When searching for theatre in Toronto, the Distillery District can be one of the best places to look. The neighbourhood is buzzing with artists and actors, and is home go some of the best production companies in the city. In the digital age, however, going out to see live theatre is far less common than going out to a movie or simply watching something at home.
One particular theatre company from the district has found a workaround they hope will get people back into stage drama. Expect Theatre, formed in 1996 by YorkU graduates Laura Mullins and Chris Tolley, is adapting to the tech driven times by creating PlayME, a series of podcasts intended to broadcast contemporary Canadian plays.
The idea for PlayME came a decade ago while writing a radio play for the CBC, explains Tolley. “We were present for the recording and found the whole process of creating an audio play really fascinating. With the rising popularity of podcasts, it made sense to us to pair our audio knowledge with our theatre skills.” This realization combined with the financial challenges that come with funding a production, forced Tolley and Mullins to develop a new way of achieving their goals; they did so by creating their own work and showcasing original, Canadian content.
As series’ like Serial have proven, podcasts are becoming an increasingly popular medium for listeners to absorb information and entertainment. Tolley and Mullins explain that their goal for PlayME is to publicize performances and make them available to podcast users. Needless to say, the visuals of a performance don’t matter in this context, as long as the actors’ voices are of a high calibre, the performance will allow for an enjoyable podcast. The two pledge to include both established playwrights and up-and-comers looking to find their voice.
With lack of diversity such a prominent subject in visual arts, Expect Theatre have made it their priority to represent Toronto’s diverse population. Tolley says that this has been their goal since the formation of Expect Theatre.
“From day one we realized we couldn’t engage our audience unless we reflected our audience… Since the very beginning, we’ve been dedicated to producing work that helps tell the stories of diverse cultural communities,” he says, citing their second play, Better Angels, which tells the story of a Ghanaian woman who moves to Toronto to become a nanny.
Tolley admits that the number of people attending theatre on a regular basis has been declining, as has theatre coverage from radio and TV news outlets. With the rise of podcasts and other new media formats, however, he hopes that more listeners from Canada and other parts of the world will rediscover the theatre industry, albeit in a different format. “In just our first two weeks, we’ve seen a massive number of people subscribing to PlayME, and we’ve had listeners from as far as Cyprus, Germany, and Ireland,” he says.
As this new venture grows, the entrepreneurs hope that it will increase interest in attending the actual shows. “They believe that the Internet can help Canadian theatre reach a global audience, letting people enjoy art in a more contemporary, ‘on demand’ way.”