Tuesday, March 13, 2012

SERIES: Vancouver Playhouse - What Went Wrong?

Theatre and Vancouver: A Difficult Relationship
This city also has no cultural soul whatsoever.
by Aaron Craven of Mitch and Murray Productions
(published November 10, 2011, at Everyone Has The Microphone, reprinted with permission)

[Ed: As we continue to look for answers on What Went Wrong at Vancouver Playhouse, we may be ignoring the most obvious problem, encapsulated in this article which Aaaron Craven has allowed us to reprint]

“Vancouver is not a theatre town”. “It’s too beautiful here, people don’t want to go indoors”. “Nobody knows where to find good theatre in Vancouver”.

As a native of the city and being heavily involved in theatre as an actor and producer, I have spent years trying to disprove these constantly repeated clichés. For the last year, my theatre company has worked essentially full time on our recent two week run of a play called “Fifty Words” at the Cultch. It was the Vancouver premiere of an incredibly bracing, darkly funny and emotionally explosive piece.

Our ensemble was filled with some of the most talented people working in our industry. The material was universally relatable, starkly and beautifully simple in its concept – a married couple sends their son to his first ever sleepover and they are left alone in the house, forced to reckon with years of unspoken truths and fragmentations within their marriage. Playwright Michael Weller’s script for “Fifty Words” is uncompromisingly truthful and poignant, with emotional twists and turns both painful and hilarious – a great piece of writing.

This was an intense passion project produced by seasoned veterans and was marketed very extensively and creatively.

This was not a slap dash production, thrown together without form by neophyte actors looking to impress their agents. Nor was this a paint-by-numbers rendition of a stuffy old play, comfortably produced to provide fluff for the aging masses. This was an intense passion project produced by seasoned veterans and was marketed very extensively and creatively.

In the last year, we had an online fundraising drive and a party fundraiser, we attained business sponsorships, got wardrobe sponsored from hip local clothing retailers and had the set donated from furniture rental companies. We organized prize giveaways for patrons and mailed out gift cards to all our major donors. We likely pitched and advertised the show to over one hundred independent businesses.
Unfortunately, we received no public funding despite well-crafted grant applications. Seems producing a play by an American writer is a death sentence when it comes to getting a grant in Canada, even if everyone involved but the writer is Canadian.  Write a play about Canadian soldiers in World War I or about a love story between fishermen in Newfoundland and the Canada Council will deliver you a suitcase full of money.

I digress.  We soldiered on optimistically and marketed the living daylights out of the play. It was featured in the Province newspaper on our opening weekend, it was in every conceivable arts listing, it was on theatre websites, it was Tweeted and Facebooked and emailed to literally tens of thousands of eyeballs. Our website is a cool flash-designed site with an urban upbeat feel that is visually catchy. I interviewed on several local arts blogs in the months prior to the show and the press releases went out to every major media outlet in the city.  The play was widely marketed amongst actors, acting schools and talent agencies.  We offered several discount performances and a 2 for 1 night.

We tracked down the playwright, Oscar-nominated writer Michael Weller, who provided us with a sparkling interview that we shared all over the web. Posters and flyers were strategically placed in all of the prime places in town and we went door to door with hundreds of flyers in the neighborhood of our venue both before and during the run of the show. Great press shots (another in-kind donation from a talented local photographer) were in the papers, on our posters and online. This play was everywhere for months prior to its opening and its plot, visuals and pitch were clear and transparent for anybody who was looking. Anybody in our vicinity could see how much we all cared about this thing.

We had fired every bit of ammunition in the war to achieve a Vancouver audience, a notoriously difficult pursuit.

This much preparation and marketing simply does not happen with independently produced work. We went above and beyond in our salesmanship of this play, using old and new means of marketing tactics.
Once the show opened, the word of mouth could not have been any better. Emails started pouring in to us and our show quickly started showing up all over people’s Facebook and Twitter pages, urging friends to check out our show during its short run. While the material made for ambiguous commentary from the local critics, the vast majority of the audiences talked up this play like crazy and the quotes we received were overwhelming, many people saying it changed their perception of what they thought theatre could be. The responses were definitely not the tight lipped smiles that accompany a lukewarm play – the enthusiasm was crackling every single night!

