It’s telling when you reduce all the artistic creation happening on local stages to pure numbers. When the Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards party took place at the Arts Club on Granville Island 30 years ago, there were just 17 companies registered with the Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance. On the eve of the annual best-in-show ceremony on Monday (June 25) at the Commodore, that number has ballooned to 70, despite big challenges in terms of finding venues and funding.
It hasn’t been all celebratory bouquets and standing ovations. Earlier this year, we lost a major, long-time institution: the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company, which rented the city-owned venue that carried its name. The shutdown of the company sent shock waves through the community and has spurred a flurry of questions about how theatre is going to survive in Vancouver. And yet, when you look at the number of upstart troupes and new works on the Jessie nomination roster alone, you get a more positive picture of what’s going on—and of how differently the scene here has evolved, compared with those in other big Canadian cities. Whether you talk to a veteran like Arts Club artistic managing director Bill Millerd or a member of an indie upstart like Delinquent Theatre’s Christine Quintana, things don’t look so grim. Wherever there are stages in Vancouver, they’re hopping.
“I just can’t take what happened at the Playhouse as a sign of disaster for the theatre community as a whole,” says Katey Wright, who’s a well-known actor, the former president of the Jessies’ board, and a cofounder and artistic producer of Patrick Street Productions. Her young company’s The Light in the Piazza is up for an impressive six awards—including outstanding production—in the large-theatre category this year. Wright is speaking to the Straight on a break from rehearsals for Bard on the Beach’s soon-to-open Merry Wives of Windsor, in which she’s playing Mrs. Page; like so many theatre producers, big and small, in this town, the well-known stage star wears many hats.
She sees the Playhouse closure as anything but a reason for theatregoers to be worried about the future. “Certainly, it’s a terrible event and there are negative consequences for all of us, but at the same time I do feel that theatre is thriving in this town,” Wright says. “We’ve got so many small, independent theatre companies in this city.…There’s an incredible range of work to see and become involved with, even compared to a big centre like Toronto.…I just think that there is a long, long, proud history of artist-driven work here in the West, as opposed to companies being formed with an artistic head and works coming down from the top.”
She points to groups like Electric Company Theatre, whose All the Way Home is up for eight awards.
Her husband, Peter Jorgensen, a director-actor and founding partner and artistic producer in Patrick Street, chalks the unique scene here up to a distinctly “entrepreneurial” approach to theatre, versus the rest of the country, where companies are often based out of the same building where they mount all their productions.
“We have a huge creative community in the theatre, and they all go, ‘I want to do it my way,’ ” Jorgensen says with a laugh. “That’s the way Katey and I started too. I had a certain idea of how musicals should be done, and I wanted to see if I could make that happen. And there’s lots of people that do the same. You can’t start by owning a theatre. You just start by producing and scrambling for whatever space you can find, because when you start there’s no money.”
So why, given the lack of spaces and high-rolling financial backers, has the scene here seen such growth in promising young companies? Touchstone Theatre’s artistic director, Katrina Dunn (another past Jessies president), points to the strong theatre-school system—UBC, Studio 58 at Langara College, Capilano University, and SFU—pumping actors and artists into the scene.
“The last 10 years has shown an enormous amount of excitement around the theatre community in Vancouver,” she says, “to the point where people are actually coming here from Toronto and even Edmonton to work in it.…After years of being considered a backwater, we’ve started getting that cachet.”
That “cachet” comes despite the fact that many local theatre companies are still recovering from the B.C. Liberals’ cancellation of gaming grants in 2009–10, which the provincial government reinstated for adult arts groups in January.
“I think a lot of people underestimated the impact that had,” Dunn says of the cuts. “The return of it has given people some wind again who were very winded. I see people who couldn’t do shows for two years doing shows again.”
Ask the new wave of young theatre groups what their biggest challenge is, and they’ll probably say venues. Vancouver is a city where only a few professional players—the Arts Club, Bard on the Beach, and the Firehall Arts Centre—have buildings (or at least tents) to call their own. It’s what separates Lotusland from larger centres like Toronto.
Spaces here are expensive and hard to find. “We have tended to knock down huge chunks of old buildings, which is often where theatre companies end up in other cities,” Wright notes.
