Mounting debt sinks Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company

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      Faced with a mounting debt approaching $1 million, the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company will cease operations after 49 years.

      The news was delivered today by Jeff Schulz, chair of the Playhouse’s board of governors, and Max Reimer, the company’s artistic managing director, at a news conference held in the Playhouse.

      Vancouver Playhouse board chair Jeff Schulz announces the theatre company will shut down operations.

      “Last night we called an emergency board meeting, and I outlined the situation to everyone–basically, we can’t continue operations with the amount of debt that we have, and no realistic ability to pay it back,” said an emotional Shulz, choking back tears. “And when that situation occurs, our responsibility as a board is to take care of our employees, to take care of our creditors, and do the responsible thing. So last night, at four o’clock, we put forward a motion to begin to wind down operations effective tomorrow, at the end of Hunchback. So tomorrow will be officially our last performance as the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company.”

      A sombre Reimer told the assembled crowd that he was “overwhelmed with a sense of loss.” He also urged people to avoid pointing fingers. “I think what is not useful would be identifying individual blame, point to specific mistakes and missteps, try to find someone to lynch,” he said. “That would be unhealthy, because a theatre company this size and of this longevity requires many, many building blocks. The building blocks are across all levels of government, across private sector contributions that come in various ways.”

      Vancouver Playhouse artistic managing director Max Reimer on the theatre company’s legacy.

      Schulz said the company’s outstanding balance was $900,000 to $1 million, and that rather than enter bankruptcy protection, it would be easier and less costly to cease operations.

      Reimer said the closure of the company would mean the loss of 15 staff positions, as well as approximately 200 contractors each year. He estimated the total loss to the arts community in contracts to be $2.9 million a year.

      There have been signs that the Playhouse was struggling financially for some time. In September, 2011, it was revealed that the City of Vancouver had bailed out the company to the tune of $1 million. The financial assistance had been approved by council during in-camera meetings in March and June of 2011.

      The financial leg-up came in the form of a one-time emergency grant of $100,000 to the company, sourced from the city’s contingency reserve; up to $400,000 in funding from the Cultural Precinct reserve; and the $426,000 in outstanding debt forgiven.

      At the time, councillor Heather Deal told the Straight the company was too important not to help: "All arts organizations are important, but when one this large, that has production space that many other people use—it has young actor programs, it has young theatregoer programs—it was just too important to let go,” she said.

      While acknowledging the Playhouse's demise was not all in the hands of the provincial government, NDP arts critic Spencer Chandra Herbert had strong words for arts minister Ida Chong.

      "This hopefully says to the minister, 'Wake up and do your job.'" Referring to recent revelations that the Ministry of Community, Sport, and Cultural Development has not yet dispersed $3 million in arts funds, he added: "Sitting on $3 million, laughing about how you don’t know how you’re going to spend it when you have a few days left before the end of the month clearly shows how out of touch this government is in terms of the creative sector and what’s needed here.”

      Chandra Herbert noted that the loss to the broader local economy of the Playhouse's closing could amount in the millions of dollars. "We’ll see that in places we can’t even imagine," he said. "Whether it’s corner grocery stores, carpentry lots, costume shops, advertising firms, newspapers, media, et cetera. It’s going to have a huge impact. It’s hundred, if not thousands, of indirect jobs."



      Ray I

      Mar 9, 2012 at 3:40pm


      You're kidding, right

      Mar 9, 2012 at 3:42pm

      Sad to hear this. It seems that the whole arts scene is so disjointed here.

      Not sure that lack money is the sole cause of that. I know the Arts Alliance exists but it doesn't see to extend to these more commercial ventures. Think it is whistling in the dark...


      Mar 9, 2012 at 3:56pm

      pretty big shock and a big blow to the arts scene in Vancouver.


      Mar 9, 2012 at 4:23pm

      60 million for a stupid stadium roof to cater to a bunch of dumb Yahoos, and the Civic Theatre can't stay open! Boo, hiss!


