Theatre takes centre stage at the Jessie awards
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As one of the new stage artists in town, Delinquent Theatre’s Christine Quintana has to wear many hats, hold down day jobs, and find venues her troupe can afford.
If there is one person in town who has proven his consistent ability to fill seats, it’s Bill Millerd, artistic managing director of the Arts Club, which now ranks as the biggest theatre company in Western Canada. He’s been around so long, in fact, that he won a Jessie at that first ceremony in 1983 at the Arts Club’s Granville Island stage—a Sam Payne Award for best newcomer (even though he laughs at the fact that he had already been working in the field for a decade).
Sitting at the antique wooden desk in his atmospheric Granville Island office, where stage images from around the world cover the walls, he traces the unique evolution of theatre in this town.
Up until the ’70s, he recalls, the Playhouse was the main game in town, with the Arts Club taking up in a former gospel hall on Seymour Street in 1964. Then a wave of new companies began appearing, some still around today (Touchstone, Axis, and Carousel), and some not (Tamahnous). He credits the growth to the new facilities popping up at that time—such as the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, the former church that opened as an arts venue in 1973.
The 1970s also saw the redevelopment of Granville Island’s industrial warehouses into a cultural hub; the Waterfront Theatre became available to rent, and in 1979, the Arts Club established its major new stage there. By 1982, the Firehall Arts Centre had also opened in the Downtown Eastside, and it still runs under founding artistic producer Donna Spencer today.
“New venues allowed the companies to perform,” Millerd says.
What has been crucial to the Arts Club’s survival, he says, is that the company has been able to maintain control over its venues, which today include two on Granville Island—the main stage and the smaller Revue Stage—and the historic Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage, which it helped save from demolition in the late ’90s. That control was something the Playhouse never had, Millerd points out. As a renter of the Civic Theatres stage, it was tied strictly into rental dates. That meant it couldn’t respond to audience demand and hold over a production if it was a hit.
“If we have a show like a Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, we can bring it back or extend the run,” Millerd explains.
Millerd has also noticed the local theatre culture shifting in ways that go beyond venues. By the mid ’90s, thriving theatre schools were starting to produce independent troupes like Electric Company and Boca del Lupo. The Arts Club has tried to help that new wave of artists along, Millerd says, especially through its Silver Commissions program, aimed at supporting new plays. The program has funded everything from Electric Company’s Tear the Curtain! to Anosh Irani’s My Granny the Goldfish.
“We have to make a conscious attempt to always seek new voices to keep ourselves fresh, and also be very aware of voices that are not Caucasian,” Millerd emphasizes.
Sometimes the new plays in the season have pushed his audiences, but Millerd feels finding a balance between the tried-and-true and calculated risks has helped the Arts Club to thrive all these years. After all, he’s the guy who hears about it directly when his loyal customers aren’t happy. This season’s two openers—the not-so-feel-good musical Next to Normal and Margaret Atwood’s challengingly intellectual The Penelopiad—pushed into bold new artistic territory. “Somebody emailed me after Penelopiad and said, ‘Was it maybe a bit grim?’ and ‘Would there be anything lighter?’ ”
Both productions, as it happens, are up for multiple Jessies.
“You’re only as good as your last show,” Millerd likes to say. “You need to build a loyal audience, and then you need to always be aware that their trust is based on what you put on-stage. You’re probably allowed one or two not-so-great shows in a season. It’s consistency and always being aware that they’re paying the bills and never taking them for granted.”
Millerd is equally open about the challenge of getting people into theatres in Vancouver.
“Look, I’ve always been aware, as a Vancouverite who was born here, what we’re up against,” he says, stressing that marketing has been paramount at the Arts Club. “Anybody here is really aware of our natural surroundings and that people take advantage of them. It’s not like Toronto or Winnipeg or Montreal, where the horrible winters force you inside.”
And as for the climate in the theatre community? Millerd admits the Playhouse, where he started his career more than four decades ago, was a huge loss, and he’s worried that actors and designers might leave town. But he’s heartened by all the new stage activity he sees happening around the city.
“I think that something else will surface that maybe won’t look the same as the Playhouse,” he says. “People aren’t abandoning theatre.”