As a Vancouver landmark celebrating its 50th anniversary, the Cultch has seen some changes over the years, both at the corner of Victoria and Venables, and in the surrounding neighbourhood it’s long called home. If there’s a constant, though, it’s that one of the city’s most enduring and loved creative hubs remains proudly East Vancouver in spirit.
“It is hard-core East Van, and I think that’s the beauty of it,” says Heather Redfern, executive director of the Cultch since 2007. “My philosophy here has always been that we don’t need to do anything that other people are doing in Vancouver. We don’t need to do what the Arts Club does because the Arts Club is already doing it.”
Indeed, if there’s a constant in the venue’s programming over the years, it’s the idea of pushing, and sometimes exploding, boundaries. Look no further than the Cultch’s 2023/24 season opener Fairview, written by Jackie Sibblies Drury, which just played the Historic Theatre.
“It’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, so it’s got a pedigree,” says Redfern, interviewed at the Cultch. “But it’s definitely out there—the risk that the writer takes with the form of theatre, playing with that and challenging that, is pretty interesting. So if you think of it in a holistic way, not just that particular play, but the idea of decolonizing the form, that’s something that I’ve always been interested in.”
That line of thinking dates back to the Cultch’s beginnings as the Vancouver East Cultural Centre in the early ’70s.
“It’s always had sort of hippie roots, for a lack of a better way of putting it,” Redfern says. “The people who started it were hippies. The people who were making shows in it were hippies. And there was that really strong community focus.”
What’s now the Historic Theatre was once the Grandview Methodist Church, which served as a place of worship until 1968, when the building was turned over to Vancouver Inner City Services. It operated as a shared space for Vancouver Free University and storefront lawyers for a half decade before being converted into a theatre.
Originally promoted as one of the city’s prestigious communities, the Cultch’s surrounding neighbourhood was in decline by the late ’50s, with that continuing through to the early ’90s as families fled the city for the suburbs. The upside? Cheap rents and plenty of available housing began to attract artists and activists, creating a socially progressive, free-thinking, and ultimately kind of funky vibe that, even after gentrification, continues to define the area today.
So while it’s not impossible to imagine the Cultch existing on the West Side or the North Shore, it’s off the Drive in East Van where it makes sense. The community is as much a part of the theatre as the theatre is a part of the community.
RAISED IN EAST VAN, Redfern had her first exposure to the Cultch as a teen.
“The Cultch came on my radar when I was in high school,” she recalls. “My drama teacher was a guy named John Maunsell, and his wife Micki Maunsell was part of West Coast Actors, which did shows here at the Cultch. He would bring us here to see them. The very first show I saw here I couldn’t say, because there were so many. But the most memorable was a production of Hosanna in 1976, which I think was life-changing for a lot of people. It was my first real introduction to Canadian theatre—my first awareness that Canadian theatre was actually a thing. I always knew what I was going to do after that.”
After Redfern enrolled in the National Theatre School in Montreal to study design, a marriage took her to Edmonton, where she spent 20 years.
“The year I moved there was the second-ever Fringe Festival in Edmonton, and the very first Fringe Festival outside of Edinburgh,” she says. “The Fringe became huge, and it just kept growing and growing every year. It was a really exciting time to be there.”
In 2004 she moved back to the West Coast, becoming the executive director of the BC Alliance for Arts + Culture. Three years later she was hired to head the Cultch, bringing her back to the place that kickstarted her love of theatre in the ’70s.
One of the first things she remembers was that the building—already scheduled for a major renovation—was falling apart, the problems including washrooms with no hot water.
“It was really bad,” she remembers. “There had been a flood in the basement and a sewer backup. The foundation was in bad shape—after a hundred years all the mortar was gone, so the building was standing on dirt and rocks, basically.”
In addition to programming at the Cultch, Redfern’s also responsible for all major funding and grant applications. The magnitude of that job becomes clear when you consider that in addition to the historic theatre, the York Theatre, Vancity Culture Lab, and Jim Green House Studios are all under the organization’s umbrella.
And in case that still doesn’t paint a clear enough picture of all there is to wrangle, consider this: thanks to years of neglect, starting in 2007 the historic theatre had to be rebuilt from the ground up, with one of the few things remaining from the original church today being the risers in the stairs leading to the balcony.
WHILE HER TIME at the Cultch has been busy, what comes through in conversation with Redfern—who laughs easily and often—is that she still has a boundless enthusiasm for the job.
While there are too many of them to list here, highlights include having her world rocked early on by Canadian puppeteer Ronnie Burkett, who’s since returned regularly to the historic theatre.
“I’m pretty loyal to the artists that we show,” Redfern notes. “We’ll have companies back year after year after year so they build a following and the artists grow and gain a reputation. If they’re willing to take a risk on us and come here, we’re willing to take a risk on them.”
Unearthing raw new talents remains a great thing about the job. One of the Cultch’s great under-the-radar shows last year was Bird, a part-standup, part-theatre show by Kylie Vincent that was as funny as it was at times outright sad and completely harrowing. Redfern saw it first at the Edinburgh Fringe with an audience of seven people, and then began working to bring it to Vancouver. (If you missed it, the show is now available on the Cultch’s website.)
But what Redfern might love the most is the way that the Cultch is such a deeply ingrained part of the community, with a lineage that stretches back decades. Curious about the origins of Theatre Replacement’s East Van Panto, which has become a Vancouver holiday tradition at the York Theatre?
“One of the impulses behind doing the Panto, for both TR and the Cultch, was to channel the energy that Leaky Heaven Circus used to have at the Cultch—where they were really engaging in community in a direct way,” Redfern says.
As for what has her extra thrilled about the Cultch’s 50th anniversary season, it’s perhaps no surprise that a show that pushes boundaries, while also reflecting the spirit of East Van and the importance of community, is at the top of her list.
Tonight (October 19), the York will host the world premiere of Te Tangi a te Tūī, a show commissioned by the Cultch in 2021. Fusing Māori culture with the artistry of cirque theatre, the production—a collaboration between New Zealand’s Te Rēhia Theatre and Dust Palace theatre companies, and presented by the Cultch and Urban Ink—is told entirely in the te reo Māori language.
“These are artists that I’ve gotten to know in New Zealand, we’ve had Dust Palace here twice—so, again, there’s the importance of those long, ongoing relationships,” Redern says. “The ways it’s coming together, it’s just going to be beautiful. I’m going to put my neck out and say it’s probably the very first time there’s ever been a show performed in Vancouver in Māori. There’s no English, and no English surtitles, but people will be getting a translation after the fact. The company wants to keep the theatre as a purely Māori space, so that’s super exciting.”