happened to Prince of Broadway?
Ah. Whatever happened—it became, to a degree, a victim of the economy. A victim of—I would say, two aspects: the challenges of the funding, and the transparency and the availability of getting a theatre. It’s sort of a chicken and egg. In New York, it’s a very unique situation, where you have a backlog, at any given point in time, of all these producers, lined up, trying to get limited amounts of real estate. Let’s say there’s 30 [Broadway theatres], but well over—approximately—50% of them, they’re tied up. You’re not going to see Phantom go–or Wicked go, or Jersey Boys. Or Book of Mormon. So all these theatres are tied up, so there are a bunch of theatres that are available. So you then have to go and pitch to each different theatre—and there’s only three of them—that’s it. Besides the Walt Disney’s, which will do their own. And you’ve got the non-for-profits. You’ve got to pitch them, and convince them to house your show. Well, your whole machinery could be in the works of the production to do a show, but they say, “Oh, I have no theatre for you,” what do you do? You don’t move forward. And on top of that, raising capital—the cost of a new show has really become astronomical. It’s running minimum—minimum—for a Broadway musical, 10-12 million dollars. That’s a huge risk. Think about it. I’m going to roll the dice, and maybe I’ll succeed. Okay? Nuts. So those two components really compound where I said: Okay. I can raise a certain amount of the capital—and it’s a chicken and egg—unless you have a theatre that can raise the rest, and even then, the amount of investors—the pool of investors for a high-risk Broadway shows is very small. It’s tiny. [Claps] That simple.
Did you give any thought to producing it in Toronto, or maybe producing original content in Toronto of other kinds? To solve the content issue?
Well, the content challenge. In fact, we planned to do it in Toronto first—unfortunately that time the budget was 13.5 million, and there was no way I was going to raise 13.5 million. So I said, “Okay, what do we have to do to at least shave it down to 12?”. A million and a half of it would be marked up to Toronto. So that was my first decision. The problem is the shows cost so much. To develop a show from scratch really is four-five year process. You have to have an incredible community to support you—to engage you. Toronto, from a theatrical, critical perspective—today, now—my opinion is it’s toxic.
Absolutely. You’ll get sliced, diced, and chopped up five ways to Sunday by multiple critics. Whether you put something out that’s good or bad, they will get you. So it’s not a welcoming [environment]. Theatre’s a very creative process, okay? You take risks, creativity will evolve through time, and with a lot of luck, and a lot of perseverance, maybe you’ll find the right product. To go from conception to basically, pre-commercial, and commercial—and to even make [it to] Broadway, do you know what the odds are?
You might as well buy a lottery ticket. It’s that tiny, [the chance] of success. So you really have to have something break through. My model really has been, traditionally, find the best shows that are on Broadway, that are on The West End—the Best Of—and bring them to Toronto. Maybe if something evolved and developed that really made sense, from scratch, so be it. The Prince of Broadway was unique in the sense that, it was The Greatest Hits of Broadway— through Hal Prince’s lens. That was unique with a “take two” approach to the choreography that was being done by Susan Stroman, so you could sort of re-imagine- nod to the past, but re-imagine. Which made it quite exciting.
Is it gone completely, or are you just pulled out of it?
Well, I have pulled out, there are new producers who’ve taken over, but they are still gauging the temperature of the water, to see if—back to the financial appetite to invest. It’s that chicken and egg. Unless you have the money, and you lined up that money… [trails off]
What’s coming up next for you?
From a presenting in Toronto [perspective]—no. From a producing [perspective]—I still have my finger in the pie. I have a little investment in Matilda. So I’m quite confident that will do well. And it’s sort of, basically, pulling back, seeing what’s going to develop, and what won’t, and assessing it. There’s no rush, per se. These theatres that were available are still available—especially in Toronto. The city of Toronto still has no idea what they’re going to do with their current theatres. What I’m proud of is my relationships within the theatre community are strong, my knowledge and my education—compared to where I started—is night and day difference. So, you go back to full content. Until you find that right show, I’ll sit on the sidelines, and go to Broadway, go to the West End, and cheer on the actors. I still attend regularly, when the actors who performed for me—whether they’re doing cabarets or shows- I’m one of their biggest fans, and I cheer for them, all the time.
You mentioned The Shaw Festival. Are you still a major arts patron? And do you have other favorite companies?
I love going to all kinds of shows. Going to shows in Toronto, whether it be Soulpepper or Tarragon, whatever—I try to go to as many as possible. I’m going to the shows, I support them as much as I can, and cheer them on, because, the more you go to theatre, the more you appreciate it and the more that you enjoy it.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
It’s about entertainment, basically, with what’s going on in the world, to be in a business that creates hope, creates ambitions, and dreams, and desires, and that contributes something positive—if there’s anything, that’s what I want for my legacy to be. Is how it had a positive impact on people. And I still have a huge amount of communication with multiple, multiple people—whether it’s people who went to the show, or people who starred in the show, or whatever. And one of my desires—which I think I accomplished—was to be very real, up-front, and connect with people. Very accessible. And one of the things that drove me to do the national anthem [at every opening night] was, we as Canadians have a problem being proud to be Canadian. We do it in hockey games, we do it in sports games, why don’t we do it in theatre? And I saw it done in the US and I thought, “you know what?” And it was basically canned music, and I figured, why don’t we get one of our performers who’s been in one of our shows up there singing proudly? People showing their respect for their country and for what we are. And we as Canadians really are reluctant to do that. And to me theatre became a vehicle to do that—to be proud of who we are—and we need to celebrate more. So make this a big celebration, okay?
That’s the point of the Honorary Award- celebrating theatrical contribution, however intangible.