Monday, March 12, 2012

SERIES: Vancouver Playhouse - What Went Wrong?

Curtains for the Vancouver Playhouse
With no hero in sight, the theatre is closing. In its honour, let's keep the arts centre stage.
by Mark Leiren Young
[Mark Leiren-Young is Vancouver Editor of The Charlebois Post as well as a playwright, writer and pundit. This article appeared in The Tyee where he is also a frequent contributor]
News that an arts organization is dying can be a little like news about the impending death of a comic book superhero. Superman, Batman and Captain America never seem to stay dead very long -- although every so often they're briefly revived with new characters wearing the capes and costumes.
So when I heard the Vancouver Playhouse was bringing down the final curtain last Saturday after 49 years, my first thought was the company wasn't really dead. This was a play for an emergency cash infusion, because unlike the infamous deceased parrot in the classic Monty Python sketch, an arts organization can always be reanimated. All it takes is a big enough cheque.

And the same way my gut response to the news was denial, most of the mourners at the theatre Saturday night after the last performance of Hunchback weren't there to say goodbye. They were rallying in the hopes they could save one of Canada's oldest and most storied theatre companies.
Within minutes of the news breaking of the Playhouse's demise, suggestions for keeping the company afloat flew on Facebook, Twitter and websites for B.C.-based publications. Favourites ranged from asking the Provincial government for a big chunk of their $3.2 million in unspent arts funding, to having Telus buy naming rights to the Playhouse now that they've been denied the chance to rename BC Place "The Phone Booth," to having Jimmy Pattison cut a big cheque because, hey, he's Jimmy Pattison.
There were also howls of reflexive outrage. Clearly the Canada Council, the Provincial government or Vancouver city council were responsible because of insufficient funding to the company. Or maybe the Playhouse simply hadn't been programming enough crowd pleasers?
Stage frights
Having interviewed four of the Playhouse's last five Artistic Directors (starting with Guy Sprung in 1987) about "the problems with the Playhouse" -- and there have always been "problems with the Playhouse" they were eager to discuss -- it's pretty clear the chief suspect in the death of the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company is the Vancouver Playhouse theatre.
The Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company is the 49-year-old institution that staged an annual season of plays. The Vancouver Playhouse theatre is a 48-year-old proscenium arch venue that lacks intimacy, ideal sightlines and, until recently, decent acoustics (just ask anyone who recalls half-listening to a concert from the neighbouring Queen Elizabeth Theatre while watching an intimate moment on the Playhouse stage).
When I spoke with past Artistic Directors Guy Sprung, Larry Lillo, Sue Cox and Glynis Leyshon just after each had signed on for the job, they all talked about how the Playhouse needed saving, in large part because of agreements that were made back when B.C.'s original regional theatre was formed. There were all sorts of systemic problems and everyone had different priorities and potential solutions (and different plans for doing more development with local writers and adding a second stage), but the single craziest nightmare they all dealt with when they took the job was that whoever signed that first deal with the city agreed to make space for a weekly afternoon coffee concert.
This meant the Playhouse Company had to build sets that could easily be struck from the Playhouse stage, and they had to hire a crew to take the set down and then put it back up in the middle of their runs to accommodate these classical coffee klatches. This may not have been the Aompany's costliest problem, but it always struck me as the most emblematic of the absurdity of a rental agreement that seemed as if it was written by someone hoping the Playhouse company would stop pestering the theatre staff by putting on plays.
The Playhouse's current and possibly final Artistic Director, Max Reimer, outlined various other absurdities of the Company's founding agreement in an eloquent response to critics of the City of Vancouver’s million-dollar bailout of his company last September. To make matters more challenging, because the Playhouse Theatre Company was a tenant in the Playhouse theatre, when the company had a hit there was almost no chance of it holding over because the venue might well be booked for a visiting show. The Arts Club Theatre became the institution it is because they were able to run their hits at least two weeks past Forever Plaid. If the Playhouse Company was a sports team, they would have threatened to leave Vancouver years ago if they couldn't secure a new venue complete with luxury boxes and a share of the concession revenue. So there has never been a lack of reasons for the Playhouse Company to close their doors or, as past Artistic Directors have considered, walk out of the Playhouse theatre door and take the name with them -- but clearly there was a straw that broke the Hunchback.
Lose one, boost the others
A few months ago, Artistic Managing Director Max Reimer announced he was stepping down from the artistic half of his duties to focus on finance, but that announcement was accompanied by talk of special guests for the 50th anniversary season, not a warning that if he couldn't raise a million dollars fast they were going to shoot the puppy.
That's why the more I talk to people in Vancouver's theatre community, the easier it is to believe this parrot is well and truly deceased. Normally when a major arts organization is in critical condition, they announce they're sick first and start collecting donations in lieu of flowers -- and frequently those donations (and subscriptions) are enough to bring the company back to life.
But with the Playhouse, a weary and teary chair of the Board of Governors Jeff Schulz told a press conference on March 9 that after an "emergency meeting" that went until 4 a.m., the Board decided to take the Playhouse off life support, and it was all over except for the obituaries and figuring out what to do with tickets to remaining shows. If this is a strategic play for salvation, it's certainly an unorthodox one.
A quick aside to anyone contemplating a Limbaugh-like comment about "gravy trains" and why governments should stop funding the arts -- let's have that conversation if you're prepared to talk economics, not ideology. Be sure your response includes a rationale for cutting arts funding when economic reports from around the world repeatedly show support for arts and culture more than pays for itself with increases in employment, tax revenue and tourist dollars. Also be sure to include at least a few lines explaining why the government should stop funding the arts before it stops funding asbestos, tobacco and the tar sands. And for bonus credibility points, please toss in an explanation of how it'll help city coffers to lose 250 annual rental nights from one of their biggest buildings.
While no arts organization is ever going to serve everyone's cup of chai -- and when most people talk about truly loving the Playhouse, most of that love seems directed at the Playhouse when it was run by Joy Coghill, Christopher Newton and Larry Lillo -- it's tough to argue that recent Company Managers haven't tried to draw big audiences with an eye towards keeping the bean-counters happy. They tried changing Artistic Directors (bringing in people with proven track records for revitalizing companies and selling tickets), offered smaller shows, known crowd-pleasers and coproductions, and last season they ran a surplus. This season the company was on the way to another solid year at the box office -- just not solid enough to keep servicing their debt.
Maybe a saviour will appear to write the Playhouse a very big cheque. Maybe the Playhouse will mount a campaign to see if enough of us will buy tickets to make sure the Company celebrates 50 years and has a shot at celebrating 50 more. But if a superhero doesn't appear, the Playhouse's end will mean a much bigger, longer and more complicated fight for B.C. culture lovers -- a fight to make sure the money that was spent on the Playhouse (including any money raised by the Playhouse Wine Festival) stays in the arts, and continues to not only support the services the Playhouse provided for every theatre in the city (which ranged from inexpensive rehearsal space to access to costumes and props), but properly funds the theatre companies that are still here to serve Vancouver artists and audiences.

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