In January, 1964, a determined theatre lover, Yvonne Firkins, gathered 150 chairs, put them in the round, and transformed an old gospel hall turned car-repair shop on Seymour Street into a theatre space, and put on a play by Moss Hart called Light Up the Sky .
This marked the official beginning for the Arts Club Theatre Company, which had been established a few years prior as a private club for artists, musicians and actors (the drinking laws at the time were restrictive, but as a private club, you could serve alcohol).
Next week, the Arts Club will announce its 50th-anniversary season. There have been many changes over the decades – in location, ambition, programming – but there’s been one consistent force throughout almost its entire history.
With the exception of Ms. Firkins, who served as artistic director from 1964 until her sudden death in 1966, Bill Millerd is the only other person at the company to bear the title. He’s been there for more than 40 years.
Mr. Millerd grew up in West Vancouver, where his family owned a cannery. After returning from the National Theatre School in 1968, he worked as a stage manager for the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company. On the side, he began stage managing for the Arts Club. He started making programming suggestions, recommending more offbeat material, in particular work by Canadian playwrights.
Finally, he created a job for himself.
“There was no artistic director to succeed, so I basically decided, oh, this would be a neat job to do,” he says.
Mr. Millerd is telling the story over a seafood lunch at the Granville Island Hotel, pretty much on the same spot where his father once operated the family fishing business out of a hut, after they sold the West Vancouver cannery.
Mr. Millerd officially became artistic director during the 1972-73 season – at a landmark time for the company. The play Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris was a spectacular success, running for an astonishing seven months.
“It really put that little theatre on the map,” says Mr. Millerd, now artistic managing director. “So that convinced me that, hmm, if I can figure out how to make it all work financially, maybe this is a job I could do.”
Mr. Millerd and the Arts Club further guaranteed their future with the company’s move in 1979 to a 450-seat theatre on Granville Island.
“That was the game-changer,” he says. “I think that if we had not received that opportunity, I’m sure I would have moved onto something else: television or film or something else. But once we established the theatre, I had to concentrate on making sure it was going to work, that it wasn’t going to disappear.”
The company kept expanding. It added the Revue Stage on Granville Island in 1983, and held a cabaret there. When the Seymour Street location closed in 1991, Mr. Millerd sought another small space.
Around the same time, the Stanley Theatre closed. The Arts Club and TheatreSports teamed up, planning to renovate the cinema into two smaller spaces. That turned out to be cost-prohibitive. So the Arts Club leased the Revue Stage to TheatreSports, and opened the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage in 1998, its largest – and now flagship – venue.
The Arts Club went from about 3,000 to just over 5,000 subscriptions; it now has close to 16,000 – a company record. In 2010, the Revue stage reopened as an Arts Club venue, often showing more indie plays, including premieres coming out of its Silver Commissions program, launched in 2006.
“There’s very little opportunity for playwrights to carve time out to write,” says Marcus Youssef, whose Arts Club commission How Has My Love Affected You? recently had its world premiere. “It’s a huge important piece of a pretty strained ecology right now so I can’t say enough about how important it is.” It also means often more avant garde material finds a bigger, more mainstream audience.
During Mr. Millerd’s tenure, more than 500 plays have been produced (he’s directed more than 100 of them), including 88 premieres of new Canadian plays.
“They have an important place inside Canadian culture because there are very few institutions that have survived and thrived and grown like the Arts Club has,” says Morris Panych, who has premiered six plays there, two of which went on to win Governor General’s Awards. “And inside of that, they’ve somehow managed to inadvertently create some great things. It’s essentially a commercial theatre but Bill does not shy away from controversial subjects or projects.”
There have been some bumps along the way: water pouring onto the stage and front row patrons when a fire effect in Reflections on Crooked Walking triggered the sprinkler system; Heath Lamberts’s one-man show Gunga Heath , where the first act saw Mr. Lamberts come on stage and say nothing for “maybe a minute,” followed by a blackout – and intermission. “It went downhill from there,” laughs Mr. Millerd. “He was still brilliant, but [the show] didn’t do well.”
And of course, the 2011 production of Hairspray where during the first preview, actor Jay Brazeau suffered a stroke on-stage. (He recovered and later returned to the role.) When I ask what the young Bill Millerd would have thought if he had been told, when returning from Montreal, that he would spend virtually his entire career at one company, he doesn’t miss a beat.
“Are you crazy?” he laughs. “But I think the opening of the Granville Island Stage really changed everything … and getting to produce work by someone like Morris Panych, new plays, and really understanding how theatre could evolve, really started to excite me. I think by then I was no longer the young buck that could suddenly plunge into television or start at the bottom again.”
Also he felt an obligation to the company and the theatre community – pointing out he has always tried to give plum roles to local actors.
“He’s really dedicated his life in so many ways to that organization,” says Mr. Panych, from Toronto. “I can’t imagine the identity of that place without him.”
A conversation with Mr. Millerd, who turns 70 in June, inevitably turns to his retirement. Is he planning to leave anytime soon?
“I keep saying. ‘Well, maybe next year.’ Clearly I want to get through the 50th anniversary, and then I think that’s when I’ll go: ‘Okay, you can’t do this forever.’ ”
But he loves the work, rides his bike to the office daily, and there’s nothing he’d rather do. “I don’t golf,” he says.
So retirement is not exactly imminent. “Check with me in a year.”