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Opinion

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 12 Mar 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Mark Leiren-Young is the writer and director of the widely praised The Green Chain. He's also a regular contributor to The Tyee; find his stories here. For more on Leiren-Young, visit his website.

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Hunchback, the theatre's final production. Photo credit: David Cooper.

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 company'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 stop 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.

And now, some Playhouse memories

One of the most magical experiences I've had in the theatre was walking through the doors of the Vancouver Playhouse and discovering the stage had been replaced by a mountain. The play was K-2 and as brilliant as the set was, the performances by Terrence Kelly and Tom McBeath as two stranded climbers were even better. I became a bit of a groupie for both actors after that – if either of them was in a show, I wanted to see it. I still do. The first time I heard the name Robin Phillips (one of Canada's most acclaimed directors) was when I wondered who the wonderful actor was onstage opposite William Hutt in the Playhouse production of The Dresser. I'm sure a play had broken my heart before that night, but right now I can't remember when.

The moment I heard about the death of the Playhouse, I began flashing on images of Playhouse shows past, like Morris Panych in Tom Cone's Herringbone and Guy Sprung's absurdly ambitious absurd Midsummer Night's Dream. And I found myself imagining shows I wished I'd seen like George Ryga's Ecstasy of Rita Joe, Sharon Pollock's Komagata Maru Incident and the Tennessee Williams world premieres in the '70s.

I asked a few members of Vancouver's theatre community to share their Playhouse memories, and after saying they hoped the theatre's obituary was premature they offered to share a few stories. I hope this will spark you to share your own Playhouse memories in the comment thread below.

Jay Brazeau (actor): "Drowsy Chaperone, Fiddler on the Roof and Other People's Money were all shows that made my career blossom in this town. And all of them were at the Playhouse. I owe a ton of gratitude toward them. They were shows that shaped my life and struck a chord with the Vancouver public. I thank the Playhouse from the bottom of my heart. There have been so many deaths this year of great artists. It's hard when an institution like the Playhouse leaves us. We always expect it to be there. Maybe we all took it for granted. Some people it seems are glad that the theatre is closing up, I don't believe in that -- when a theatre this big closes it doesn't come back for a while. It is not a time to rejoice, but a time to thank the Playhouse for sharing the great years and artistry that it has given the community. And like a phoenix it will rise from the ashes."

Janet Wright (director/actor): "Some of the best shows I ever did were at the Playhouse – Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf with Bill Hutt; A Lie of The Mind and Moon For The Misbegotten, both directed by Larry Lillo. But my greatest memory was going to see The Ecstasy of Rita Joe five days in a row, as a young student of Joy Coghill, in November 1967. I sat beside the great Kate Reid one night and we cried and I fixed her lipstick and many years later she became my best friend and colleague at the Stratford festival. Vancouver seems like a very small town to me right now."

John Gray (playwright/performer): "It wasn't a huge surprise. You can't run a business where you can't maximize your hits and minimize your flops, and when you don't own the building and can't run a bar or a restaurant, and when, in the absence of government support you have to set up a Department of Corporate Begging to convince some suit on Howe street that it's worth his while to support the arts, as opposed to, say, hockey.

"And there's no room left for the old regional theatre model where people in the 'regions' got to experience the best of World Theatre, like a cultural water fountain. And you have a provincial government that sees absolutely nothing to gain from supporting arts in Vancouver, and you have shrinking budgets and the curse of the "co-production" that turns the theatre into no more than a roadhouse. . . "

Miles Davis said, 'When you play a wrong note, whether it's a good note or a bad note depends on the next note.' I think Vancouver needs a transfer house where small innovative theatre companies can extend and capitalize on their hits. Doesn't just have to be Vancouver companies, could be from all over Canada. Partner with the Cultch, partner with Firehall, etc. Maybe (it's) time for the city to really get its arts act together. "The Playhouse had three periods in which it was really something: The Ecstasy of Rita Joe Joy Coghill period, the Christopher Newton period and the Larry Lillo period -- and all complained about the structural problems above -- but nothing happened to change it. The company just sort of drifted, with maybe a hit a season, until it hit the wall."

Ken MacDonald (set designer): "I feel like I cut my teeth as a designer there. I was finally given the chance to design for a big stage. . . something I had been very frightened to do until Larry Lillo gave me the chance with a production of Herringbone, a one man show starring Morris (Panych). It was a thrill to be working at that theatre. I loved the whole atmosphere. I met and worked with so many wonderful people. A favourite memory is one day the head of props found, rolled up where the lighting gels were stored, three original, signed, Andy Warhols. Where are they now! Who did they belong to? I am so sad and mad at the way this has been handled. I hope the Playhouse can be saved."

David Bloom (currently playing Kent in King Lear at Havana in Vancouver): "I saw a production of King Lear at the Playhouse when I was 17. I was on a date. When we walked into the theatre the cast was onstage warming up. This was 1977. There were metal sheets hung in a semi-circle around a central playing area. These sheets were operated by cast members during the storm very effectively. There's nothing like live sound effects, especially operated by members of an ensemble. "The cast were in simple track suits and running shoes, but they had enormous cloaks on that had been woven out of very heavy material. As the characters were stripped down they lost their cloaks and became more vulnerable. Powys Thomas was Lear. He ran the Playhouse Acting School. The students from the school were in the show. Tom McBeath was one and he played Edmund. I still remember him cutting his arm and saying to the audience, "I have seen drunkards do more in sport. . . " Images from that production still flash in my mind every night as I'm in the wings hearing my peers perform this Lear.

