Gladstone Theatre lease-holder confident show will go on

The co-artistic director of the company that holds the lease for the Gladstone Theatre said Tuesday he could be part of a group of investors to acquire the building now that current owner Steve Martin has decided to put it up for sale.

 “I’m optimistic that one way or another that not only will the theatre be sold, but be sold to an individual, an entity, a collection of individuals, whatever it is, that will one way or another see 910 Gladstone continue to be The Gladstone, continue to be a theatre,” said David Whiteley, who, in addition to his role with Plosive Productions, is also the co-ordinator of the theatre’s busiest season yet.

Mr. Whiteley said he is in discussions with people who might be interested in keeping a functioning theatre in the building on Gladstone Avenue, just west of Preston Street.

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That is music to the ears of Mr. Martin, who purchased the theatre in October 2007 for $525,000, pumped $1 million into it and is now listing it at $995,000.

“I would definitely take a $25,000, $50,000, $75,000 hit to maintain it as a theatre,” said Mr. Martin, who joked that he bought the theatre so he wouldn’t have to audition for roles. “Certainly, I would love for it to stay as a theatre, because as an actor, it’s just one more place for me to work. I do realize it’s kind of a double-edged sword for me.”

But being debt- and stress-free would be “a lot nicer,” he added.

After acquiring the theatre, Mr. Martin produced the first two seasons. He said he has since realized he belongs on the stage and not in the office.

“The truth is all the things that happen before anybody even steps on stage, before opening night, all that stuff is a headache and stressful for me, like the producing, the hiring actors, dealing with actors and agents and union reps and licensees,” Mr. Martin said. “The administrative stuff was never anything that I was ever good at. I just don’t derive any kind of enjoyment from it.”

Beginning in 2011, Mr. Martin became the landlord, with Plosive Productions taking over the lease and production responsibilities. It turns out being a landlord wasn’t for him either, he said.

Plosive’s leases would run from September to May, leaving the summer months to Mr. Martin to program.

“This June, July and August has been challenging,” he said. “I had some shows planned and I had to cancel those and I decided to do my own show, which is opening (Tuesday night).”

I’m Not Jewish But My Mother Is will be Mr. Martin’s swan song. He remains convinced a theatre can work at the location, which housed the Great Canadian Theatre Company before that group moved to the corner of Wellington Street and Holland Avenue in 2007.

“I really believe that it can be successful, that it can snowball into something huge for this city and for actors and the general public,” he said. “Everybody can win on this, but I really feel it’s time for me to pass the baton and unfortunately, I can’t guarantee to whom I’m going to pass it.”

Mr. Martin said there have been 10 showings so far, but none of the prospective buyers were interested in running a theatre. A sale would be contingent on maintaining Plosive’s lease through June 2016, ensuring the completion of the 2015-16 season.

Mr. Martin said he felt one prominent Ottawa promoter in particular could make a lot of money running the venue.

“(Bluesfest executive director) Mark Monahan, my goodness, if he had a passion for theatre, this guy could take that tiny space and fill it 365 days a year with music, live theatre and market it the way he does Bluesfest, he’d be making millions. I’m not kidding. He’d make a ton of money,” said Mr. Martin, who insists the theatre could be profitable running a five-production season that would run 15 weeks a year. The rest of the days, the building could be rented out for additional profit.

Mr. Martin said fewer shows is the way to go, as opposed to the 19 shows over 40 weeks that are programmed for this season.

“I totally understand why David has 19 shows, because he needs to fill the space to pay the rent, but when you have 19 shows, no one person is going to buy a subscription for 19 shows. Not going to happen,” said Mr. Martin.

Mr. Whiteley, however, says the business model at the Gladstone is “viable,” adding there is plenty of demand from independent theatre companies to sublet from Plosive when it isn’t putting on its own shows.

He said Plosive has been breaking even since taking over the facility in 2011 and plans to increase marketing ahead of Norman Conquests, a trio of comedies it will produce at the Gladstone beginning in late August.

While Mr. Martin said he never had money left for promoting his productions after buying the rights to plays, paying actors, building sets and just getting the play ready for opening night, Mr. Whiteley said marketing is critical.

“It’s not so much a question, aside from the issue of cash flow, it’s not, ‘Do I have money to spend and lose on marketing?’ The idea is that by investing in marketing, we will get more people attending and … the tickets we sell will pay for that marketing.”

Mr. Whiteley said there is a lot of collective wisdom among the 12 companies producing at The Gladstone in the upcoming season, knowledge Mr. Martin didn’t have when he first opened. He has also been in contact with other producers for advice, as well as John Muggleton, who used to handle all the marketing for the Ottawa Little Theatre.

Mr. Martin said if Mr. Whiteley is successful in packing the venue this season, the collective group of theatres that use The Gladstone would “easily” have enough money to acquire the building.

“Then they’d have to continue that year after year and then make a nice profit every year because the numbers do work. I didn’t do it blindly,” said Mr. Martin. “I just don’t have the skills to make it work, but when you run the numbers, they do work. You can be profitable producing theatre there.”

Should Mr. Whiteley fail to find an owner or fellow investors interested in keeping The Gladstone running, he said the obvious new location for Plosive Productions’ plays would be Arts Court.

But that’s clearly not his first choice.

“I would certainly prefer to stay where we have a working model at 910 Gladstone,” he said. “It will be a difficult thing to sort out if it comes to it. I really hope it doesn’t come to it.”

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