Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Sunday Read: Interview - Bill Millerd, Artistic Director, Arts Club Theatre

Last Man Standing?
Bill Millerd insists Vancouver does theatre - and proves it
by Christopher Lane (CharPo-Canada Vancouver Editor)

CHARPO: What's special about this year's season?

MILLERD: It's the third season that we've had the Revue Stage (the small intimate space on Granville Island), which is special since we've been trying to figure out how to fit it into the operation. When you're running three theatres, it's a bit of a juggling act, clearly. I want to make sure that each theatre fits together.

I'm very happy with the opening show Clybourne Park. Our subscriptions are at 10,000 and climbing, which is the most we've ever had, so that's pretty exciting. And the other part of the season that I always look forward to is the new plays that we present. We have a commission program, and Marcus Youssef, we partially commissioned him. He's doing a play, How Has My Love Affected You?, later in the season at the Revue Stage. Marion Farrant has adapted her memoir, My Turquoise Years; it'll be done in the spring at the Granville Island Stage. Right now we're in rehearsals for another premiere, The Unplugging, by Yvette Nolan.

The great thing about live theatre for me, somebody who's been doing it for awhile, is that no two plays are the same, and no two actors are the same. Every day is a different day. You know that the people involved in it are so wonderfully committed, in a way that is sometimes awe-inspiring for myself. Even after a number of years doing this job, to see a collection of people come together on the first day and get excited about what they're about to embark on, and then for it to eventually reach the stage and to see an audience reacting to it? It's pretty good.

CHARPO: How do you usually choose the programming?

MILLERD: I program each theatre separately. The Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage is our main subscriptions house. I think that has an eclectic mixture of plays, from Clybourne Park, to She Stoops to Conquer, a classic restoration comedy, to Boeing Boeing, an outright comedic farce. We're bringing in two original performers, Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra, to do 2 Pianos 4 Hands. Then we're ending that season with Dreamgirls, a big popular musical.

I certainly have to program for what I like. Fortunately, I don't have any particular genre that I like more. I'm not a classicist, so we don't do just classics, nor am I fixated by what's on Broadway or the West End in London, so it really is a mixture.

The Granville Island season, I'd like to think, is a little more “loose.” It's also a mixture, perhaps more “popular,” although My Turquoise Years is a première. We open with Master Class, about a class that opera diva Maria Callas actually gave in the '70s. The play really resonates with so many ideas about what art is all about, but also about the gift of singing. She makes a big point about “you can study all you want, but it really has to come from your soul, and it has to come from your experience.” That goes for acting as well. We're remounting It's a Wonderful Life, which has been a very popular show for us, and then Ride the Cyclone, the polar opposite of Master Class. It's by Atomic Cyclone, an exciting group from Victoria, who are starting here in Vancouver on a cross-Canada tour. Closing the season, we have Avenue Q, another popular musical.

The Revue Stage is really focused on new work, with The Unplugging, and How Has My Love Affected You?. The latter is about Youssef's memory of his late mother, and about her writings that he discovers. Our holiday piece is a more populist one-man show, Santaland Diaries, featuring Ryan Beil, a wonderful comedic actor. 
So we go from a Marcus Youssef piece to something as popular as Dreamgirls. It really does run the gamut, as it were.

CHARPO: How much do you personally direct?

MILLERD: I usually direct one or two shows a season, so I use a lot of freelance directors. I think Vancouver's really blessed now, which wasn't the case when I started out, with people like Janet Wright, Dean Paul Gibson, Lois Anderson, Meg Roe, David McKay and Rachel Ditor (who are directing Clybourne Park, She Stoops to Conquer, The Unplugging, Master Class, Boeing-Boeing and How my Love Has Affected You, respectively). We're also doing a touring production, A Craigslist Cantata, which Amiel Gladstone directs. These wonderful people have backgrounds as actors, and they've grown into wonderful directors. I feel I can give them the opportunity because it's difficult to make a living as a freelance director, not to mention a freelance actor. Now that we're doing so many shows, I see myself more as an Artistic Producer overseeing the shows, overseeing the casting, getting designers involved, and also of course planning ahead to the next season.

CHARPO: I also want to talk to you about the Playhouse. How do you feel about its closure?

