Choosing the right venue is definitely important for your show; it says a lot about the show, the scale of it and the message you want to put out. Some companies choose to perform in a traditional theatrical venue, while others may choose a site-specific venue as their performance space. Either way, a live performance needs a space in which to perform in. You can find venues lots of different ways. We've put together a list of space-finding resources to help.
There are specific considerations for producing a show outdoors or in a park. Check out our Permits page to find out more about producing in a public space in Toronto.
What to expect
There can be a lot of unknowns when renting a venue for the first time or for the 100th. To begin, you need to have a good grasp on your show and its needs. Your budget, your desired audience size and space requirements will all affect the space you choose to perform in.
When you are engaging with a venue for a rental, there are a few things that they will likely go through with you, such as:
- A base quote: an initial sense of what things generally cost at their venue.
- A site tour of the building so you can see the space.
- Available dates in their overall venue schedule.
- Your project's technical and logistical requirements (or, what does your show look like?).
- Your project's tech and production schedule.
- A final quote: once they have a better understanding of your needs, they will be able to provide you with a more accurate quote for the whole rental.
The venue will typically ask that you provide as much detail as possible when booking, so that you and they can plan out a detailed schedule of events. If you have a mid to large scale show, try planning for one full week to: load in, work on your lighting plot, set set-up, levels, etc. Be as prepared as possible with information about your show including any special requests you may have, such as using fog/haze, open flame, or specific hours of access to the building.
Understand the limitations and advantages of each venue you are considering from an accessibility perspective. This Theatre Venue Accessibility Audit Checklist by Realwheels and Kickstart Disability Arts and Culture is an incredible helpful tool in assessing the level of access a venue offers.
You should always consider the technical requirements of your show before selecting a venue. Technical requirements can have a large impact on what venue you decide to perform in and can also pose some specific restrictions and barriers to venues. Technical requirements include: lighting and sound capabilities, video and media needs, set and costume requirements, crew, etc. So, by working out your needs before selecting a venue, you will be able to walk into a space and know right away whether it will work for you or not.
Your equipment needs include all technical equipment needed (lighting, sound, video, etc) as well as any set/costumes and other miscellaneous items you may need such as tables for the lobby, chairs, etc.
Each venue has their own set of equipment that is accessible to you as someone using the venue. The type of equipment can be very different from one venue to the next. So, knowing what you need and asking for a technical specifications sheet, drawings and inventory is helpful to ensure you understand what you are getting from the venue. If a venue doesn’t have something you need, you may need to purchase or rent it elsewhere.
Things to consider:
- Lighting - is there a programmable board? What lighting fixtures do I have access to?
- Sound - what sound equipment do I have access to? Can I play sound off of my laptop, phone, CD, etc.?
- Projections - is there a projector in the space? Is there a blank surface to project onto?
- Microphones - is there access to LAV mics, handheld mics?
- Storage/Security - Is there a safe place to store valuable items (ie. props, costume, set, tech equipment) while you are not performing? Will other companies be using the space during the same time period? What is the lock up procedure like at this venue at night?
- Total Wattage - Do you plan on using lots of electrical equipment and can the venue handle the total wattage of that equipment? Are there enough outlets?
Technical Specifications Sheet (or tech specs): this refers to a master document that a venue should have that details the inventory of equipment at the venue, any restrictions or guidelines that need to be followed, dimensions of the space, audience capacity, dressing/green room space and any other pertinent information that you would need to know about the physical space itself. Site-specific venues will likely not have this, unless they are used to holding live performances.
In unionized houses, the technicians that work on your show must be IATSE staff, therefore they will have in-house technicians to work with you in various technical capacities (hanging and focusing lights, running your shows, load-in, strike, etc.). In non-union houses, or non-traditional performance spaces (such as those used in site-specific performances), you will have to provide your own crew to work on the installation, show run and strike. You may use IATSE crew should you prefer, but when working in a non-union house it is not mandatory.
NOTE: In unioned theatres, you are required to have IATSE technicians work your show and are not able to bring in your own technicians, no matter the reasoning. IATSE technicians are required to have specific breaks after they work a certain amount of hours. You will be required to pay them overtime for any breaks that they miss, or should you go over their 40 hours a week. The same rules apply if they are working on statutory holidays and/or at off hours. This can have a significant impact on your budget.
Learn more about the IATSE Labour Union here.
How much room is required for you to comfortably present your performance? Is your show a dance show that requires a large, open floor? Is your show an intimate two hander that can afford to be performed in a small space? Do you have a large set? How close do you want your audience to be to the performers?
