When David Mirvish goes out to inspect a play these days, word spreads faster than ever.
Though he's recently been in the news for his plans to level one of his theatres – the Princess of Wales, to be replaced by three Frank Gehry "sculptures for people to live in" (a.k.a. condos) – the Toronto commercial producer is generally known for helping take theatre productions up to the next level.
So there was a buzz in the air in August when he showed up at the SummerWorks Festival to catch one of the final performances of an Irish play called Terminus. Practically every move of his could be tracked on Twitter in 140-character bursts of excitement from box-office volunteers, actors and other audience members.
Just 10 minutes before the end of Terminus, however, the spell was broken when a woman in the audience had a medical emergency. Most of the ticket holders that day left without seeing the conclusion of the sold-out show.
But Mirvish, however, is no ordinary audience member. "I wanted to see it again, so we're putting it on," he said recently in a boardroom at his downtown Toronto office.
While it would be a great tale if the 68-year-old impresario launched his new "Off-Mirvish" subscription series just to see the end of Terminus, in fact, his company has been plotting a second-stage series for more than 20 years.
The subscription model has been declared dead or dying by many theatre producers thanks to the Internet-cultivated habit of last-minute purchases.
But Mirvish Productions continues to find significant success in getting audiences to buy tickets to their shows in bulk, in advance.
The company's main subscription series – packed with musicals such as The Book of Mormon and The Wizard of Oz this season – is the most successful on the continent. It has sold more than 40,000 packages so far this year, giving Mirvish a guaranteed number of bums in seats that he can use as leverage in bidding for the biggest shows on Broadway.
"The drawback is that the audience is a broad audience and some of them do not want to go to the theatre to hear certain ideas or hear certain language," explains John Karastamatis, director of communications at Mirvish Productions and one of Mirvish's network of theatre spies who roam the world scoping out productions for him.
Terminus – which, like much of the best Irish theatre of the past two decades, is full of profanity and dark flights of fancy – would certainly not make the cut. "Every year, there's something that we wish we had a place for that doesn't really fit our audience," says Mirvish.
Hence, the Off-Mirvish series. In addition to Terminus, the inaugural four-play season will feature a return of Studio 180's production of Bruce Norris's Tony-winning, race-relations comedy, Clybourne Park; Rent star Anthony Rapp's musical memoir Without You, and This Hour Has 22 Minutes star Mary Walsh's Dancing With Rage, a one-woman show that was cancelled at Theatre Passe Muraille last season when she fell ill.
Mirvish Productions has not always shied away from edgier theatre, of course. They have a long history of bringing Canadian plays like Tomson Highway's Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing and Trey Anthony's Da Kink in My Hair to a wider audience.
But that strategy always ran the risk of alienating the core Mirvish audience. A favourite anecdote within the company relates to the time the company picked up Canadian playwright Adam Pettle's play Zadie's Shoes from the Factory Theatre.
Playing an alcoholic gambler, the actor Randy Hughson – currently at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival – was prone to ad libbing extra curse words in a script that was already full of them – and offended Mirvish subscribers called up with F-bomb tallies that ranged anywhere from 70 to 100 a night. "I can't tell you the number of complaints we had about the language of that show," says Karastamatis.
Ever since Mirvish purchased the 700-seat Panasonic theatre in 2008, there has been hope in the theatre community that it might become home to transfers of shows like Zadie's Shoes from the city's dynamic not-for-profit theatres. (The Off-Mirvish announcement was certainly a well-timed message of support to that community, which might otherwise have been shaken by his plans to demolish his Princess of Wales theatre for three Frank Gehry-designed condo towers.)
Indeed, things had seemed to be heading that direction, as Mirvish experimented with offering straight plays such as British playwright Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9 three years ago. Alisa Palmer's production of that show was well-reviewed, but a big financial flop; exactly how much money was lost, Mirvish won't say. But he categorizes it as "Too much. … I don't have enough fingers and toes to count on."
The idea behind the Off-Mirvish series, like the mainstage Mirvish season, that is that there is safety in numbers – and that a show like Cloud 9 might succeed in that environment. Mirvish's goal for the first reasonably priced season is to get 1,000 subscribers on board. The maximum would be 5,000 subscribers, as that's the total number of tickets available for Terminus, which will be restaged at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.
With prices ranging from $99 to $199, it's not a plan that will make its owner significantly richer any time soon. But Mirvish sees it as a way of attracting a different audience to add to his database that, even if Off-Mirvish fails, may eventually switch to his main subscription. "We may have to feel that this is an investment," he says. "It takes time to build something." After all, the now-massive Mirvish subscription began in 1971 with just a few thousand subscribers.