      Mar 9, 2012 at 5:02pm

      You can call people who go to the stadiums "Yahoos" all you want, but at least there's over 20,000 of them who come out and pay top dollar every time! They pay their own way.

      The problem here wasn't was the way it was managed. Time to make way for a new professional theatre group who will know how to do things right!

      Charles Barber

      Mar 9, 2012 at 5:18pm

      This is an impossible and unacceptable loss for Vancouver.

      Its impact will be worse than has yet been stated: Spirit. Hope. Confidence in the place and prospect of professional theatre.

      Vancouver should be rich and alive and teeming with art. But this -- this is a death in our family.

      Many people -- right now -- are considering what might be done to turn this around. Such a death is not acceptable in ANY city claiming the mantle of world city.

      Charles Barber


      Mar 9, 2012 at 5:21pm

      There's more to come for Vancouver and the B.C. arts community. Years of cronic underfunding, neglect, and the recent vicious cuts by the Liberals are working their way through the system. The sad thing is, no one beyond poverty-stricken artists will care; Canada is a nation of accountants.

      Mike Puttonen

      Mar 9, 2012 at 5:57pm

      Because of the BC Place year over year losses, covered by the BC taxpayer every year since it opened, the book value of BC Place, before the reno and refit, had to be written down from $125 million to $50 million, according to Pavco financial statements. The taxpayers have carried the white elephant for years. There are reasons for that, and the fall under the definition of a "public good" so we absorb the loss on BC Place.
      We also spend $600 million on BC Place because we don't have a better choice. The Pontiac Bowl, and indentical building in Michigan, sold for $583,000.00 a few years ago. That' slightly more than half a milllion dollars. In reality, there was not "book value" on the building anyway, just the land.

      Opinions of this or that aside, the Playhouse is a venerable institution, and its failure is a humiliation for BC and Vancouver. The failure of the Playhouse is just another chapter in the shift from the hierophany of "arts and letters" set out in the Massey Commission Report at mid-century, to the hierarchy of "cultural industries" brought to us courtesy of the US - Canada Free Trade Agreement. What cultural policy there is here in BC --whether under NDP or Libs -- has been for the last twenty years directed first at the video gaming and film industries, which are perceived by the provincial government as the most desirable of the "cultural industries". The rest of the cultural community have trailed, badly, in their wake.

      That hierarchy is such that if the Playhouse were making films in BC instead of theatre, they could get a 35% subsidy ("tax incentive") from the provincial gov't on the labour and materials for which they remit provincial taxes. With the Playhouse's roughly $5 million budget, if they were spending that on labour and material to make films they'd have received over $1.2 million from the province, instead of $300k or so that they get as a not-for-profit. They would have had to pay about a third of it back in sales tax etc., leaving them with substantially more than double what they've been getting. Instead they go broke. In part, that's the post-FTA hierarchy of the "cultural industries" at work.


      Mar 9, 2012 at 6:04pm

      Though this ended suddenly, it has been approaching for a long time. First the Playhouse lost its permanent rehearsal space; then they switched to 'contemporary' plays (which have smaller casts). Their recent seasons featured more co-productions and travelling one-man shows than local productions. I should add that, for anyone other than a theatre company, 1 million is a pathetically small debt to carry.

      Colin Miles

      Mar 9, 2012 at 6:25pm

      Sad and shocking news.
      The Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company was very well managed artistically and administratively. Like all the arts and culture and non-profit sector it has suffered from the BC government's looting of gaming funds and the savage cuts in arts grants. BC has the lowest per capita provincial arts funding as well as the lowest per capita federal funding in the nation. No matter how much artists sacrifice and audiences value their
      work, too many politicians do not value their contributions.

      Perhaps, for example some of the many millions of tax dollars paying for the Premier's Office could be redirected to solve this financial crisis.

      This is unacceptable. We owe it to our community to save this national cultural treasure.