Since the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company shut down on March 9, there’s been no shortage of opinions about the reasons for its failure, but we can certainly eliminate one of the possibilities: artistic managing director Max Reimer can’t be held responsible for the death of our regional theatre. I don’t think Reimer was the right person to lead the Playhouse, but nobody has been the right person for 20 years, not since Larry Lillo; Glynis Leyshon wasn’t and Susan Cox certainly wasn’t.
The Playhouse couldn’t have had a nicer guy at the helm than Reimer. He’s generous, warm, and approachable. Under his leadership, the Playhouse became a genuine community player, more open than it has ever been to acting as a resource for smaller companies, sharing its rehearsal space, props, and costumes. And Reimer has been involved in some terrific cooperative initiatives, including the recent and unforgettable co-pro with Electric Company, All the Way Home.
The Playhouse was already sinking when Reimer came aboard in 2008, and he was hired under ridiculous terms. He was expected to be both company manager and artistic director. Those are two full-time jobs, and not so long ago the Playhouse announced that it was going to divvy them back up, with Reimer staying on as manager—which is, I suspect, where his skills really lie.
It seems pretty clear that when the Playhouse board hired Reimer to be artistic director, they hoped that they were getting a fixer. Reimer had steered the Huron Country Playhouse in Grand Bend, Ontario, through its most lucrative years (1993 to 1996), and as director of Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius from 1996 to 2008 he resolved a $5-million debt and won himself a Lieutenant-Governor’s Award for excellence in business in the arts.
But in hiring a business fixer, the board left out an important part of the equation: artistic vision. That’s the element that has been missing at the Playhouse for decades.
Artistically, Vancouver is a long way from Hamilton or Grand Bend. And within Vancouver’s theatre scene, the Playhouse occupies a prestigious position.
When the late Larry Lillo took over the Playhouse way back in 1988, he opened his first season with Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind, a tough, poetic show about violence and gender. In doing so, he served notice that we were in for an exciting ride. Don’t get me wrong; Lillo also dished up some middle-of-the-road fare, including Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles. But, generally speaking, he kept us on our toes, with revelatory interpretations of the classics, including Much Ado About Nothing and A Streetcar Named Desire, and unabashedly political work by Dario Fo, Athol Fugard, and Michel Tremblay. By challenging the audience, Lillo built the subscription base to record levels.
Then Susan Cox took over and ran the show from 1993 to 1997. Nice woman. Music-hall queen. Completely wrong sensibility. Enough said.
Glynis Leyshon, who helmed the Playhouse from 1997 until Reimer stepped in, looked good on paper. Leyshon is a very, very bright woman. But in my conversations with her, she spoke more than once about programming for a “mass audience” at the Playhouse. The Playhouse audience isn’t a mass audience; it’s an elite audience. And I’m not just talking about them being well-heeled; I’m talking about their level of artistic sophistication. As I see it, this is an audience that wants to be challenged; condescending to it or failing to live up to its expectations will only result in a drop-off in subscriptions, which is exactly what we’ve seen. When the Arts Club took over the Stanley Theatre, artistic director Bill Millerd consciously programmed up for the space; he knew that in that kind of venue, the audience would expect a greater level of sophistication. That’s what was needed at the Playhouse.
I’m sure that, through the seasons, the various boards of governors at the Playhouse have worked extremely hard to keep the institution afloat. I’m not knockin’ ’em, but I am saying that in an arts organization, artistic vision can’t take a back seat to business concerns.
And, of course, the Playhouse was a leaky ship in many ways. It was ridiculous, for instance, that the city allowed it so little control over its venue that it couldn’t hold over hits and had to move its sets to accommodate weekly afternoon concerts.
Before I shut up, I want to wave the tattered Canadian flag. Canadian arts funding has helped to create a culture in which audiences relish challenge. You don’t see that so much in the United States’ theatrical scene, which runs on a more free-enterprise, lowest-common-denominator model. Supposedly big-deal shows that come out of the system are consistently disappointing. Think of Intimate Apparel or, God help us, Circle Mirror Transformation, both of which the Arts Club has produced recently. In the U.S., these shows are touted as adventuresome, but they’re boring. That’s why we have to continue to defend Canadian arts funding against Philistines like Stephen Harper, and why artistic and social challenges, as well as fiscal responsibility, have to remain priorities in our artistic institutions.
Adapted from Colin Thomas's website.