Dissecting the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company's demise

Straight theatre critic argues that artistic leadership had lagged for years

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      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.

      Comments

      13 Comments

      Hazlit

      Mar 29, 2012 at 7:25am

      As a culturally obsessed American who lived in Europe as a kid and now lives in Vancouver I wholly support Colin's point. While I don't agree with all his reviews (I thought he was wrong on the recent King Lear for example) I strongly agree with the sentiment he expresses here. Vancouver is capable of and interested in good, challenging, thoughtful and moving theatre. We want powerful, interesting, challenging thoughtful theatre that does not need to make concessions to a mass audience. Like Colin, I am convinced that the way to make great theatre is to put high art on stage. Bravo Colin for supporting great theatre in Vancouver.

      TOS

      Mar 29, 2012 at 7:51am

      Well said, Colin. I love the theatre and some of my best memories of theatre in Vancouver were at the Playhouse but none of them within the last 20 years. Sure i've been entertained but i can be entertained by the internet on my iPhone. I want to be challenged by theatre. Lose that and you might as well stop going and that's precisely what has happened.

      12 9Rating: +3

      Yum

      Mar 29, 2012 at 6:02pm

      I honestly think that for anyone to have a valid opinion about artist integrity in theater they need to have worked in theater. We have watched production times fall significantly, with some shows having as little as two weeks rehearsal time. I was wondering who Colin Thomas would give his bad reviews to if the Playhouse really did fold, now I have my answer. The Playhouse.

      Artslave

      Mar 29, 2012 at 11:40pm

      Only an ego-maniac like Colin would kick this corpse. I suspect all those nasty reviews are what keep people away from theatre. There's a few companies left Colin, what are you going to review when you've killed them all?

      Arts Cassandra

      Mar 30, 2012 at 10:17am

      I have come to realize that these comments sections are not the place to have reasoned, rational debates, so I won't go into a long essay about the state of the arts in BC at this time.

      Suffice it to say that there are many reasons that the Playhouse collapsed, starting with the outmoded Board structure that afflicts all arts organizations and going to inadequate funding and untenable rental circumstances. And yes, that includes inappropriate hires of Artistic Directors and General Managers.

      But I am really writing to defend Colin's credentials here - he was trained in the theatre and worked in the profession as an actor and a playwright. And he was a pretty good at both of those things, but chose to go on a different path.

      There are certainly times when I disagree with Colin, but he has the experience, passion and the understanding to say what he says. He has also been around long enough to have watched the slow decline of the Playhouse that we have all been witnessing.

      Finally, it really is unnecessary to be rude and dismissive when someone is trying to start a civil conversation about a topic that is incredibly important to us all. We should be engaging everyone in the public eye that we can to keep the topic current, not insulting those who are on our side and trying to make sense of a very complex situation.

      Mike Puttonen

      Mar 30, 2012 at 10:44am

      "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."

      The art has been doing a whole lot better than the business at the Playhouse.

      Box office went up in 2008-2009, and in 2010-2011.
      Grants went up, even during the cutbacks of 2009. etc.

      On the other hand, there was this elephant in the room...

      Read this:

      http://www.straight.com/article/room-to-play-0

      $12.5 million that the 2006 Playhouse board had committed to raise.

      Subsequent boards have raised not dime one.

      Of course, I could be wrong about that, maybe they raised the miliions.

      But if they had, they'd have used it to save the company.

      City got a big new building, developer got a big bonus density, Playhouse got the big sleep.

      Gump

      Mar 30, 2012 at 12:55pm

      Vancouver, you killed the Playhouse. You'd rather spend $300 on a hockey ticket than $50 ticket to see a play. You complain about the arts begging for money yet you won't go see an opera or buy local art. Yes, all this will go away and you will wonder where it went. We can't blame anyone but ourselves.

      walker

      Mar 30, 2012 at 12:59pm

      @artslave if you really think a theatre critic has that kind of power then you really need to get out a bit more. Don't blame Colin for the state of theatre in this city.

      David Stein, Toronto

      Mar 30, 2012 at 1:03pm

      Nobody has been the right person since 1965, Mr. Thomas -- except for one.

      There are far smaller theatres, in much smaller towns, that have had the guts to find their own venues, and pay for them; even Thunder Bay and Saskatoon!

      The problem with successive boards of the Playhouse was always the pack of poltroons who served on its board, and hired one craven, uninspired dick after another as artistic director, the exception having been the esteemed Malcolm Black, back in the 60s.

      When I worked as a professional actor in Vancouver, in the early 70s, the Playhouse A.D. hired almost no one except actors of his own orientation and ethnic group. I have never been sure whether this was to please his board, or himself, but I suspect the latter.

      David Stein, Toronto

      Apr 1, 2012 at 2:06am

      Why is it, on this Straight site, that those of us who have the courage , not only to write reviews and comment (rather than just click, "agree" or "disagree"), but actually to identify ourselves, get shot down with epithets and negative votes by people who probably weren't even born when we started working in professional theatre? Is this a millennial condition? An actor-wannabe trait? A symptom of that famous Vancouver malaise?

      Assuming you have learned, in today's dippy, Boomer-degraded public school system (where all are geniuses in their own, special, widdle way, and everyone's a trophied "hero"), to string two sentences together, why don't you state your case, rather than just calling those of us with decades of experience names, and ganging up with "disagree"?

      Oh, who cares? Let me set myself up for infantile spite (if I haven't already), by telling you what Vancouver theatre was like in the 70s:

      Bad! But adventurous. Interesting. And there was, indeed, a little memorable work. Not much, but enough to get the city noticed far and wide.

      "Snafouver" was full of Yankee draft refugees -- actors, directors, playwrights, who, having heard of the indiscriminate largesse of our capricious pointy-head, Pierre Elliot True-Dough, flocked to Vancouver from Florida, Michigan, California, Seattle, et al, to avoid Vietnam (and who can blame them?!), and bask in our clammy gloom, conducive to growing moss in their unbathed, hippy armpits while living off the state as "artists". Some of them founded "The Georgia Straight".

      Most of them stank (and still do), but the city was the better for their stimuliating efforts IN REACTION TO the gutless, formulaic Playhouse, and the actor-exploiting Arts Club.

      THE PLAYHOUSE WAS A MIDDLE CLASS JOKE! It brought in many, many actors from the east, holding them over for several productions in order to save money. They treated "locals" with utter contempt. The best thing The Playhouse and Arts Club did for Vancouver was cause me to leave it.

      Now. Say something intelligent on the issue, or call me names. Let your reactions define you.