Councillor Heather Deal stands by 2011's Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company bailout

Vancouver councillor Heather Deal is insisting the city’s $1-million handout to the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company last year was not wasted, despite the theatre’s announcement last week that it was ceasing operations in the face of insurmountable debt.

The financial assistance had been approved by council during in-camera meetings in March and June 2011, and included a one-time emergency grant of $100,000 to the company, from the city’s contingency reserve; up to $400,000 in funding from the Cultural Precinct reserve; and $426,000 in outstanding debt forgiven.

“It was an important decision to make at the time,” Deal said. “It got them into this season, and we hoped and thought that it would get them out of the problems that they were in, so that they could continue to thrive, and it was a chance that we took. They’re such an important keystone organization that we feel it was worth that chance.”

As a limited resident of the civic-run Playhouse, the theatre company had an agreement with the city that entailed the city charging, then paying back, a sum of rent for the company’s use of the theatre, in the form of a civic rental grant. The city also billed the company ancillary charges for use of the theatre outside of fixed dates. In September 2011, in a written response to public backlash against the company’s bailout, artistic managing director Max Reimer claimed that those added ancillary costs amounted to tens of thousands of dollars each season. He also stated that they “were attached to the ancient rent-based billing processes, such as the Playhouse bearing costs incurred from having to strike and reset the theatre company’s sets when a music group booked a concert in the middle of a theatrical run.” The rental agreement also historically rendered the company ineligible for operating grants from the city.

Reimer maintains that throughout its existence, the Vancouver Playhouse was never sustainable. “That’s clear from the years of financial history and all the rescues required,” he said. “But I had an idea of how it could work, and I pushed it really hard and fast and had some success, made some enemies. But I’m really happy at the support that I got. I think it was really terrific. A lot of people helped out to get it here.”

Reimer joined the company in 2008 as its new artistic managing director, a position that combined the roles of former artistic director Glynis Leyshon and former general manager John Stettner. Reimer was faced not only with the peculiarities of the company’s arrangement with the city, but also with a decrease in provincial funding for the arts, and a recession that saw corporate sponsorships and subscription sales take a hit.

The North Vancouver–raised Reimer had previously presided over a financial turnaround at Hamilton, Ontario’s Theatre Aquarius. Over his 12-year tenure there, he boasted nine consecutive surpluses, paid off the theatre’s $2.4-million mortgage, and eliminated the operating deficit of the previous administration.

But he was apparently no match for the Playhouse’s difficulties. “Because I’ve sat on Canada Council juries [and company finances are part of Canada Council assessments], it was pretty clear that this was the most challenging job in the country at the time. And I didn’t say no but I didn’t say yes for many months, because it was possibly a fatal challenge,” he recalled.

Minister for Community, Sport, and Cultural Development Ida Chong expressed sympathy for the company’s loss, but said her ministry is not considering any financial aid for the Playhouse. “It’s never easy to lose what people believe is one of their landmark, oldest regional theatre companies in the province,” she said. “But we have to be fair and say that for years the company has struggled financially.…There’s not any indication that things will be any different going forward, and you do have to ask yourself, ‘Is this the best way to spend public dollars?’ ” She noted that the company received more than $3.1 million through the B.C. Arts Council over the last 10 years. The $3 million in leftover 2010 Legacy funding that she has yet to distribute is “not meant to deal with an operating deficit”, she added.

If the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company did somehow miraculously rise from the ashes, through the help of a benefactor willing to fork over an immediate $1 million, followed by $500,000 a year for two more years, board chair Jeff Schulz believes it would continue operating under the same model as before. But some in the arts community feel a restructuring would be needed.

“The Vancouver Playhouse needs to change its shape completely, and probably not be in the Playhouse anymore unless there’s a radical change of how that is done,” said Bard on the Beach artistic director Christopher Gaze. “If they’d only had possession of the structure and were able to turn the front of it into a restaurant, and have coffee bars and so a constant presence, that would have, I think, made a huge difference.”

Today, Reimer maintains he does not regret the time he spent fighting to keep the company afloat. “I had some ideas about things that might work and I tried them, and a lot did,” he insisted. “There have been a lot of shifts and changes that will now not benefit the Playhouse, but could actually be good going forward in how the city lays out its future.”



Mike Puttonen

Mar 15, 2012 at 11:13pm

Is the Playhouse Theatre Company a “fatal challenge”?

Let’s see. The Globe in Regina gets 13% of its revenue from the province of Saskatchewan, the Vancouver Symphony gets 8% of revenue from B.C., while the Playhouse gets 4% of revenue from the province of B.C. If the Playhouse had been at parity with either of the other two for the last five years, there would be no operating deficit today.

Today, if the Playhouse is brought into provincial grant parity with Globe (at 13%), their operating deficit could be wiped out in two years and the extra $500k that is supposedly needed would be available in perpetuity. The Playhouse would not die if the province brought itself up to Saskatchewan standards and put their regional at parity with the Globe. That said....

The Playhouse BOG hired Mr. Reimer to run this “fatal challenge”, to replace another locally raised person who had run a mid-sized theatre on the Island fairly successfully and was very closely attached to the provincial cultural power structure (such as it is) in B.C. She was the beneficiary of the native brilliance of Panych and Gorling et al with The Overcoat in her fist season I believe, a triumph that carried the company along in the warmth of its success, and over the years since I’ve never heard it said that she wasn’t happy and comfortable and relatively worry free in her quiet decade as A.D. here.