In order to break even, and not lose money after a year of work on the project, we needed to attain about $8000 in box office, or about 400 paid people over 11 performances. Considering all of the preceding work, and given that we were performing in the beautiful confines of the Culture Lab Theatre at The Cultch, a popular venue,  it seemed like it should have been achievable. We had fired every bit of ammunition in the war to achieve a Vancouver audience, a notoriously difficult pursuit.

I was one of the two actors in the show, performing material that was off the charts in its emotional difficulty, demanding every bit of our vulnerability, ease and concentration for two hours a night. It was very difficult to shake off the financial concerns and still pour myself onto the stage every performance. When eleven people showed for our opening Saturday night, I knew we were going to lose some money and I resolved to fight off the anxiety attacks that were threatening my sanity.

I will not be so arrogant as to say the play was great, I only echo what the audience response was and that my own conviction tells me that we did a very solid job.

In the final analysis, we lost over $3000 on this show. We didn’t come close to breaking even, even after a year of fundraising and marketing.  The theatre wasn’t even full on 2 for 1 night.  Before every performance I was praying for the house to fill, not a big asking seeing as the theatre was an intimate venue with 74 seats. How could everything we’d done result in such a lackluster turnout? How could such a great piece of writing, well-executed and beautifully staged, yield such an apathetic response from potential audiences?  I will not be so arrogant as to say the play was great, I only echo what the audience response was and that my own conviction tells me that we did a very solid job.

Lest it seem that I’m stewing in a narcissistic pot of my own whiny artist creation, I know that I’m speaking for every ambitious and self-motivated actor, musician and artist in the city. I am not the first to care about a project, nurture it, finance it, market it well and then have very few people give a damn about it.
This city is beautiful – full of tolerant, eco-friendly, well-educated and diverse people. We’re mostly healthy, attuned to nature and appreciative of our surroundings. We have a fantastic hockey team that unifies the city every Spring, nobody cheering louder than me.

This city also has no cultural soul whatsoever.

We want to be sophisticated and culturally savvy, we pose and preen as if we’re a truly cosmopolitan place, but in comparison to the great cities, all of whom possess a strong indigenous arts tradition, we are rank amateurs and wannabes.

The same small audience cults (mostly actors, musicians and their friends) show up at the theatres and music venues over and over. Same goes for the rest of the performing arts in the city, save the large and familiar institutions with their elderly, affluent and Caucasian audiences.  During our two months of real summer in the city, some of us wander through the Jazz Festival or pop down to Bard on the Beach so that we can feel connected to something, vaguely wondering why Vancouver doesn’t have more going on, why we’re such a “No Fun City”.  During the wet winter, we focus an absurd amount of myopic attention and journalistic ink on Roberto Luongo’s save percentage.

In this city, we down caffeine by day and guzzle martinis by night.

Our city continues to grow in the same architectural and cultural direction. No theatre district, no new performance venues in visible areas, no touting of the local arts movements. We build more condos, more chain restaurants and more sports bars without a whiff of artistic presence anywhere in the growing cityscape. People talk of economically hard times (“I can’t afford $20 for a theatre ticket”), yet alcohol consumption continues to absorb a staggeringly high percentage of people’s incomes. Throw up a restaurant with mood lighting, some light acid jazz and a few New Orleans-style drinks and you’re a hit.  Open a coffee joint with free wireless and you’ll have every table full with dripping wet Mountain Equipment Co-op jackets slung over the chairs and a symphony of Blackberries clicking. In this city, we down caffeine by day and guzzle martinis by night.

But put on a live performance, try to engage the public imagination in a more intimate and engaging way and you’ll receive blank stares.  Somehow this city does not compute this brand of information.  On Saturday nights supremely talented artists play to tiny appreciative crowds in little back alley spaces while the Yaletown and Granville Street bars are packed with people wondering how they got so drunk, sitting on the same barstool passively for hours on end. Inebriated or stoned college kids wander the strip looking for something to do, faces pressed into their iPhones.