MILLERD: It was a shock, clearly a shock, when it happened. Very little preparation. We knew they had some struggles, and we were aware of the bailout they received from the city, but six months later, suddenly they close the doors. It's a big loss to the community, and it's a loss to those freelance artists I talked about. It being one the bigger theatres, like the Arts Club, it paid wages that not many theatres pay. It was also a loss to the creative side of the community: the shops that built the sets, costumes and props. All that infrastructure: the people involved in the actual running of it. It's created a hole. Vancouver is definitely blessed with a lot of smaller companies, but they struggle as well. We'll just have to see how this season goes, the first one without the Playhouse.

CHARPO: So what is changing for the Arts Club without the Playhouse in the picture?

MILLERD: Well I don't know if anything particularly changes for us. We do what we do, what we've always done. I think we might feel that the onus is on us, as the biggest company now, to employ people. I try to do that as much as I can. I don't want to skimp on the shows we're producing. And maybe help fill that void left by the Playhouse. Not that it can be filled, because they were situated downtown, and our theatres are not. So that's different.

We feel that if the leadership falls to us, we are up to the task.

I think if you work in theatre, you have to be optimistic, otherwise you'd go and be a lawyer, or doctor, or teacher or something else

CHARPO: In light of it closing, some people are saying that Vancouver's not a very theatre-friendly city. How do you respond to that?

MILLERD: I think that people who say that don't know Vancouver very well, because Vancouver's a very theatre-friendly city. I don't think that was the problem. I think the Playhouse had their own issues. They were not masters of their own fate, in that they didn't control their venue: they were renting from the city. That was a difficult relationship. I honestly don't feel that the audiences abandoned them at all. That, I think, belies saying that Vancouver isn't a theatre-friendly city. And if you look at the Fringe that just recently closed, and Bard on the Beach, and all these other companies like the Cultural Centre and Firehall, I think you would find that they're doing okay. We all have our struggles, and some shows do better than others.

I don't think it's anything to do with Vancouverites. It wasn't as if they just abandoned the theatre and walked away. No, I think there were many many factors associated with the closing.

CHARPO: So are you optimistic about the future of theatre in Vancouver despite the closing of the Playhouse?

MILLERD: I think if you work in theatre, you have to be optimistic, otherwise you'd go and be a lawyer, or doctor, or teacher or something else, so you would be sure that your job would be there the next day. Me, I'm very optimistic. You have to be optimistic. And I'm really optimistic because there are so many young people interested in theatre and creating theatre. We have young actors coming through the schools, young designers, and young directors, all creating their own theatre. That is very encouraging for the future.

CHARPO: What is the Arts Club doing to plan for the future of theatre in Vancouver?

MILLERD: One thing is that we've hired a Community Engagement person who will be be reaching out to young people in schools. We're very conscious of the fact that the arts in schools are undervalued through the curriculum. We feel that it's part of our job to make sure we're open to young people. We bring young people in to tour our shop, so they get an understanding of different job opportunities, and an appreciation of what we do.

We also have specific programs directed at youth. We have the LEAP program, which is for high school students learning to write plays. They write extraordinary stuff. We've been doing it for six or seven years. We do a public reading of their works with professional actors, and it's extraordinary what they write about. We also have a summer music theatre intensive. They put together a program where they learn singing, movement, script work, and interpretation. Many of them go on to become professionals. It's been going on for 11 years, and some of the them have got as far as Broadway, or  our own shows.

We're looking at other programs as well, and I think we have a sense of how to involve young people.

39th or 40th. It's enough that I don't need to count them anymore.

CHARPO: Is this your 39th season as the Artistic Director?

 or 40th. It's enough that I don't need to count them anymore.

CHARPO: How does this season compare to all of your years here?

MILLERD: The biggest change in my time here was certainly opening the Stanley. This is now its 14th

The challenges don't change. It's really finding the right balance of plays, being aware of the audiences, being aware of the artists, and being very grateful for the work the artists bring to the stages. We have an amazing, committed staff that makes the whole thing work. I depend on them. That's one of the bigger changes for me. When I first started out we were a very small group of people, and it's greatly expanded since.

CHARPO: What should audiences especially look out for this year?

MILLERD: Well it really depends on what you're interested in. I think Ryan Beil doing Santaland Diaries is something to look forward to.

Also: our new plays. I always look forward to new work because you really don't know how it's going to turn out until you actually see it.

She Stoops to Conquer opens next month, and it looks like it will be a lot of fun, and fabulous, with nice period touches. I look forward to that.

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