It is important to think about the size of your space in relation to the size of your audience as well. Do you want your performance to be shown to an audience of 10? Or 100? What makes sense for this show?
How many seats are in the venue? What is the capacity of the space? How much money would you like to make on ticket sales and is capacity in direct relation to that?
Thinking about capacity is important, especially when determining the scale of your project and how much you are planning to make from your ticket sales (If you are budgeting to make $2,000 in ticket sales, you need to make sure that your ticket price x seats = $2,000.) This of course will differ depending on the show, so when choosing a space based on capacity, make sure that your budget is also aligned with what is realistic within a venue.
Think about any restrictions and barriers the venue has and how that will affect your performance being in that venue. Buildings should follow standard code as stated by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). As someone entering a space, it is good to see how accessible a venue really is for your performance. See the access checklist for a full list of questions you should ask of your venue. Some questions to start with include:
- Is there accessible public transport close by?
- Are there curb ramps outside the venue?
- Is there accessible parking close by?
- Is the main entrance door automatic and visible?
- Is there low pile carpeting or slip resistant floor and ground surfaces?
- Is there seating in the reception area?
- Is there a low height, clutter free ticket counter, with a seat?
- Are brochures and other printed information at accessible heights?
- Are service animals permitted in all public areas?
- Is there an elevator that is at least 5’x5’?
- Are there voice floor announcements on elevators?
- Is there braille signage on panel?
- Is there a unisex accessible washroom?
- Is there an access button on the door?
- Are the paper towels near the sink?
- Are there reachable taps?
- Is there an accessible baby change area?
You can find a full list of considerations by heading to our Audience Accessibility page.
Where is your performance being held? Location can include geographical location (ie. what part of the city, country, etc. your performance will take place in). It can also be the physical location itself. Sometimes a location can be non-traditional (site-specific) and can include an outdoor park, restaurant, cafe, school, alleyway, and more. Either way, the geographical and physical location need to work for the context of your show. If your audience is mainly based in London, Ontario, selecting a venue in Toronto can be a challenge to sell tickets to them, therefore more money may need to go into marketing, etc.
It is important to also think about the necessary elements that will help you to run your show. These elements are secondary to the performance, but provide the support to carry the performance through and should definitely be thought about when selecting and finalizing a venue.
Front of House
Your Front of House (FOH) includes all the things that need to be handled in the lobby of your show’s venue. Some things to consider when selecting a venue include: do I want anything happening in the lobby before the audience walks into the performance space? Is there a lobby? What can I do with the lobby that we are given at the theatre? Does my venue provide me with FOH staff? Or, will I need to hire these people to work during the run of the show (Do I need to hire ushers)?
Some venues will have a bar and you can then choose if you would like to have the bar operating during the run of your show, or not. It is good to clarify the liquor license and understand where alcohol is permitted and where it isn’t. Note: if a venue is providing bar service for your show, they will manage it and you are not required to help set up or manage it. But, that also means you are not entitled to the bar sales, that is separate from box office and the venue does not share those revenues with renters.
Another thing to note when renting a venue is their fire safety and evacuation measures. These are also a crucial part of your front of house items to consider and important to understand while booking a venue. Where are the fire exits? What do we do in case of an emergency? If this is a site specific venue, how do we make sure that the building is safe for our patrons and what security measures can we implement in ensure that everyone remains safe?
Box office items include everything that happens on the ticket sales and concession side of your performance. Things you will want to consider are: Is there a box office to support ticket sales and/or concession during the performance nights? Are there box office staff that will work for my show? Or will I have to set up a designated box office and/or concession space? Am I able to set up my own box office and/or concession in this space? Will I have to hire a box office representative? Some venues have their own box office and staff and therefore won’t allow you to set up your own.
If a venue offers their box office service as part of your rental, you should also inquire about what the box office fee is. There is often a fee or percentage that the box office keeps at the end of the run, and knowing that can help you when thinking about your profit margins. Also, ensure that you get a box office report from them for each night. Usually, theatres will provide that for you, but always good to ensure that you can get that information each evening.
If performing in a site-specific venue, you may not have an already designated box office/concession area. In this case you should ask yourself if the venue can accommodate a box office and/or concession space and you must also think about the equipment needed to run a box office and concession (ie. a table, chairs, a money box, tickets, etc.).
The marketing for your show includes any promotion that your company does to advertise the show. When selecting a venue, it is important to have a conversation with the venue about how they will be able to support the marketing aspects of your show. Does the venue assist in marketing your show, or not? Do they help provide marketing materials for you to promote the show? How does the venue support you in all marketing aspects and what do you need from the venue to be supported in terms of marketing?
