At the risk of angering its resident ghost, the Firehall Arts Centre looks forward to some big changes

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      While great news for the Firehall Arts Centre, chances are one Vancouverite will be less-than-excited about changes planned for the much-loved venue: the theatre’s resident ghost.

      While no one knows the exact identity of the spectre believed to haunt 280 East Cordova Street in the Downtown Eastside, Firehall artistic producer Donna Spencer has a theory.

      “We think it’s a little girl,” she offers.

      It’s a cold February day that feels more like the dead of winter than the cusp of spring. Spencer is treating the Straight to a behind-the-scenes tour of the first firehall built in Vancouver (completion took place in 1906). That starts in her office, where firefighters once dried out wet hoses, and winds down to a basement studded with rocks originally used for ballast in ships arriving from Scotland around the turn of the 19th century.

      Continuing her ghost story, Spencer says: “People have seen her, and seen her aura I guess. We don’t know why she’s here—we think she might have come here to get help from the fire people.”

      How this relates to today is that the ghost that haunts the Firehall Arts Centre tends to get agitated whenever changes are made. To visit the former fire station (decommissioned in the mid-’70s) is to love its vintage sash-and-cord windows, still-intact brass firefighter poles, beautiful brick walls, Instagrammable courtyard, and century-old tiled bathroom floors. More than a theatre, the Firehall is a reminder that not every character building in this city has been bulldozed in the name of development.

      Spencer first walked into the space in the ’80s when it was a fledgling hub for the city’s theatre groups, and has been here ever since. Today, as she celebrates the Firehall’s 40th season, she’s excited about planned upcoming changes.

      “We have finally managed to convince the city, and enthusiastically I think they’ve been convinced, that the building needs an upgrade,” she says. “It needs to be made accessible, and we’ve just wrapped up a study on how that can work. Where we can put in an elevator, how we can redo the lobby, upgrade the dressing rooms—all of those kinds of things, and perhaps end up with another small studio. It does mean going into the courtyard, but there’s no other way to do that. And, obviously, we’ll retain as much of the courtyard as we can. Hopefully we’ll be starting on the architectural drawings by June.”

      As for the timeline after that?

      “When this will happen will be totally dependent on more money,” Spencer says with a laugh. “But the city has recognized the value of having the theatre here, and they want to retain it and make it an even better space for people to come to. And also for us to work in.”

      Spend an hour with Spencer in her office, and her love for the Firehall immediately shines through. She’s understandably proud about the dance, theatre, music, and multi-media productions the space has hosted over decades—the walls of her office covered with old flyers and photographs. But she’s perhaps even prouder of the pioneering culture-shifting work that’s been done at the Firehall, dating right back to its earliest days.

      The Firehall Arts Centre in its early days, when making theatre more respresentative of all Canadian became a goal.

      Spencer arrived at the space on a part-time contract in December of 1981, right after it had dodged being knocked down and turned into a parking lot.

      “I was amazed at how many doors there were, and how difficult it was going to be to get a theatre open,” she says with a laugh. “That’s where it started, and I was not planning to stay.”

      Except that she did, founding a society to run the Firehall with the mandate to produce, present, and publicise the performing arts in a way reflective of B.C., Canada, and, importantly, the Downtown Eastside. By 1985 the Firehall Theatre Society was on its way to reshaping long-entrenched ideas about theatre in Vancouver, providing an early springboard for young, culturally diverse playwrights like Russell Wallace, Jay Ono, and Columpa Bobb.

      “At that point, it was obvious that Canadian stages were not reflecting what Canada was,” Spencer says. “Canadian stages were not culturally diverse at all then. I think by being in this neighbourhood, which has always been a place where newcomers to the country come, and also where there’s also been a huge Indigenous population, it was my dream to actually have what I call a truly Canadian theatre company. That’s kind of where the Firehall started—with a training program with lots of culturally diverse artists who’d gone to university or training schools, but weren’t getting any work. We became the next step.”

      And the Firehall has remained that supportive platform over the decades, providing a stage for productions (Opening Doors, Yellow Fever, AlterNatives, White Noise, Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout, and too many other to list here) that have given Vancouverites something to think about long after they’ve left the theatre.

      That tradition of making a difference might explain why Spencer remains just as excited about running the Firehall today as she was during its early years.

      She allows that there have been challenges. One of the biggest ones was navigating a pandemic that not only shut down the world, but today has left some reluctant to return to the theatre, perhaps because they simply got out of the habit of going out.

      “For this last season, I tried to plan it—I don’t mean safe in terms of the work—but more that we could get through the season if we had to reduce house sizes,” Spencer says. “We aren’t doing as much as I wanted to do. In the future I want to get back to the same rhythm we had before, but knowing that it won’t be the same. So putting together teams to get our work out there in different ways—like ‘What do we stream, and what don’t we stream? Are there things that we can do that aren’t always about being in the room with an audience?’

      “But when it comes right down to it,” Spencer continues, “I’m totally addicted to the live performing arts, so I don’t see us making a huge shift. Theatre is not designed to be seen on film—it should be seen on stage.”

      A stage that, while it might not make the Firehall’s resident ghost happy for a while, will look different than in the past. While at the same time becoming a little more welcoming to, well, everyone.

      “The building is almost 120 years old, and it really has served us well,” Spencer says. “But we have a lobby that has no heat in it. We have no elevator to get people to the second floor, so when people come to the theatre and have any mobility issues, they have to come in through a back door, and the door is not that wide.

      “The Firehall has big accessibility challenges in terms of physical accessibility,” she adds. “So the people who come here with mobility issues are determined to come because of the productions. What we’re going to do is retain as much of the character and the brick and all of that as we move forward, because that’s one of the reasons that people come as well. They don’t want a glassy, shiny theatre. They want the Firehall.” 

      Donna Spencer in her office, where fire hoses were once dried out in the 1900s.