Theatre takes centre stage at the Jessie awards
It’s telling when you reduce all the artistic creation happening on local stages to pure numbers. When the Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards party took place at the Arts Club on Granville Island 30 years ago, there were just 17 companies registered with the Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance. On the eve of the annual best-in-show ceremony on Monday (June 25) at the Commodore, that number has ballooned to 70, despite big challenges in terms of finding venues and funding.
It hasn’t been all celebratory bouquets and standing ovations. Earlier this year, we lost a major, long-time institution: the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company, which rented the city-owned venue that carried its name. The shutdown of the company sent shock waves through the community and has spurred a flurry of questions about how theatre is going to survive in Vancouver. And yet, when you look at the number of upstart troupes and new works on the Jessie nomination roster alone, you get a more positive picture of what’s going on—and of how differently the scene here has evolved, compared with those in other big Canadian cities. Whether you talk to a veteran like Arts Club artistic managing director Bill Millerd or a member of an indie upstart like Delinquent Theatre’s Christine Quintana, things don’t look so grim. Wherever there are stages in Vancouver, they’re hopping.
“I just can’t take what happened at the Playhouse as a sign of disaster for the theatre community as a whole,” says Katey Wright, who’s a well-known actor, the former president of the Jessies’ board, and a cofounder and artistic producer of Patrick Street Productions. Her young company’s The Light in the Piazza is up for an impressive six awards—including outstanding production—in the large-theatre category this year. Wright is speaking to the Straight on a break from rehearsals for Bard on the Beach’s soon-to-open Merry Wives of Windsor, in which she’s playing Mrs. Page; like so many theatre producers, big and small, in this town, the well-known stage star wears many hats.
She sees the Playhouse closure as anything but a reason for theatregoers to be worried about the future. “Certainly, it’s a terrible event and there are negative consequences for all of us, but at the same time I do feel that theatre is thriving in this town,” Wright says. “We’ve got so many small, independent theatre companies in this city.…There’s an incredible range of work to see and become involved with, even compared to a big centre like Toronto.…I just think that there is a long, long, proud history of artist-driven work here in the West, as opposed to companies being formed with an artistic head and works coming down from the top.”
She points to groups like Electric Company Theatre, whose All the Way Home is up for eight awards.
Her husband, Peter Jorgensen, a director-actor and founding partner and artistic producer in Patrick Street, chalks the unique scene here up to a distinctly “entrepreneurial” approach to theatre, versus the rest of the country, where companies are often based out of the same building where they mount all their productions.
“We have a huge creative community in the theatre, and they all go, ‘I want to do it my way,’ ” Jorgensen says with a laugh. “That’s the way Katey and I started too. I had a certain idea of how musicals should be done, and I wanted to see if I could make that happen. And there’s lots of people that do the same. You can’t start by owning a theatre. You just start by producing and scrambling for whatever space you can find, because when you start there’s no money.”
So why, given the lack of spaces and high-rolling financial backers, has the scene here seen such growth in promising young companies? Touchstone Theatre’s artistic director, Katrina Dunn (another past Jessies president), points to the strong theatre-school system—UBC, Studio 58 at Langara College, Capilano University, and SFU—pumping actors and artists into the scene.
“The last 10 years has shown an enormous amount of excitement around the theatre community in Vancouver,” she says, “to the point where people are actually coming here from Toronto and even Edmonton to work in it.…After years of being considered a backwater, we’ve started getting that cachet.”
That “cachet” comes despite the fact that many local theatre companies are still recovering from the B.C. Liberals’ cancellation of gaming grants in 2009–10, which the provincial government reinstated for adult arts groups in January.
“I think a lot of people underestimated the impact that had,” Dunn says of the cuts. “The return of it has given people some wind again who were very winded. I see people who couldn’t do shows for two years doing shows again.”
Ask the new wave of young theatre groups what their biggest challenge is, and they’ll probably say venues. Vancouver is a city where only a few professional players—the Arts Club, Bard on the Beach, and the Firehall Arts Centre—have buildings (or at least tents) to call their own. It’s what separates Lotusland from larger centres like Toronto.
