New Westminster’s Anvil Centre boasts flexible theatre space

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      New Westminster’s Anvil Centre is adding to its list of cultural offerings as organizers launch an exciting theatre program in the building’s brand-new contemporary-performance space.

      The Anvil, a gleaming angular building on Columbia Street between Eighth and Begbie, was built and opened last fall by the City of New Westminster after pressure to reinvigorate Columbia Street from the downtown community.

      According to theatre coordinator Jessica Schneider, the stage was created to meet a set of needs in the area.

      “Commerce, culture, and community: those initiatives became the vision of Anvil Centre,” she says in an interview at the newly completed building.

      An 18,000-square-foot event and conference space can be found on the first floor, while the second floor contains the free admission New Westminster New Media Gallery and New Westminster Museum and Archives. The third floor houses the theatre. Schneider hopes that, in time, events and productions in each part of the building will complement one another.

      “We who operate each area of the Anvil are trying to find ways to make that vision real by integrating all three aspects,” she says. A comic conference earlier this year saw a trade show on the first floor, a gaming exhibition in the New Media Gallery and museum, and tribute shows in the theatre. “We’re hoping to host more events like that,” says Schneider.

      Schneider is the Massey Theatre Society’s executive director, and was hired by the city to operate the Anvil Centre’s theatre program, working with programmers to curate shows.

      The need for the performance space was identified through a study of the regional theatre ecology. The Anvil Centre’s theatre might not be the biggest in the area, but it’s certainly the most flexible. Features like state-of-the-art lighting, a sprung floor, and a capacity of 364 make it one of the largest and most modern theatres of its kind in the Lower Mainland, with seats outnumbering those at similar theatres like the Cultch and Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver. Its non-proscenium format means the space can be reconfigured in a number of ways, including as a theatre in the round. The building also offers five-star catering and is fully licensed.

      “We’re looking for shows that are developed intentionally for this kind of environment. It provides a different way of inviting the audience in, because the barrier of a raised stage is gone,” says Schneider.

      The theatre’s wood panelling makes for excellent acoustics, and Schneider has plans for chamber music and jazz concerts in the near future. She’s also keen to experiment with performance artists, comedy, and new-media productions.

      “We’re hoping that we’ll offer things that only this theatre can do. We don’t have an established audience, and so we have to build on what is already going on at other theatres,” she says. “That’s the experiment when you launch a theatre from scratch.”

      Sketch-comedy production Peter N’ Chris: The Mystery of the Hungry Heart Motel plays at the Anvil Centre from October 30 to November 1.

      Because the venue offers a unique space, competition from local theatres hasn’t really crossed her mind.

      “We’re looking at the regional scene to see which audiences aren’t being served outside of downtown [Vancouver]. Residential demographics play a huge part in what we decide to showcase,” says Schneider.

      The goal for Schneider and team is to draw many communities and arts interests in, and to create a habit of visiting the Anvil among residents not just of New Westminster, but of all neighbouring cities, including Vancouver.

      “We want to be a touchstone for people who are relocating, because people still want their culture when they move, and they don’t want to be commuting to find it,” she says. “That’s all part of the commerce mandate: we want this building to be a cultural destination.”

      The theatre’s first big show, a sketch-comedy production called Peter N’ Chris: The Mystery of the Hungry Heart Motel, opens this Friday (October 30).

      “I chose it as the kickoff because I know absolutely everybody will have fun,” says Schneider, giggling. “Just thinking of the show makes me laugh.”

      Of the Scooby Doo–esque physical comedy packed with horror clichés, she adds: “It’s comedy but it’s theatrical, and it’s clean for kids, too.”

      Peter N’ Chris: The Mystery of the Hungry Heart Motel plays at the Anvil Centre at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday (October 30 and 31), and 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday (October 31 and November 1).