The importance of having easy access to a theatre can’t be overestimated. Reflecting on why Patrick Street has scored Jessie nominations, Jorgensen points to one key factor: his company was able to get into the Norman & Annette Rothstein Theatre, rent-free, for a week of tech rehearsal before the opening of The Light in the Piazza, a luminescent, bittersweet love story set in 1950s Italy.
That may sound like a small thing, but it’s an almost unthinkable luxury for the dozens of theatre companies in the city that don’t have a home venue.
“I feel that helped make Light in the Piazza as good a show as it was, and that’s the downfall when you don’t have a theatre. You get in, you load it, do tech in a day, and do the preview the next day. It’s so fast, and there’s no time to get into the space,” Jorgensen says, explaining that he was able to work with his design team to alter and perfect everything from lighting and sets to costumes and sound.
Like Jorgensen and Wright, Touchstone’s Dunn acknowledges venues can pose a problem. But her company has managed to survive 35 years, and earned critical praise and numerous awards, even though it hasn’t had a bricks-and-mortar structure to identify itself with. There can be downsides to managing a building as well as a company, she points out: her troupe has been able to focus on fundraising for its plays, rather than on renovations or furnace repairs.
The challenge of finding venues should improve a bit with the arrival of the renovated York Theatre, which the Cultch is overseeing and expects to open in the next 18 months. With 365 seats on Commercial Drive, it is expected to be primarily a rental facility that will provide a higher profile for young companies.
Still, the lingering question is, if you build it, will they come? After the Playhouse Theatre Company suddenly folded, there was a lot of discussion about the fickleness or apathy of local audiences. Even after vocal protests about the death of the company, people weren’t showing up to the one remaining show in the Playhouse season. Vancouver Civic Theatres pulled out all the stops to stage the planned coproduction of God of Carnage with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, but it played to dismal audiences.
Even Patrick Street’s critically praised The Light in the Piazza had trouble packing houses. Jorgensen acknowledges a challenge is that Patrick Street is still not a well-known company, and it presents new works (like Bat Boy: The Musical) that people often haven’t heard of. Its biggest success so far was 2009’s better-known The Full Monty, which 3,500 people saw at the Rothstein. Interestingly, when the troupe toured it to Saskatoon’s Persephone Theatre later that year, about 11,000 people saw it. “There were 46 unsold seats for the whole run,” Jorgensen marvels. “We’re taking Piazza back to the Persephone in the fall, so hopefully that show will get exposed to another 11,000 people.”
The visit to the Prairie city “made us feel like rock stars”, Wright adds.
For her part, Dunn admits openly that drawing audiences to theatre has been an ongoing issue here: “We all acknowledge it’s a problem, it’s just that we don’t have an answer.” While companies like Bard and the Arts Club have been able to build loyal fan bases, they’re exceptions. “Vancouver’s audiences are more tapas-based than just ‘Let’s buy the whole meal,’ ” she suggests.
But Jorgensen is willing to raise an even touchier issue. What if the proliferation of new theatre groups has oversaturated the market?
Consider some facts about how West Coasters spend their leisure time. According to a Hill Strategies Research report titled British Columbians’ Arts, Culture and Heritage Activities in 2010, people in this province go to the theatre about as much as those anywhere else in the country. In that year, 1.7 million B.C. residents 15 and older went to a theatrical performance. That’s 43.8 percent, close to the 44.3-percent national average (and higher than, say, Quebec’s 38.3 percent). Now, pair that with the fact that Vancouver has the highest per capita number of working artists, at least according to Hill’s analysis of 2006 census data. You can assume there are an awful lot of stage artists among them.
“Theatre is healthy, and I think great work is being done here,” Jorgensen says. “I think the challenge—and this is going to sound terrible—is there’s too much theatre happening here and we are all competing to get bums in seats.”
As one of the new stage artists in town, Delinquent Theatre’s Christine Quintana has to wear many hats, hold down day jobs, and find venues her troupe can afford.