Spaces here are expensive and hard to find. “We have tended to knock down huge chunks of old buildings, which is often where theatre companies end up in other cities,” Wright notes.
The importance of having easy access to a theatre can’t be overestimated. Reflecting on why Patrick Street has scored Jessie nominations, Jorgensen points to one key factor: his company was able to get into the Norman & Annette Rothstein Theatre, rent-free, for a week of tech rehearsal before the opening of The Light in the Piazza, a luminescent, bittersweet love story set in 1950s Italy.
That may sound like a small thing, but it’s an almost unthinkable luxury for the dozens of theatre companies in the city that don’t have a home venue.
“I feel that helped make Light in the Piazza as good a show as it was, and that’s the downfall when you don’t have a theatre. You get in, you load it, do tech in a day, and do the preview the next day. It’s so fast, and there’s no time to get into the space,” Jorgensen says, explaining that he was able to work with his design team to alter and perfect everything from lighting and sets to costumes and sound.
Like Jorgensen and Wright, Touchstone’s Dunn acknowledges venues can pose a problem. But her company has managed to survive 35 years, and earned critical praise and numerous awards, even though it hasn’t had a bricks-and-mortar structure to identify itself with. There can be downsides to managing a building as well as a company, she points out: her troupe has been able to focus on fundraising for its plays, rather than on renovations or furnace repairs.
The challenge of finding venues should improve a bit with the arrival of the renovated York Theatre, which the Cultch is overseeing and expects to open in the next 18 months. With 365 seats on Commercial Drive, it is expected to be primarily a rental facility that will provide a higher profile for young companies.
Still, the lingering question is, if you build it, will they come? After the Playhouse Theatre Company suddenly folded, there was a lot of discussion about the fickleness or apathy of local audiences. Even after vocal protests about the death of the company, people weren’t showing up to the one remaining show in the Playhouse season. Vancouver Civic Theatres pulled out all the stops to stage the planned coproduction of God of Carnage with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, but it played to dismal audiences.
Even Patrick Street’s critically praised The Light in the Piazza had trouble packing houses. Jorgensen acknowledges a challenge is that Patrick Street is still not a well-known company, and it presents new works (like Bat Boy: The Musical) that people often haven’t heard of. Its biggest success so far was 2009’s better-known The Full Monty, which 3,500 people saw at the Rothstein. Interestingly, when the troupe toured it to Saskatoon’s Persephone Theatre later that year, about 11,000 people saw it. “There were 46 unsold seats for the whole run,” Jorgensen marvels. “We’re taking Piazza back to the Persephone in the fall, so hopefully that show will get exposed to another 11,000 people.”
The visit to the Prairie city “made us feel like rock stars”, Wright adds.
For her part, Dunn admits openly that drawing audiences to theatre has been an ongoing issue here: “We all acknowledge it’s a problem, it’s just that we don’t have an answer.” While companies like Bard and the Arts Club have been able to build loyal fan bases, they’re exceptions. “Vancouver’s audiences are more tapas-based than just ‘Let’s buy the whole meal,’ ” she suggests.
But Jorgensen is willing to raise an even touchier issue. What if the proliferation of new theatre groups has oversaturated the market?
Consider some facts about how West Coasters spend their leisure time. According to a Hill Strategies Research report titled British Columbians’ Arts, Culture and Heritage Activities in 2010, people in this province go to the theatre about as much as those anywhere else in the country. In that year, 1.7 million B.C. residents 15 and older went to a theatrical performance. That’s 43.8 percent, close to the 44.3-percent national average (and higher than, say, Quebec’s 38.3 percent). Now, pair that with the fact that Vancouver has the highest per capita number of working artists, at least according to Hill’s analysis of 2006 census data. You can assume there are an awful lot of stage artists among them.
“Theatre is healthy, and I think great work is being done here,” Jorgensen says. “I think the challenge—and this is going to sound terrible—is there’s too much theatre happening here and we are all competing to get bums in seats.”