Season opening galas are in full swing. And if I didn’t know better, I’d surely think I was living in an episode of Slings and Arrows. It’s possible that everyone in the arts world is already familiar with this Canadian television import, which aired in the U.S. on the Sundance Channel a few years back. But if not, the show, which follows onstage and back-of-house operations at the fictional New Burbage Shakespeare Festival, is essential viewing.
I’ve just gotten around to viewing all three seasons (six succinct episodes each), after hearing about it for ages from theater-geek friends who regularly attend Ontario’s real-life Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where most of Slings and Arrows creators and cast logged considerable time. The show is atypical of backstage stories in that it gives equal weight to artistic and management situations (when else have an executive director and his associate been main characters?); the tug of war between them manages to cover virtually every worry, concern and passing trend expressed in the arts for more than a decade.
New Burbage might most resemble Stratford, but it could be any arts organization in any genre in any location. The very first episode opens with a shot of Theatre sans Argent (Theater without Money), where the founder, a soon-to-be-central character, is unclogging the toilet while going over a list of absolutely-must-be-paid bills with an associate.
Back at the larger New Burbage Festival, management and artistic departments tend to operate in their own spheres unless brought together over some marketing, programming or financial crisis: There’s bad wine at the opening gala; the hostile Minister of Culture resents having to meet the ED about funding; grant application deadlines are always looming; the local critic has run another negative column about the lackluster season; the corporate sponsor’s New Burbage theme park model sends the festival founder into a coma; over-eager and/or unmotivated interns clog the office; an overbearing, intellectually puzzling director declares his disdain for “accessibility” and forbids Romeo from looking directly at Juliet; the edgy marketing guru’s rebranding campaign, depicting subscribers attached to tubes in hospital beds, has brought a flurry of furious cancellations; one elderly subscriber actually dies in her seat. Meanwhile, the only place cash registers are ringing is the newly expanded gift shop, where audience members haul away logo mugs and Munch “Scream” inflatables that say more about the festival environment than about Shakespeare.
Kinda familiar, eh? Slings and Arrows brilliantly weaves in all those real-life worries and concerns while offering insights into why people working in the arts love it so. They may be little-known actors, operations managers, assistants and general managers in a smallish town, but they choose to return season after season. And their passion makes Shakespeare’s work contemporary, relevant and utterly beautiful. Still, there are constant battles for new audiences, demands for more populist fare, and declarations that theater is dying. (Even the ED admits he hates Shakespeare, while waxing poetic about Mama Mia!.) In the final season, a troubled production of King Lear is moved from the main stage to the studio workshop, in favor of the festival’s big hit, the Rent-like musical East Hastings.
Art imitating life, or life imitating art? I haven’t been to Stratford, but complaints about classical productions there losing out to an increased emphasis on musicals and bigger-ticket fare have been reported, and confirmed by my local Slings and Arrows fans. By no means is it a new story. But neither is the pursuit of younger audiences, calls for better marketing, more aggressive development efforts and experimentation with new performance models cited in virtually every news story about arts operations.
The only remedy is a season-opening Slings and Arrows marathon. It won’t really make things better, but it’ll let you laugh, and cry, in your beer—or your souvenir gala champagne flute.