If there is one person in town who has proven his consistent ability to fill seats, it’s Bill Millerd, artistic managing director of the Arts Club, which now ranks as the biggest theatre company in Western Canada. He’s been around so long, in fact, that he won a Jessie at that first ceremony in 1983 at the Arts Club’s Granville Island stage—a Sam Payne Award for best newcomer (even though he laughs at the fact that he had already been working in the field for a decade).
Sitting at the antique wooden desk in his atmospheric Granville Island office, where stage images from around the world cover the walls, he traces the unique evolution of theatre in this town.
Up until the ’70s, he recalls, the Playhouse was the main game in town, with the Arts Club taking up in a former gospel hall on Seymour Street in 1964. Then a wave of new companies began appearing, some still around today (Touchstone, Axis, and Carousel), and some not (Tamahnous). He credits the growth to the new facilities popping up at that time—such as the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, the former church that opened as an arts venue in 1973.
The 1970s also saw the redevelopment of Granville Island’s industrial warehouses into a cultural hub; the Waterfront Theatre became available to rent, and in 1979, the Arts Club established its major new stage there. By 1982, the Firehall Arts Centre had also opened in the Downtown Eastside, and it still runs under founding artistic producer Donna Spencer today.
“New venues allowed the companies to perform,” Millerd says.
What has been crucial to the Arts Club’s survival, he says, is that the company has been able to maintain control over its venues, which today include two on Granville Island—the main stage and the smaller Revue Stage—and the historic Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage, which it helped save from demolition in the late ’90s. That control was something the Playhouse never had, Millerd points out. As a renter of the Civic Theatres stage, it was tied strictly into rental dates. That meant it couldn’t respond to audience demand and hold over a production if it was a hit.
“If we have a show like a Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, we can bring it back or extend the run,” Millerd explains.
Millerd has also noticed the local theatre culture shifting in ways that go beyond venues. By the mid ’90s, thriving theatre schools were starting to produce independent troupes like Electric Company and Boca del Lupo. The Arts Club has tried to help that new wave of artists along, Millerd says, especially through its Silver Commissions program, aimed at supporting new plays. The program has funded everything from Electric Company’s Tear the Curtain! to Anosh Irani’s My Granny the Goldfish.
“We have to make a conscious attempt to always seek new voices to keep ourselves fresh, and also be very aware of voices that are not Caucasian,” Millerd emphasizes.
Sometimes the new plays in the season have pushed his audiences, but Millerd feels finding a balance between the tried-and-true and calculated risks has helped the Arts Club to thrive all these years. After all, he’s the guy who hears about it directly when his loyal customers aren’t happy. This season’s two openers—the not-so-feel-good musical Next to Normal and Margaret Atwood’s challengingly intellectual The Penelopiad—pushed into bold new artistic territory. “Somebody emailed me after Penelopiad and said, ‘Was it maybe a bit grim?’ and ‘Would there be anything lighter?’ ”
Both productions, as it happens, are up for multiple Jessies.
“You’re only as good as your last show,” Millerd likes to say. “You need to build a loyal audience, and then you need to always be aware that their trust is based on what you put on-stage. You’re probably allowed one or two not-so-great shows in a season. It’s consistency and always being aware that they’re paying the bills and never taking them for granted.”
Millerd is equally open about the challenge of getting people into theatres in Vancouver.
“Look, I’ve always been aware, as a Vancouverite who was born here, what we’re up against,” he says, stressing that marketing has been paramount at the Arts Club. “Anybody here is really aware of our natural surroundings and that people take advantage of them. It’s not like Toronto or Winnipeg or Montreal, where the horrible winters force you inside.”
And as for the climate in the theatre community? Millerd admits the Playhouse, where he started his career more than four decades ago, was a huge loss, and he’s worried that actors and designers might leave town. But he’s heartened by all the new stage activity he sees happening around the city.
“I think that something else will surface that maybe won’t look the same as the Playhouse,” he says. “People aren’t abandoning theatre.”
For evidence that supports Millerd’s argument, you just have to take a look at the number of new small companies up for Jessie awards this year. The list includes groups you might not have heard of—Temporary Thing Theatre, Delinquent Theatre, Pound of Flesh Theatre, the Honest Fishmongers Equity Co-op—but shows you probably heard some buzz about.
