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.”