Booking Your Venue
It is important to have a plan for when you want your performance to run. This includes the time of year, how many days/weeks your show will run for and how many performances you will do within those days/weeks. This can have a direct influence on what venue you will end up in as you need to ensure and secure the availability at the venue. It is good to plan your show timeline in advance and know when you will need the venue.
Once you have an idea of the dates you would like to book a venue for, it is good to be flexible as places may not always be available. Compiling a list of potential venues is also a good thing to do, just in case it cannot work out with your first venue of choice.
A lot of venues who run a season from fall to spring will start taking bookings in the summertime. This ensures that everything for your show will be in order and allows the venue to build in enough time to get your show up and running. So the sooner you know, the better it is for both you and the venue.
It is important to have, or develop, a contract with the venue that you will be using for your performance that both parties sign. Non-traditional venues may not have a contract and therefore, you should develop one to have a mutual understanding of what each party is responsible for. Rental venues will oftentimes have a standard rental contract that they use with you. Once you read through the whole contract, you should ask any questions you have upfront about the contract you are given so that everything is clear to you. Many clauses in the contract are likely non-negotiable, such as anything to do with health and safety, equipment usage and any other policy that the venue may have in place.
Certain things within the contract may be able to be negotiated, but there may be a specific penalty that comes along with it (ie. extra costs to save time, or less money but more time to complete something). A good thing to ask yourself when debating about negotiating a clause is: what is more important to you (time or money)? A good rule of thumb when wanting to make an adjustment to the contract, ask reasonably, you never know what the venue is capable of doing for you and your show’s needs.
It is more often than not stated in the contract that you are responsible for bringing your own insurance as a renter. Check out some insurance companies and tips here.
Ask when your venue expects their payment - is it before you use the space? Or once your run is done? This can effect when you need to have those funds to pay out to them. Although each venue is different, a standard way to pay the venue for your rental is in two instalments. 50% paid upon signing your agreement, and then the final 50% paid just before your tickets go on sale. Most venues will also ask for a damage deposit. Again, this differs on what venue you are renting and is standard for some union houses. If you incur any other costs during the run of your show (ie. extra crew, overtime hours, etc.), you will be billed for it at the end of your run.
Do’s and Don’ts
- Track additional hours that you are working overtime; your crew will also do so, but it is also great for you to have a record for it as well
- Take photos when you are shown the space; it will definitely be helpful for later!
- Actually read your contract! The clauses are there for a reason and it will avoid you wasting time going back and forth with the production manager at the venue (your question is likely in the contract)
- Make requests for permanent changes to a venue; it will likely not be feasible
- Show up to a venue unannounced and request to see their spaces; this is usually frowned upon. Make appointments with your prospective venues and they will gladly show you their spaces
Other things to think about
- Lighting Plot - provide the venue a lighting plot! Not all rental venues have a standard plot set up all the time, therefore you oftentimes will require a lighting designer in advance of renting a space to help develop a lighting plot to give to the venue. Even if you tell the venue that you require “simple lighting” they still don’t have a plot and consider all lighting needs as a design – so keep that in mind when renting out a space.
- Safety – this includes safety in all forms, but especially in the set and equipment that you are bringing in. Consider how your structures are being supported and if there are any potential safety hazards in your design.
- Sight Lines – every venue is different, but always consider what your sight lines are when entering a space.
- Be upfront. The more you are upfront about your needs and what you want to achieve with your show to the venue, the less surprises will appear!
PDF: Edinburgh Fringe Checklist on Choosing a Venue
Litmus Theatre’s Matthew Walker uses these great steps and questions when thinking about choosing a space and creating a new site-specific performance. Check out Space Assessment and Creativity with Constraints:
PDF: Space Assessment Checklist
PDF:__ Creativity Within Constraints (Prompt questions)*
VIDEO: Some Specifics of Site-Specific Theatre - For helpful tips on site-specific venues, hear how site-specific theatre companies Litmus Theatre, Outside the March and Shakespeare in the Ruff look at venue space in different, but similar contexts in Generator’s Resident Company video series.
Arts in the Parks - an initiative by the Toronto Arts Foundation to run free events in Toronto parks. If you are planning a park event, see if you are eligible and can take part in the Arts in the Parks events.
BC Touring Council list of performing arts venues across BC.
AccessTO provides a list of places that are accessible in Toronto, from arts spaces to restaurants. They also provide insight for businesses to become more accessible.
Working in an IATSE Local 58 Venue for the first time? Check out their Venue Information page for helpful information sheets, including info on where to find parking, what tools to bring, and where the stage door is located.