Richmond, Canada

Gateway to New Audiences

Gateway Theatre

June 2, 2014

Multicultural audience development means new artists, new content and new connections between communities

prayasWhen Jovanni Sy took over as the artistic director of Gateway Theatre in Richmond, B.C., the Toronto native saw something familiar. His mostly white audiences did not look like the population of his new home which was more than half of Asian descent.

It was one of the biggest problems facing Canada’s theatre establishment: how to attract new audiences in an increasingly diverse society.

Jovanni also realized that the Chinese community, Richmond’s dominant ethnic group, was not averse to live entertainment. It was already a big consumer of the performing arts in either Cantonese or Mandarin and had all the potential to become Gateway’s patrons, too.

His initial solution was to attract this new audience group by offering shows by Chinese-Canadian playwrights. When he got to know people living in and around Richmond better, Jovanni came up with a more original idea: bring in Chinese-language productions from abroad and present them with English surtitles (also known as supertitles, they are translated or transcribed lyrics/dialogue projected above a stage or displayed on a screen).

This August,the Gateway Pacific Theatre Festival will be featuring three productions from Hong Kong with English surtitles. If this pilot project succeeds, Jovanni plans to roll out a year-round Chinese-language, English-surtitled, alternative to his company’s subscription series of English-language plays.

Jovanni hopes all this activity will lead to producing new Canadian productions in Cantonese and Mandarin which could then be exported. “How great would it be if we could actually do George Walker or Judith Thompson in translation – regional Canadian production that we can then export overseas?” Jovanni asks in a Globe and Mail article. “We see our role down the road of being that gateway between Chinese-speaking countries and English-speaking Canada.”

Maytree’s Cities of Migration project has highlighted similar efforts to expand audiences and build bridges between communities. Two examples from Down Under, in Auckland, New Zealand, and Sydney, Australia, stand out.

Indian theatre in English

With Bollywood movies now reaching mainstream audiences outside South Asia, Auckland’s Prayas theatre company is attempting to do the same with works of Indian playwrights.

A not-for-profit organization formed by Indians living in the city, Prayas – which means “an attempt” in Hindi – is reaching out, sharing and integrating with the wider local population through theatre, music, song and dance.

Since 2005, Prayas has produced one show per year in English. Bringing together talent from across Auckland’s diverse population, the plays discuss social issues with lacings of humour and a few surprises.

In 2009, it created, Khoj – The Search, the story of a young man’s journey from Mumbai’s Colaba to Auckland’s Sandringham. Using Canadian author Rohinton Mistry’s debut collection of stories, Tales from Firozsha Baag, as its inspiration, Prayas held a series of theatre workshops to incorporate local migration stories into the script.

Prayas’ first play attracted more than 550 people from the wider community. The third was seen by more than a thousand. The company has also been recognized by the larger artistic community. It was invited to perform at an Auckland street theatre festival, which was an opportunity to perform for a more mainstream audience than usual.

Orchestrating new audiences

In the late 1990s, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO) realized that although its musicians reflected Australia’s increasing cultural diversity, its audiences continued to be mainly Anglo-Australians and Australians of western and eastern European origins.

SSO was definitely not growing its audience from among other ethnic groups that call Sydney home. Apart from English, Cantonese and Mandarin were among the top six languages spoken in the city along with Italian, Greek, Arabic and Vietnamese. While these groups regularly engage in a variety of cultural entertainment from outside of their communities, the orchestra was not in the mix.

In 2000, SSO decided to break this trend by engaging with Sydney’s long-established Chinese, Japanese and Korean communities. The strategy was to both cultivate these markets and use their feedback to help shape programming.

And it worked. In the first nine months, sales to Chinese and Japanese speakers in the community grew from 127 tickets a year to 1,250. In the first month of the bilingual ticket sales telephone line, annual subscriptions for the orchestra season went up by 200%.

multicultural audience development project by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and other Australian case studies like Who Goes There? and The World Is Your Audience provide further insights into audience development in culturally diverse cities.