JWR Articles: Commentary

Buskerfest 2012

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May the best Buskerfest win?
Busk, verb intrans. Play music, or otherwise entertain, for money in public places.

Googling “Buskerfest Niagara,”—to the uninitiated—produces some interesting results these days:  The Niagara Buskerfest opens its weekend run today; The Niagara Falls Buskerfest lifts off August 31. The latter used to be the former until Lyndesfarne Theatre Project’s inaugural venture into a free street festival last summer ended up in a financial crater. Relations became strained between the City of St. Catharines and the intrepid theatre troupe (squabbling over grants and loan guarantees: the City being a primary funder in 2011). Just a few months ago, Lyndesfarne abandoned the Garden City and moved to the welcoming arms of Niagara Falls where it will try to bring culture to Queen Street in the ashes of Gypsy Theatre’s failing attempt.

Seeing a vacuum and simultaneous funding opportunity, for-profit Value Media Corp. (based in Niagara-on-the-Lake), egged on by Mayor Brian McMullan’s support, rebranded the fest and got it up and running in record time. Organizer William Montgomery sees it as a natural fit with his company’s Better Living Show (next week at the Pen Centre).

Yesterday, we learned that the construction bids for St. Catharines’ new arts centre came in $10 million over the budget estimates (or ~25%). Earlier in the week, the Toronto Star revealed that the Shaw Festival’s 2013 cash generator (this season Ragtime is filling the coffers—cross-reference below) will be Frank Loesser’s Broadway hit, Guys and Dolls.

Putting all of these activities together, perhaps it’s time to have a serious chat about mission drift.

Buskers are the original one-man band. Travelling from place to place, corner to corner they do their thing then pass the hat. Some very fine examples can be heard daily in many of our largest cities. Buskerfests turn the notion on its head: sponsors and governments come up with the cash, the performers are given guarantees and the public can watch for free instead of insuring quality control with their offerings of loonies, toonies or more (nonetheless, in St. Kitts “donations are welcome").

Struggling theatre companies are not necessarily the best managers of festivals out of their fields. (Lyndesfarne’s hottest acts are fuelled by some of the region’s finest actors—not the tension of high-wire daredevils above the Falls.) The purported spillover audience development is nothing short of artistic fool’s gold: Will the legions of fans who savour a flame eater consequently snap up seats for a performance of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Highly trained, well-paid consultants and staff were tasked with the job of ensuring the coming St. Catharines arts centre would be a model of planning: on-time and on-budget. With the missed-it-by-a-mile estimates from all four short-listed firms raising serious doubts as to why the tender process could have failed so miserably, the consequences can be much more dire. Plan B—once the city satisfies itself with the contractors’ rationale for these first-step bids—can only diminish the viability of the already slimmed-down project (still, imagine Wagner worrying about the actual cost of his Ring Cycle to the King of Bavaria!). Typically, predictably the artists who must live with the result will have little say on whatever compromises are required (similar to the old joke about bringing cost efficiency to 100-piece symphonies: if 12 violinists are all playing the same notes, just eliminate the other 11 to enjoy savings. Sad to say that prescription has gutted pit orchestras everywhere, most recently on Broadway—cross-reference below).

Perhaps the City will have to stand on its own street corners, hoping its performance will fill enough tin cups to ensure that the arts centre’s physical plant will be worthy of its rent-paying tenants. No worries. If the rents are out of reach, a purposely disorganized back-to-its-roots, year-round busking industry will emerge at King and James, saving civic coffers the annual grant required for Value Media’s new regime.

For the Shaw, it continues to follow (a decade later) down the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s artistic path. Asking its talented actors to also become triple-threat musical troupers has always been a risky business (inevitably, the really good ones—notably Deborah Hay and Ken James Stewart—are poached by Canada’s Theatre-on Avon). But the popular appeal of well-known titles frequently trumps the namesake of this storied theatrical enterprise. Curiously, Stratford seems to have come full circle, adding more of the Bard’s canon than in many previous seasons and being rewarded with great houses (and fewer musicians to pay) when the productions are up to snuff (Cymbeline, the most recent example).

Given the broader picture of the arts in all of Niagara, it’s more than a bit disconcerting (and embarrassing when trying to explain the current state of artistic affairs on the Peninsula to those who’ve never sampled our wares) to have Busker Wars, cost overruns and short-sighted programming make the headlines when rave reviews and the underlying sense of “all for one, one for all”—if lived—might well fill empty seats and street corners everywhere.

Or put another way:

Oft have I heard that grief softens the mind,
And makes it fearful and degenerate;
Think therefore on revenge and cease to weep.

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Newsmaker - Brian McMullan
Further information, future screening/performance/exhibition dates,
purchase information, production sponsors:
City of Niagara Falls City of St. Catharines Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects Shaw Festival
Cross-reference(s): Please click on the image link(s) below
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