The curtain came down on the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company Saturday night with an emotionally charged performance of Hunchback, the cast members holding their hands over their hearts in a nod to the historic moment, then performing a slow, synchronized turn, their right arms outstretched, to acknowledge the theatre.
Many in the crowd were in tears, as the final production in the regional theatre company’s 49-year history came to a close. The company’s artistic managing director Max Reimer and board chair Jeff Schulz remained in their seats, along with a few other audience members, long after the final curtain call.
“It’s devastating,” said Schulz, as stagehands swept up and struck the set for the final time. “I can’t believe it’s happening.”
The theatre company’s final performance came just a day after the shocking announcement that the company would have to shut down, due to overwhelming financial problems.
“The thing that I think is very emotional tonight, why I think there’s so many tears, is this particular venue has been home to so many new experiences,” said Reimer, who is originally from Vancouver and took over at the Playhouse in 2008. “Many of us saw our first plays here. I did.”
Outside the theatre about 200 people – including prominent members of Vancouver’s arts community – gathered to rally against the closure and celebrate the theatre company’s accomplishments.
“This is a beautiful world class city,” rally organizer & actor Jennifer Clement told the crowd, standing on top of a white station wagon. “We hosted the Olympics and we can’t even host a professional theatre in our downtown core?”
Spirit of the West frontman John Mann climbed on top of the car (it was, in fact, his Ford Focus) and performed Save This House, the crowd singing along to the chorus. Mann is also an actor, and has appeared at the Playhouse in shows such as Beyond Eden and Of Mice and Men.
“For me it was the first time I ever really got to be on the stage,” he told The Globe and Mail afterward. “All the theatre I’ve done is because of this place. It means a lot to me.”
The Playhouse – a regional theatre company which uses the city-owned theatre space also called the Playhouse – announced on Friday that with a crushing debt load of $900,000 to $1-million, it would be ceasing operations at the end of its run of Hunchback, which was scheduled to close Saturday night.
“I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked out of my mind,” said Gabrielle Rose, an accomplished actor whose first professional job was at the Playhouse 40 years ago. “I know a lot of people seem to not think that it’s very important, theatre, but it is part of the cultural landscape of a city and just to let it go like that?”
The closure will mean layoffs for about 15 permanent staff, a loss of work for about 200 contractors, and ripple effects across the theatre community in Vancouver and beyond.
A protest vigil was hastily arranged and despite the short notice and the rainy weather, a crowd gathered, shining flashlights on the theatre and each other, and chanting “keep the lights on.”
After the speeches, NPA Vancouver City Councillor George Affleck approached Clement and told her he was going to try to set up a meeting to figure out if there’s something that can be done at the municipal level. “I’m the opposition, but I can raise hell,” he said.
People carried signs (“I want to live in a city that has a home for both the Canucks and Chekhov”), wrote on the walls and sidewalk in chalk (“The Telus Playhouse Sounds Good to us”) and on sticky notes (“Shame on you Vancouver Shame Shame”). One local critic’s recent Playhouse reviews were posted up. Another sign read: “This is a vigil, not a wake. Keep the Playhouse Alive.”
A letter distributed at the vigil from playwright Morris Panych (whose Gordon is playing across town at the Arts Club Theatre Company’s Revue Stage) urged people to “fight with all of their will against the demise of this company.”
That was most certainly a common theme at the vigil; many spoke of finding ways to revive the Playhouse.
“How can a company like this pass way just because they can’t meet their payroll or whatever? There has to be a way to keep it going. There has to be a way to figure out. Because it’s too important. It’s part of our fabric,” said Bill Millerd, artistic managing director of the Arts Club, which is thriving – and has been the Playhouse’s chief theatrical competition. “I hope everybody can work on this. Maybe this is the beginning of something, what’s happening here tonight.”
Reimer does not dismiss the idea of some sort of revival. Despite looking tired and a bit wrinkled, he was clearly buoyed by the vigil and all the support he’s received since making the announcement.
“The passion won’t end,” he said. “Forty-nine years of building it and creating a community and being part of a community – I don’t think that just ends. I think people who have been involved in this will find a way to have something else come up.”