The Arts Club Theatre is getting ready to mark the end of an era.
Few arts companies in Canada are as synonymous with their artistic director as the Arts Club is with Bill Millerd. And so it is momentous news that Millerd has announced today, after 44 years helming Western Canada’s largest theatre operation, that he will retire as its artistic managing director after the 2017-18 season.
Millerd began as a stage manager at the the Arts Club in 1969, when it was a small but thriving troupe out of the late, historic Seymour Street venue in downtown Vancouver. Taking the helm in 1972, he steered the company from that operation to a busy hub on Granville Island, year-round programming, on to the renovation and addition of the heritage Stanley Theatre in 1998, and the opening of the shiny new BMO Theatre Centre in Olympic Village in 2015.
It has been four decades of unbelievable growth and change, but always centred by the vision of the multitasking Millerd, who unveiled his final season lineup today and broke the news directly to staff.
“I have this place on Denman Island that I share with my partner, where you have a lot of time to think and walk the dog,” he tells the Straight, explaining the context of his decision while sitting in a board room at the BMO centre. “Theatre is always going through change, and the media has changed. And it feels like it’s time for a new generation. Sure, I can continue to pick plays as long as my brain functions. But I have to be aware that there is a generation that needs to step forward. We see that evolving across the country as a lot of artistic directors of my generation look at the changing landscape.”
The decades have seen dramatic change on the local cultural scene—changes that make putting on plays a tougher proposition these days, despite the big venues and infrastructure, he observes. “It used to be an old gospel hall where they put up plays. And of course, the beginning is always tough, but that’s because it’s the beginning and you’re young,” Millerd says candidly. “But today the challenge is very, very different because you feel responsible for the company and the theatre artists who are working for you. Back then, with the programming you had nothing to lose. Now, if you program a big flop, it can have huge ramifications.”
The Arts Club has announced that a search for a new artistic director will begin immediately, led by local firm Alexander Whitehead Executive Search in consultation with Arts Club executive director Peter Cathie White and board chair Bruce Flexman.
Cathie White said in a press statement today: “Bill Millerd has been the heart of the Arts Club for 45 years, and I have enjoyed immensely the time that I have had the privilege of working with him. He stewarded this theatre company from being a 150-seat venue to what it is today—Canada’s largest not-for-profit urban theatre company....Although I will miss working with Bill, I look forward to our continuing the work of this amazing company with a new artistic director.”
Millerd’s final season reflects the approach that kept the theatre alive and thriving when others, most notably the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre in 2012, closed down. (See the full season announcement here.) In it, he looks clearly toward the future, with new plays by Kevin Loring, Jill Daum, and Melody Anderson; but he has also programmed the hit musical Mamma Mia!, and tells the Straight it’s those kinds of works that have always helped fund the theatre’s new Canadian plays. In all, the Arts Club has staged more than 80 Canadian-written premieres.
Millerd’s financial practicality has been one strong factor in his longevity, and in the Arts Club’s success. He credits it in part to growing up in West Vancouver with parents who ran a fishing business, but also to the bare-bones operation that was once the upstart Arts Club. He recalls the company sailed on hits like Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, a show that brought thousands into the venue, and a two-year run of Ain’t Misbehavin’ in the '80s.
“We had no funding, just a small grant from the province back then,” Millerd recalls. “So we had no money.”
Millerd’s other key strategy was opening the Arts Club Lounge at the Granville Island site, knowing a cabaret could help get the company through tough times. “We always had a bar—it was always a major part of our cash flow,” Millerd reflects. “In the early days, that was a major part of how we existed.”
His other gift, the one he’s probably proudest of, is for recognizing and nurturing great talent on the local scene. That hasn’t meant just playwrights, from Morris Panych through to Dean Regan and on to newcomers like author Arosh Irani, whose Mumbai-Vancouver-set The Men in White has just opened. It’s also meant scores and scores of actors who have graced his stage, from the stars of that first Jacques Brel (Brent Carver, Leon Bibb, Anne Mortifee, and Ruth Nichol) to names like Nicola Cavendish, Jackson Davies, Jay Brazeau, Allan Gray, Alvin Sanders, Bernard Cuffling, Doris Chilcott, Janet Wright, Doris Chilcott, and Allan Zinyk, or even Port Moody’s young Nolan Fahey, who starred as Billy Elliott last year. His casting ability is especially interesting when you consider Millerd was never an actor himself.
“I went to National Theatre School after I went to UBC, where I didn’t study theatre—I studied poli sci,” he says with a smile. “Then I came back here to be a stage manager. I really understood how important casting a play was. I feel I’ve been lucky to understand casting and to impress that on directors: half your battles are done if you've cast it properly, and if you’ve cast it wrong, you have to figure out how to get around that.”
He adds that he’s been aided by a strong acting, designing, and directing community that’s centred here with the film and TV industry. But he remembers years when actors had to leave town to find work. “They’d have to go to Hollywood or Toronto,” he recalls.
What’s clear is that no one person will quite be able to fill Millerd’s shoes. As he points out, “Just figuring out what our audiences want and travelling to find shows is a job and a half.” On top of that, add the casting he’s involved in, his knowledge of the local players to draw from, and the negotiations he often does for contracts and plays. Over his tenure, he has also directed more than 100 plays.
“I’ve given a lot of thought to how the company will run after I leave, and I don’t expect an incoming artistic director to do all that I do,” he says.
Just how might Millerd, whose life for more than four decades has been this theatre company, spend his retirement? There have been accolades over the years: an Order of Canada, an honourary doctorate of letters from UBC, Jessie Richardson Theatre awards, and many more that mark his legacy. But he knows it will be hard to let go.
Millerd says he’ll continue to travel, especially to London, where he has friends. Most surprising of all, for this man who knows so much about the stage, Millerd also muses about taking some theatre courses that interest him.
“I’ve tried not to think about it too much—maybe because it probably scares me,” he says with a laugh. “I’ll still have my office at Granville Island for a while. I’ll go there to work—or hibernate or something.”