One of those productions is the cult hit Flop!, Anton Lipovetsky’s one-man musical about a theatre pro who ends up in a high-school show. The story of Delinquent, the company that produced the show, is like that of so many other young theatre troupes in the city: a group of young acting grads decided to stop waiting for work and form their own company. Co–artistic director Christine Quintana says going the DIY route makes sense for people coming out of our theatre schools.
“There are only so many contracts. That’s the thing about being out of school—you can’t wait for someone’s permission to do something,” the young artist says on a visit to the Straight.
She points out that Flop!’s fellow Jessie nominee and underground hit The Bomb-itty of Errors was mounted by Temporary Thing, which includes members of her graduating class at UBC.
“There is incredibly exciting stuff coming out of here,” she says of the different schools in town. “We’re all cross-pollinating. It’s a very exciting time.”
So what does it take for a young company—and an artist like Quintana, who’s done everything from playwriting to acting and directing—to make it in a scene where even a big player like the Playhouse can’t survive? To start with, you have to be willing to forget about being paid for your first few performances. She says that she and co–artistic director Laura McLean wagered a year’s theatre-school tuition on Delinquent’s first show, Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead. It saw a sold-out run at the Havana Theatre in the summer of 2009 and, fortunately, they were able to continue their studies.
Reflecting Patrick Street’s concerns, albeit on a smaller scale, Quintana explains: “Space is a big challenge. For indie theatre, all of your budget goes to renting a space, and then it’s gone. Finding an affordable space that’s not a hole—well, that’s the whole reason why site-specific work is such a thing now.” She laughs remembering the scene at Flop!, staged at Granville Island’s tiny, tucked-away Studio 1398. Having read rave reviews, people headed out to see the show but had trouble finding it on the second floor of the building.
“We were, like, calling to them, ‘Come up here!’ and we’d run down to the street and wave at them,” Quintana recalls. “But that was the inspiring part too—that they read arts journalism and they want to see the next thing. Knowing there’s those people out there gives me tremendous hope.”
There’s also big excitement about an opportunity that has come up for Delinquent this summer: it’s been invited to stage a new work called STATIONARY: a recession-era musical (with lyrics and script by Quintana) at the second Neanderthal Arts Festival in mid July at the Cultch. “To get to perform on the Cultch Historic Stage—that would normally be out of our reach,” Quintana says.
The other key to survival for Quintana, and other emerging artists like her, has been multitasking—to the extreme. That means not only wearing many artistic hats in her company (actor, writer, producer, and more) but putting in full-time hours working the box office at Bard on the Beach and the Arts Club Theatre.
“So I’ll be in my gumboots doing box office for eight hours at Bard—it can get muddy down there!—and then do press releases [for Delinquent] for four hours at night,” Quintana says. “It’s a tremendous amount of work, and there’s a lot of learning as you go.…People have no idea how much effort it takes to mount a show.”
Well, at least it is safe to say those 70 registered theatre groups in Vancouver have a pretty good idea. And while their scene suffered a blow this year with the loss of the Playhouse, they seem to be focusing on how to carefully move forward rather than fixating on what’s been left behind.
At the same time, long-term companies are holding steady—or growing, as Bard has, with its larger new main-stage tent. “You’ve got the Arts Club thriving and Bard is thriving, so some large organizations are doing well here, and then of course we have this enormous small-theatre-based community,” Dunn sums up. “So there’s so much to be proud of.”
As Wright and Millerd point out, Bard on the Beach and the Arts Club themselves began with a group of upstart artists who had an idea about what this city needed. Today’s younger, more nomadic troupes still have to find more stable, affordable venues, even beyond the pending York opening. But the old institutional model of the Playhouse, in which the building came first and then a single company was named for it, probably won’t be the way things work as Vancouver heads into its next three decades on-stage.
For now, the challenges don’t seem to be stopping theatre groups from finding their place on the scene—even if they have to call out to audience members from a second-floor window and chase them down the street. As Quintana puts it optimistically, before pulling on her gumboots and heading down to Vanier Park to sell tickets at Bard: “We’re basically just kids making work together, and who knows where we’re going to be in 20 years?”