In drama, it is hard to out-tragedy a skeletal embrace of two poor souls, one murdered, the other choosing to die with his only friend. But in Vancouver on Saturday night, the play (the visually stunning Hunchback) was not the thing that had some in the audience weeping openly as they stood and applauded.
This was it: the final production, the final curtain call for the financially troubled Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company, which once was the city’s key producer of theatre. After 49 seasons, the board came to the only conclusion it felt it could late last week. Saddled by debt, it would not make it to its golden anniversary.
The bleak announcement was made Friday afternoon. If the decision wasn’t entirely a surprise – the regional theatre’s financial challenges have been well documented – the speed at which the company would cease operations was a shocker. The company’s final show would be the following night, two months before its scheduled end of season.
The atmosphere at the Vancouver Playhouse (a facility owned and run by the city of Vancouver and rented by the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company) on Saturday night was charged, to say the least. Long after the final bows, artistic managing director Max Reimer and board chair Jeff Schulz stayed in the theatre, watching stagehands strike the set for the final time.
“I spent half the night looking at the crowd and just feeling the energy. It was surreal to me,” said Schulz. “I think people felt the loss. They celebrated the performance, but they felt the loss.”
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 front man 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.”
Just what happened at the Playhouse has been the subject of much discussion over the weekend. Social media went wild with it on Friday, with grieving, debate, and anger.
“Thank you, Vancouver, for closing what should be our municipal cultural flagship, the Playhouse. It proves to me that the City and Province are managed by a group of vacuous ... new-stadium-roof-building-vandals, and you are living up to your shallow ... reputation for being a beautiful blonde with the depth of a thimble,” read part of one post by actor/director/visual artist Van Stralen.
The Playhouse, with its long history, has been responsible for many moments of important theatre history in the city. Canadian theatre students, for example, still learn about the seminal production of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, which had its world premiere at the Playhouse in 1967. Over the years, its artistic directors have included Christopher Newton, Larry Lillo and Glynis Leyshon. Playwright Morris Panych is among many theatre artists for whom the Playhouse has been a training ground and a showcase. At Saturday’s vigil, a letter from Panych was handed out to protesters: “The Playhouse has been central to the cultural identity of the city, the province, and the nation for fifty years. Without such cultural institutions as this, we are diminished collectively,” it read in part.
But in spite of its cultural heritage, the Playhouse’s operations have faced a perfect storm of red ink-causing challenges and the company was carrying a debt load of between $900,000 and $1-million.
The financial problems were historic and systemic, partially a result of what Reimer calls “an awkward business model,” which includes the absence of an annual operating grant from the city and the fact that the company has to rent the facility where it stages its productions.
Then the recession hit – a problem for ticket sales and corporate sponsorship. The Olympics were also a factor, in part because the company was forced out of the theatre during that time. Last year, the city approved a rescue package for the Playhouse totalling close to $1-million, but it was too late to rescue the beleaguered institution.
“There was a spiral of confidence,” said Reimer.
On Friday both the city and province indicated another bailout would not be forthcoming.
The closure will mean a loss of jobs – about 15 permanent and 200 contract positions – but beyond that, the loss of creative resources and opportunities.
“The effect of the Playhouse being gone is immeasurable,” said Jessie van Rijn, co-founder of Vancouver’s Relephant Theatre, which was supposed to mount its 2010 Fringe Festival hit The Exquisite Hour at the Playhouse Recital Hall Series this spring, a huge opportunity for the fledgling company. “It’s just a waiting game right now,” she said. “We’re on pins and needles.”
The ripple effects reach far beyond Vancouver. “We are all affected by it, devastated by it,” said Dennis Garnhum, artistic director at Theatre Calgary, one of the companies involved in co-productions with the Playhouse.
God of Carnage, a planned co-production with Manitoba Theatre Centre, in rehearsals in Winnipeg right now, was supposed to travel to the Playhouse next month. That’s a big question mark now – along with the Playhouse’s financial contribution.
There’s also a warehouse filled with 50 years of props and costumes which the Playhouse routinely rents to other companies. “It’s a resource that every theatre in this province uses,” says costume designer Nancy Bryant. “I do a lot of period shows and without the resource of these costumes, I can’t do them.”
There are those who will say the Playhouse is not blameless here. It’s hard to find anyone who will publicly stomp on its grave – at least this early in the game – but there have been quiet questions about its programming choices. Too populist, too highbrow – you would hear them both with regularity.
“People will take shots at the Playhouse because it’s the major institution,” said actor/director Bill Dow ( Stargate), a former artistic associate at the Playhouse. “But it’s part of the ecology of the city. It’s just so essential.”