August 2006 the company hired the formidable talents of Jon Stettner, who had spent the previous six years as Exec. Director of the Variety Club of BC, for their General Manager position:
He developed a “Strategic Plan”, and promoted it as a new dawn for theatre in Vancouver for everyone. Anything seemed possible, in the heady days of that last real estate boom.:
A year later almost to the day, the GM was gone, gone to take over the Make A Wish Foundation in Phoenix:

The Strategic Plan stayed in place, eliminating the Artistic Director and General Manager and creating a new position called Artistic General Manager:
The Strategic Plan allowed the developer of the “concrete shell a density density bonus that he presumably sold into the 2007 market. Meanwhile the Playhouse made a big commitment to realize, in seven years, a $25 million capital campaign to fit out a stand alone facility, offices, shops and 350 seat theatre in a concrete shell provided through this density bonuss and contingent on ‘everything going right’ with the Olympic Village site.

Max Reimer was meanwhile hired to programme the company season, while leading a $25 million capital campaign, yes? To run the company and also to raise money here as he had done in Hamilton, except that the Playhouse needed 5 times as much as he raised in Hamilton.
Suddenly....a fee of some $300k per annum will now apply to the new space once outfitted by the Playhouse for $25 million. This, coming from the city, will add another 5% to the yearly expenses:

Mike Puttonen

Mar 15, 2012 at 11:15pm

Pt. 2...
The departing Reimer says “Because I’ve sat on Canada Council juries [and company finances are part of Canada Council assessments], it was pretty clear that this was the most challenging job in the country at the time. And I didn’t say no but I didn’t say yes for many months, because it was possibly a fatal challenge,” he recalled.”

However...from the 2009 and 2010 financial statements (the only ones I can find online), the numbers do not seem to reflect that “fatal challenge” statement:


2006-2007 the company had a surplus of revenue over expenses of $20,208.
2007-2008 the company had an surplus of revenue over expenses or $89,556.00.
An operating surplus for at least the two years before Reimer took over. How does a surplus year over year make the Playhouse a “fatal challenge”?

2008-2009 In one season... A revenue decrease of nearly $400k. Spending increased by nearly $400k. A loss of some $800k to the company.
2009-2010 went the other way. The deficit in revenue over expenses came down considerably to $327, 372.

Can one, knowing the vast history of the regional theatre movement back to Margo Jone’s first application to the Ford Foundation in 1944 say in good conscience with a straight face that for a regional theatre a “fatal challenge would be a deficit that is 4% of the company’s total budget?

The Playhouse Theatre Company is being portrayed today as a long-time, perpetual “fatal challenge.” Is it? Look at this 2010 revenue comparison I’ve made between the Globe (Regina) and the Playhouse:
The Globe revenue breaks down 58% box office, 33% grants, and 9% fundraising.
The Playhouse revenue is 23% box office, 21% grants, 56% fundraising.

The Playhouse is under-granted, and under-attended, certainly. For many years, an artistic mandate that is said to lack focus, charm and power. The company seems at it demise to have many friendly mourners attending it, memories at the ready:

Mike Puttonen

Mar 15, 2012 at 11:16pm

Certainly, the Playhouse should have addressed its “purpose”. Does it, should it, can it provide the region with all the potential services of a regional theatre? The regionals were built in a “wave” of infrastructure stimulus, many years ago, and all of them, including the Playhouse in ’62, were built for these reasons:

Economically, the regionals were “import substitution” devices. Regionals buy geographic rights to the sort of hit shows that used to tour through Canada from NY. Regionals put them on with Canadian talent The touring shows were taking the profits with them when they went, and employed few locals. The regionals let us keep all the money, save the royalties, at home in our local economies.

As an “import substitution” engine, the Playhouse can find a cast regionally for the lastest Tony Award-winning show of any genre and it will match or better any Equity Tour cast out of LA or New York. The same level of talent, the same work ethic, the same everything, except they are Canadians and their fees stay here to be spent in local businesses year ‘round.

Last year Vancouver saw Next To Normal because the Arts Club acquired the rights for this region, and presented it with passion and panache. Toronto saw the tail end of the 18 month Equity tour, with one of the B’way leads to be sure, but she was so tired by that time that both Nestruck and Ouzounian panned her performance. She got her revenge I guess by taking the money back to the USA.

The regional theatre building boom was “infrastructure stimulus” during the recessionary spells of the late ‘50s/early 60s. The feds built the QE/Playhouse as a stimulus project, and the Canada Council followed right up with a program to start a company here, so the City was more or less pushed into the company idea, originally. The Vancouver Little Theatre wanted the theatre, too. But among other things, the CC wouldn’t fund them, so the professionals got a chance.

The regionals were “cultural development”—designed to present the whole range of great theatre to families in Canada who might otherwise remain the partial person you do remain if you have never known that the theatre is an essential part of life for everyone. (Yes...everyone.) There was a “golden thread of imagination”, as Blake called it, that ran from Margo Jones and Theatre 47 to Amelia Hall and the Canadian Rep Company, through Guthrie at Stratford, Hirsh in Winnipeg, here to Joy Coghill, Chris Newton, Larry Lillo... The golden thread ran out, here, after that. It can wind its way back again.

get it straight

Apr 4, 2012 at 10:16pm

It was NOT a bailout and was not $1 Million dollars.