Nobody is interested in the local arts scene anyway. Better to cover the routine, the branded, and the familiar.

On Granville Island, theatre companies madly advertise their wares to indifferent middle aged passerby on their way to get plastered at Sandbar.  The agoraphobic and commitment-phobes sit in their apartments and endlessly scroll Facebook and Twitter, breezing past all of those boring event notices about plays and concerts in order to see what the latest is on Justin Bieber’s baby.

The local media feeds this endless obsession with banality. Why foster interest in local talent when it’s easier to plaster the pages of Metro and 24 Hours with Hollywood gossip? Why even bother returning emails, calls and inquiries from enterprising theatre companies looking to get coverage on their show?   Nobody is interested in the local arts scene anyway. Better to cover the routine, the branded, and the familiar.  Any local arts coverage is left to the same small group of writers and critics who hold court over the success of the city’s artists with the same tenured boredom as a burnt out University professor with a bottle of whiskey and a revolver in his desk.  A few fine folks in the media take notice, but the majority are either indifferent or slightly patronizing of American-sized ambition and hustle.

The suburbanites skim the arts section, yawn and check what’s on the PVR, the hipsters buy more vintage clothes and sip expensive coffee and the busiest play in town is “White Christmas” at The Stanley, playing to a crowd who are old enough to remember the movie.

And us? The artists? We go to the plays and concerts of our friends, who have begged us to come out. More than one degree removed from any of us and we shrug and delete the email in our inbox or scroll past the posting, slightly ashamed that we don’t do more to liven up the local industry but just not quite motivated enough to help pump up the cause. Maybe because we’re pissed off that nobody came to see that show we were in last year. Never mind that if every artist in the city supported five events a year and dragged a few friends out, we’d have an in-built audience that would have a huge ripple effect on the local population. It just seems, oh, a bit too hard.

We had many people at “Fifty Words” who were naive to local theatre but had discovered this particular play.

This might be read by some of the local establishment and I might be biting the hand that feeds me.  I don’t care.  The hand is tight fisted and old anyway, better to find new avenues of satiation.  Better to anger the minority and get some head nodding going from the majority who I believe harbor this same sense of frustration.  This town breeds apathy and as a lifelong citizen I believe I’ve earned the right to disparage it, just as those Canadians to the East do.  Maybe we need some biting cold weather and a cup of Tim Hortons coffee to drive us inside and make us commune with each other in some way other than texting.

If this sounds cynical, one first has to be idealistic in order to reach cynicism.  I’m a mad idealist and it is supported by hopeful evidence.  We had many people at “Fifty Words” who were naive to local theatre but had discovered this particular play.  Seeing the genuine excitement in their eyes afterwards in the lobby, shaking their hands and sensing the thrill of engagement that only a live performance can bring, it keeps my artistic heart beating amongst the overwhelming discouragement.  When people make the commitment to go to a play and engage in that oldest and most vibrant of storytelling traditions, they take the risk of yes, perhaps being bored, but also with the possibility of sometimes being blown away. Somehow we need to get that into the cultural zeitgeist of this young, evolving city of ours.

I tried and I will continue to try to do my small part to provide interesting and exciting work as an artist to my fellow Vancouverites. I do it because I truly love my colleagues, so many of whom are insanely talented yet unknown within their own city. I do it for the small pockets of theatre lovers who do seek out our work and appreciate it. I do it for the young guy who came to see “Fifty Words”, the first play he’d ever seen, and who was speechless with emotion afterwards.

I hear they’re renovating the Raja Theatre on north Commercial Drive. That would mean The Raja, The Cultch and The Havana theatres all would be in the same few blocks. Is city council smart enough to put up some signage promoting a theatre district on the Drive? To advertise theatre visibly amongst all of the bars and restaurants and cafes?  Is anybody listening, or are we all too cool to care?
Just an idea. I’m trying Vancouver, but you’re a tough crowd.

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