Ashlie Corcoran has been dying to direct Little Shop of Horrors. The Arts Club’s artistic director has loved the show ever since she was a child growing up in White Rock. So when it came to programming the Arts Club’s diamond anniversary season, it simply had to be on the bill.
“My brother and I would just watch it on repeat,” she recalls. “We loved it so much that there was a plant nursery across the street from our elementary school, and we used to go there to buy venus flytraps… He was the first person I wanted to tell when we were programming it.”
Corcoran directs three Arts Club shows per season, so the musical was an easy pick for her. Still, she knew she faced some challenges—particularly with how to make it feel relevant for a contemporary audience and how to deal with its more difficult subject matter.
Because while its best-known iteration is Frank Oz’s campy 1986 film, Little Shop of Horrors has societal messages that sometimes get overlooked in the gleeful sing-a-longs that follow the relationship between plant shop employee Seymour, his love interest Audrey, and the abominable plant Audrey II. The domestic violence that Audrey faces at the hands of her sadistic boyfriend is met with “genuine heart and seriousness” in Corcoran’s rendition—as is the grit at the story’s heart.
“I felt like as a director, as a female director, as a director living in Vancouver at this time, I had something to say with this piece,” Corcoran explains. “I haven’t set it on the moon or done a crazy radicalized reinterpretation. The core of this piece is funny, and delicious, and entertaining, and hilarious, but as well as being all those things that are so much fun, it is also a critique of capitalism.”
Audrey II, the man-eating plant that takes over Seymour’s life, is a fairly clear metaphor for greed. After all, Seymour’s obsession with the plant—spoiler alert—ends up with tragic results for all involved, as Seymour’s “greasy heart” leads him to increasingly self-serving decisions. But that same narrative plays out in other parts of the show, too.
Take Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronette, the trio that acts as narrators. With their 1960s girl-group names and Motown flair, they begin as the audience’s friends, helping guide them through the world. But as the show progresses, they too “get caught up in the wave of gentrification that happens in this neighbourhood,” Corcoran explains.
While the three often go from down-on-their-luck urchins at the show’s beginning to sudden glamouristas in the finale in one sudden move, Corcoran says she wanted that change to happen more gradually: ritzier accessories or nicer hair each time they appear on stage, making their path into consumerism less cut-and-dry and more clearly signposted, and encouraging audiences to reflect on real-life capitalism and gentrification. There’s also an emphasis on cash in the staging, illustrating the power that money has in changing people.
“None of these characters are perfect. They’re all making choices that benefit them,” Corcoran says. “And as they’re making choices that benefit them, other parts of their neighbourhood, their community, and society at large are being hurt by some of those selfish choices.”
It’s a message that really resonates in the here and now, as Vancouver’s unhoused community undergoes the latest wave of street clearings in the name of housed people’s comfort, and real estate corporations look to rebrand SROs as fashionable micro-suites for 10 times the cost. Script notes from the original playwright Howard Ashman (who later went on to be involved in much of Disney’s renaissance) highlight that unchecked capitalism was always supposed to be in the crosshairs. Things have staying power for a reason.
The Arts Club itself has proven its own staying power. The organization’s 60th anniversary programming continues what Corcoran calls “conscious eclecticism”: choosing shows that “rub up against each other and create some sparks.”
There are some callbacks: Sexy Laundry, for instance, returns in April 2024, 20 years after its initial Arts Club run. And there are some new treats, too.
As part of the organization’s Silver Commission program, the Arts Club funds a couple of new plays from inception to staging every year. Someone Like You, set to premiere this October, is one such production, conceived as a millennial take on Cyrano de Bergerac. It was initially staged as an audio play during the pandemic and it holds a special place in Corcoran’s heart, as its creator Christine Quintana was one of the first playwrights she connected with when she moved to Vancouver five years ago.
Supporting local creatives is a core part of the Arts Club’s remit, and Corcoran really wanted to lean into it for the organization’s banner year by commissioning six new shows.
“What I thought would be the best way to celebrate the 60 years,” Corcoran says, “is trying to invest back into the Vancouver theatre ecosystem, give more work to creators and writers, and lay the groundwork for future seasons where we can be premiering local work.”
Fingers crossed we’ll still be talking about some of these shows in a few decades’ time—and still have theatres to show them at. Unless, of course, a giant plant destroys them all.
When: September 7 to October 8
Where: Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage
Tickets: From $39More