Beyond the construction fencing, Arts Umbrella’s vast new space on Granville Island is beginning to take true shape. And at the same time that the facility is getting ready to stage its ambitious end-of-the-year dance and theatre productions, it’s preparing for a major new chapter in its evolution
“It’s been fun to dream a space,” Arts Umbrella’s associate director of music and theatre, Andy Toth, tells the Straight on a hard-hat tour of the facility.
The massive project has meant trying to predict the future needs of the expanding program as it readies to move into the 50,000-square-foot site in Emily Carr University of Art + Design’s former South Building.
While planning for the theatre students’ upcoming Expressions Theatre Festival, Toth and his team of instructors have been giving input on the four new studios and 145-seat theatre they’ll have access to at a new space that’s double the size of the current Granville Island headquarters.
At one end of the four-floor building, in Henriquez Partners Architects’ massive renovation to the early-1990s design by Patkau Architects, that means a new theatre studio with a blue screen for film and video work. In a top-level space, it means a sprung floor, studio-style seating, and high ceilings: “They’re literally raising the roof for us here,” Toth enthuses, surveying the concrete top that will soon be lifted.
The new Arts Umbrella headquarters is slated to open in 2020, although the space likely won’t be ready for annual spring Expressions Festival stagings until 2021. Still, the site’s capacity for in-house and public performances will mark big growth for the theatre program. Workers are putting in a box office at the entrance to the building, and the theatre will provide for year-round programming—also as a venue for dance.
In all, the renovated structure will be home to seven dance studios; four theatre and music studios; eight visual, applied, and media-arts studios; the 145-seat theatre; and a public exhibition gallery on the main floor. Students who now often eat in the hallway will have a bright new lunchroom with a terrace. And there will be a well-ventilated workshop space with drafting tables, saw, and more that emphasizes the theatre program’s stagecraft training.
“It’s a must and there’s nothing like it anywhere in Vancouver for teens—nothing where you can get into the nitty-gritty of design,” explains Toth. “They learn, ‘How do you peel apart a script in order to design for it?’”
“We’re trying to give a better understanding of the whole,” says Susanne Moniz de Sá, coordinator of theatre and music. “It’s important to respect every part of the production."
“We often see students come alive when they do the lights and so on,” adds Seamus Fera, codirector of the junior theatre troupe and a past student who started at the program at age seven. He says he personally appreciated the behind-the-scenes knowledge when he went on to study acting at UBC. “When I entered my undergrad I knew about lights, about sound, how to coil cables. Kids are responsible for organizing costumes on their tours here and also making sure their props survive the tour.”
At the moment, the program, which offers theatre and musical-theatre streams, must vie for limited studio space with the dance and visual-arts programs in the old facility. Toth feels strongly that more space will lead to more collaboration between those art forms. “Right now, it’s so tight in the space we’re in that interacting is hard because we’re too tight to share,” he explains. “Good fences make good neighbours.”
For now, though, Expressions allows the students to focus on their acting as they take on an ambitious lineup of famous works: the junior and senior musical-theatre troupes are tackling James and the Giant Peach and Into the Woods, while the junior and senior theatre groups are bringing to life Peter Pan and Animal Farm, respectively.
It’s important for their performances to be allowed to evolve through a long run on a professional stage, de Sá says. “There’s a trajectory of the students in how they grow from show to show, and then how they grow year to year,” she explains.
“It’s a reminder that air and light are the essence of who we are as human beings,” she says over the phone amid the year-end flurry of performances and summer-training planning. “It encourages us and it inspires us that somebody cares enough about what we do that they’re willing to build us a place to do it.
“That’s what’s really important: knowing that people care and value dance and art and process. That’s the catalyst we all need to create.”
For Arts Umbrella’s dance stream, the new building will not necessarily mean growth in numbers; Gordon reports everything will be at capacity when she and her students are expecting to move in.
But having the 145-seat theatre and other spaces that can allow for seating opens up possibilities for programming. Gordon sees new opportunities for workshops, residencies, and visiting troupes. And the expansive studios, which have light streaming in from high windows on the top floor, will allow younger students to take in the work of those ahead of them. “I have different companies of different ages, so when you’re able to have two or three casts in the room, it’s great,” says Gordon, whose grads often go on to the world’s top contemporary troupes, including Batsheva Dance Company, Nederlands Dans Theater, and, of course, Ballet BC.
The program’s popular spring mixed program, which is called Be Moved for 2019, will need to stay in its larger Vancouver Playhouse venue. This year’s cutting-edge lineup of 18 pieces reads like a who’s who of the national and international contemporary-dance scene, with several new works created for the company. International star Crystal Pite has been back at the preprofessional program, experimenting for a large-scale premiere she’ll stage abroad, allowing the students to perform an excerpt from it in Be Moved. Emily Molnar, Johan Inger, Lesley Telford, Stephen Shropshire, James Kudelka, Mats Ek, Amos Ben-Tal, and Wen Wei Wang also have creations on the roster. At the same time, Be Moved is a platform for new voices: Ballet BC alumna Livona Ellis has created a piece, and so has one of that troupe’s current stars, Emily Chessa.
Arts Umbrella already attracts top talent, so it seems the new building will provide more fitting surroundings for their dance work.
“At their level everybody can dance,” Gordon says of her students. “We’ll be able to do what we do better, and that’s what’s really important. It’s about development. And then, just having proper changerooms and a place for kids to eat!”
Arts Umbrella’s Expressions Theatre Festival runs from Friday to next Saturday (May 17 to 25) at the Waterfront Theatre; the dance program’s season finale, Be Moved, is next Thursday to Saturday (May 23 to 25) at the Vancouver Playhouse.