"Ryan Beil and I did our co-op of David Mamet's A Life in the Theatre in the basement of the Playhouse. We directed ourselves in the play, but we got six directors to direct the six different scenes where the two actors are "on stage," including Max Reimer, Kim Collier, Katrina Dunn, Richard Wolfe, Linda Quibell, and Craig Hall. Nobody had really used that place as a performance venue since the '70s. For Ryan and me A Life in the Theatre was a love song to the Vancouver theatre community, and the Playhouse showed themselves to be real members and supporters of the community with the way the whole staff jumped in and got behind the show."

John Lazarus (playwright): "I moved to Vancouver in 1970, when the Artistic Director of the Playhouse was David Gardiner. My first job in Vancouver was as an actor with Playhouse Holiday, the company's touring theatre for young audiences. After two tours of B.C. with that company, I wound up living in Vancouver, and joining with a group of like-minded young people to start our own theatre company called Troupe. In part we were trying to offer an alternative to the kind of work the Playhouse was doing, but at the same time I respected them greatly, and was thrilled when the next Artistic Director, Paxton Whitehead, would come to see our productions.

"Then I learned that some years earlier, a previous AD, Joy Coghill, had taken George Ryga's The Ecstasy of Rita Joe to Washington, D.C., where a New York Times critic had written that the words, 'Canadian Playwright. . . seem a little incongruous together, like "Panamanian hockey-player," almost, or "Lebanese fur-trapper."' Clearly the Playhouse had already been way ahead of the cutting-edge sophisticates of Times Square. I kept that quotation taped to my typewriter, where it kept me writing angrily, for many years.

"It has felt like a body blow to learn this week that the Playhouse was suddenly closing. It never occurred to me that it might not go on forever. This is like a death in the family."

Lin Bennett (former Arts Club theatre publicist): "Although there are so many shows I remember fondly, for me Wings, by Arthur Kopit, presented in the 1981/82 season, took my breath away. Frances Hyland starred as a woman hospitalized with aphasia, a sort of mixing up of language, related to a dementia or brain damage. The strong play and her simple, heartfelt portrayal of this woman who used to be a stunt pilot, walking on wings of airplanes was touching, utterly thought-provoking, and powerful. The set, which had layers of hanging gauze, I believe, also added to the sense of distance/brain fog which separated the character from others. I didn't even know how important Frances Hyland was at the time. Everything theatre should be. It was a truly groundbreaking piece of theatre, as so much more is known about dementia now.

"As a past theatre publicist for 'the competition' in Vancouver and now theatre watcher from across the country, I am also struck by something else that truly made a difference in how I remember and looked at the Playhouse. I have to single out photographer David Cooper. Coop was with them since he was, 'a slip of a lad' and has shot almost every show. The way he captured -- in advance and during the rehearsal runs -- the essence of every production is one of those things that makes for the memory of the plays as well. And these are things everyone in the public can could and share, even if they didn't get to the shows. Another of the losses to the community, and theatre world, these strong images of ephemeral events."

Gerry Mackay (actor – currently appearing in All Shook Up for the Chemainus Theatre Festival): "The first play I saw was in 1979 -- a production of Hamlet. It made me want to do theatre. It was bigger than me. I was in Grade 12 and it pulled me out of myself, it made me think out of teenage world. Robert Clothier surprised me. Andre Gillies as Hamlet made want to act. A year later I auditioned for the school and met David Lathem. All of the above I worked with later on in my career. Another production which blew my mind was Lie of the Mind directed by Larry Lillo. Performances -- Goldie Semple, Nicola Cavendish, Morris Panych, Megan Leitch, Leon Pownall, Kim Coates in Streetcar Named Desire."

Jackson Davies (actor): "Random actor thoughts that keep popping into mind. 1973. . . joined the Playhouse Theatre in Education tour and put on shows in schools in the Lower Mainland, I think I even had hair then. . . 1974. . . my first show on the main stage, a semi-musical about the Gold Rush putting R and L on the bottom of my boots so when I got dragged off stage I would get a good exit laugh. Later in the run, I put the R on the left boot bottom and the L on the left boot bottom, got two laughs... Playing Lennie in Of Mice and Me and when George goes to kill me at the end, the gun not firing, just a clicking sound from the wings. . . in John Gray's You Better Watch Out, You Better not Die, an actor who was supposed to be dead fell asleep, which was okay, but he snored and woke himself up, he looked around, said 'shit' and pretended to be dead again. . . the loss of a stage and memories to come. . . "

Bill Millerd (artistic managing director, The Arts Club Theatre): "The closing of the Playhouse is a huge loss to the theatre community in particular and to Vancouver in general. The Playhouse Theatre Co. was established as the regional professional theatre company and all theatre groups that followed grew from this beginning, including the Arts Club as the Playhouse was a major force for most of its 48 years, and an enormous resource that is not easy to replicate. The demise will be felt across the country because of the many co-productions that the Playhouse was part of, and the loss of work for the actors, designers, directors and other theatre artists is incalculable."  [Tyee]

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