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The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity is the only recipient outside of Ontario.Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity

Amid a perilous recovery period for the performing arts, the Slaight Family Foundation announced on Wednesday a donation of $15-million to 22 Canadian theatre companies that’s being called “transformative” and an “answered prayer” by artistic leaders.

The money – gifted in sums from $125,000 to $1.5-million, to both big institutions and smaller independent theatre, mostly based in Toronto, all but two in Ontario – is earmarked for a pair of broad purposes over the next two years: theatre production and marketing.

The intentions are to see as much income as possible flowing to on-stage and behind-the-scenes creators in the industry that was completely shuttered at the height of the pandemic, as well as to help get audiences back in seats, according to Gary Slaight, president and chief executive of the foundation.

“We know that the theatre industry was impacted in a big way,” Slaight told The Globe and Mail in an interview ahead of the announcement. “They’re trying to get back on their feet now. We felt it was a good time to step forward and try to give them a hand.”

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The Slaight Family Foundation was established in 2008 by John Allan Slaight, who was a broadcast pioneer in Canada and leader in the music industry. It has a history of supporting charitable initiatives in a number of areas, including health care, social services and culture.

According to interviews with Ontario artistic leaders (The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and the National Theatre School are the only two recipients outside the province), the foundation’s gifts, which came as a complete surprise to many, couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

Theatre companies across the country may have received significant government support during shutdowns through programs such as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, but most of the pandemic programs geared toward performing arts companies have now wound down, just as many theatre companies are embarking on what they hope to be their first full live, in-person seasons since 2018-19.

The Catch-22 facing the industry is that it will take big, ambitious shows to lure spectators off the couch, but it is not financially feasible to present large-scale productions when audiences are returning at an unclear speed without extra help.

Soulpepper Theatre Company executive director Gideon Arthurs said the Slaight Family Foundation money will encourage risk-taking. “It is really intended to counter what might be the only acceptable programming mode: small plays, limited runs, fewer artists employed, and weaker marketing,” says Arthurs, whose company has seen a slow uptick at the box office this fall but says it is still at about 50 per cent of previous levels.

The $1.5-million that Soulpepper, one of Toronto’s biggest not-for-profits, is receiving has already led to it co-producing a 20th anniversary production of ‘da Kink in My Hair at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in December, according to Arthurs.

At Crow’s Theatre, a mid-sized Toronto theatre company that receives a relatively small portion of its budget from public funding, the $1.5-million gift from the Slaight Family Foundation is being hailed as “transformative” by executive director Sherrie Johnson.

“This season, we’ve made an investment in artists and have a theatre season of scale: Uncle Vanya has a large cast, Red Velvet, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Fifteen Dogs have large casts,” Johnson said. “This gives us the confidence to make those programming decisions and really helps us put the money directly in the hands of artists.”

“You don’t see this very often, it is quite incredible and generous.”

While the Slaight Family Foundation is a long-time supporter of Soulpepper and Crow’s (and the Stratford Festival and Shaw Festival, which each received $1.5-million, too), Wednesday’s announcement also involves donations to not-for-profit companies not previously funded by the foundation, such as Musical Stage Company, which is devoted to challenging and innovative musical theatre, Buddies in Bad Times, Toronto’s venerable queer theatre, and Obsidian Theatre, a leading theatre company focused on Black theatre artists.

For Obsidian, which operates annually on a budget of $600,000 to $750,000, the surprise $250,000 it received is the largest single donation in the theatre company’s history, according to artistic director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu.

“This is an answered prayer in terms of all the conversations we’ve been having about how can we grow as an organization, how can we increase our capacity,” Otu said.

“I’m hoping that this will attract more private funding for Obsidian and other culturally specific organizations because we just don’t have those phone numbers in that contact list. … The hope is that this is just a beginning.”

In selecting the 22 recipients, and determining the focus of the donations, Slaight Family Foundation program director Terry Smith says she consulted with arts councils, as well as leaders at companies already in their portfolio, such as Arthurs at Soulpepper and Crow’s Theatre artistic director Chris Abraham. “Whenever we do these things, we always go to the people who know the best,” she said.

This is the second major announcement from the foundation aimed at the pandemic-devastated performing arts industry this fall. Earlier in September, it pledged $10-million over five years to the Unison Fund, a music industry aid organization.

The Slaight Family Foundation Theatre Initiative Recipients:

Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity: $750,000

Buddies In Bad Times Theatre: $250,000

Canadian Stage Company: $750,000

Coal Mine Theatre: $250,000

Crows Theatre: $1,500,000

Factory Theatre: $250,000

Luminato Festival Toronto: $125,000

The Musical Stage Company: $250,000

National Arts Centre: $1,500,000

National Theatre School: $1,500,000

Native Earth Performing Arts: $250,000

Obsidian Theatre: $250,000

Shaw Festival Theatre: $1,500,000

Smile Theatre: $250,000

Soulpepper Theatre Company: $1,500,000

Stratford Festival: $1,500,000

Tarragon Theatre: $250,000

The Theatre Centre: $250,000

Theatre Passe Muraille: $250,000

Toronto Fringe Festival: $125,000

Why Not Theatre: $250,000

Young People’s Theatre: $1,500,000