No matter what happens at the 30th annual Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards in Vancouver Monday night, it will be coloured by what was without question the biggest theatre story in western Canada this past season: the demise of the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company.
The troubles of the once-venerable, almost-50-year-old company were common knowledge, but announcing on a Friday that the company would shut down after the following night’s performance was a shock.
Vancouver’s theatre community is still reeling from the March announcement.
“I think if there had been an easy solution or a Superman that had flown in to save the company, or if there had been some deep pockets from someone – who had political or financial clout – that would have happened by now,” says actress Jennifer Clement, who has been active in the Save the Playhouse movement. “And that ain’t happening.”
Clement isn’t dismissing a resurrection, but enthusiasm for the idea has waned since theatre artists rallied outside the Playhouse Theatre on a rainy Saturday night, declaring they would fight to save the company. Now there is some acknowledgment that the Playhouse may have been beyond saving. Some say the 1950s-era model for the large regional theatre is outdated (although it thrives in cities such as Calgary), and the Playhouse rented its theatre from the city, and therefore didn’t always have access to the space.
The demise of the Playhouse left a hole that will be hard to fill for Vancouver’s smaller theatres. And whatever one may have thought of the Playhouse’s middle-of-the-road programming in recent years, the absence of one of the city’s best-paying companies also leaves a huge employment gap for theatre artists, and this will become more apparent in the run-up to the 2012-2013 season.
“We used to spend $2.9-million dollars in production per season, mostly local, mostly to artists,” says the theatre’s former artistic managing director, Max Reimer. “The other way to look at it is we would generate about 60 contracts at ‘A’ category rates for an average of eight weeks per contract. That’s a lot of work.”
Vancouver’s independent theatre scene is creating edgy work that’s attracting acclaim nationally and beyond, but it can’t offer that kind of pay cheque. Still, it’s an important part of the cultural equation here, which some felt got lost in the emotional response to the Playhouse closure.
“I have to challenge the characterization of this place as a backwater – that seems always to be accepted as truth,” Neworld Theatre’s Marcus Youssef wrote in an e-mail, responding to a Globe and Mail story about a cultural exodus.
During an interview from the Magnetic North Theatre Festival in Calgary last week, Youssef argued that the independent theatre scene in Vancouver is thriving.
“In the theatre community, the Playhouse’s demise is symbolically, hugely, challenging for all, and practically [challenging] for some or many,” said Youssef, who sits on Vancouver’s new arts council. “At the same time,” he added, “I think there’s a ton going on in Vancouver that is really exciting and successful. ”
The season’s successes from smaller, independent theatres included: The Electric Company, which put its audience onstage at the Queen Elizabeth, embedded in the set, for All the Way Home; Blackbird Theatre’s sold out Waiting for Godot, which was held over for a week at The Cultch; and Neworld Theatre and Vancouver Moving Theatre, which collaborated on a stunning adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot – a three-and-a-half hour production that flew by.
Other triumphs were The Merchant of Venice at Bard on the Beach and The Penelopiad at the Arts Club. And at the Arts Club’s Revue Stage, the world premiere of a collaboration between CBC personality Bill Richardson and musical stalwart Veda Hille called Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata was an absolute joy.
That kind of work stands in contrast to much of what was on offer at the Playhouse in recent years: its not-too-risky artistic direction was no doubt influenced by its financial challenges.
The Playhouse, meanwhile, has not been dissolved; it’s moving through legal and accounting processes, governed by a board – but with no employees. Reimer had to lay himself off.
The ripple effect is far-reaching. Beyond the layoffs and the loss of future employment opportunities, many companies and artists (not all of them in Vancouver) are still owed money. The Playhouse’s famed costume and props collection is safely in storage but unavailable to theatre companies and film and TV productions.
Until that changes, companies may have to create costumes they were once able to rent for a fraction of the cost.
“To build a period 17th- or 18th-century dress, materials and labour, it might cost $3,500 to $4,500,” says freelance costume designer Nancy Bryant. “And to rent it would be maybe around $200.
“We do have a few smaller theatre costume warehouses, such as Bard and The Arts Club, but the Playhouse has always been the cream of the crop for its quality and the extent of the periods covered in its collection.”
There has been talk of a Playhouse 2.0, a revival of the company in some form. Clement, who has been involved, says it’s now or never for such an initiative.
“I think we either let it go at this point, or really go ‘Okay, we have something, let’s begin work on it.’ ”
There was a ton of backlash when two actors spoke out about the almost half-empty house on opening night for God of Carnage, which was to have been the Playhouse’s final show of the season, and in the end was brought here by the city. The actors – one in the show, one in the audience – felt the poor turnout was a missed opportunity to show support for theatre in Vancouver. That led to a lively debate in social media.
“It was becoming a little bit emotional for people, because they felt helpless,” John Cassini, the show’s star who spoke to The Globe.
Cassini announced this week the opening of the Railtown Actors Studio, an initiative which in part has grown out of the Playhouse closure.
“We’re trying to fill something of an emotional void that the Playhouse left,” he says. “I don’t want to live in a city that’s void of cultural opportunities.”
Reimer, meanwhile – looking relaxed and healthy, with much of the Playhouse stress behind him now – is working on freelance projects, directing a musical production of Titanic at Theatre Under the Stars this summer. One number from the show in particular speaks to him. It’s called The Blame.
“What I hope is over is the desire to lay blame,” Reimer says. “One hundred years later, we’re still wondering who we should blame for the sinking of the Titanic. I find that the least interesting part of this process.”