When internationally acclaimed architect Moshe Safdie designed what is now called The Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts, he was challenged to do a lot in a confined building space.
And he succeeded brilliantly, giving Vancouver one of the most remarkable stages in the country.
Surprisingly, that theatre will soon be lost to the city’s cultural scene – and hardly anyone seems to have noticed.
Do Vancouver citizens really not care about the arts? Are we all too busy staring at our smartphones to realize that losing a great, live theatre venue like this is a tragedy?
Westside Church, an evangelical congregation that now gathers on Granville Island to celebrate the teachings of Jesus and listen to sermons about the sins of homosexuality, is in the process of buying the Centre from Denver-based Four Brothers Entertainment.
The Centre recently sent out bulletins to the Vancouver International Film Festival and the Goh Ballet, cancelling their bookings for later this year.
So, out with the arts and in with the preaching of pastor Norm Funk, who has declined to be interviewed.
From the outside, the Centre doesn’t look that impressive, with a surprisingly small entrance off Homer Street, directly across from Library Square. But once inside, from the sparkling foyer up the spiral staircases and into the theatre proper, it is hard not to be stunned by Mr. Safdie’s work.
Somehow, in part by scrimping on the loading bays and the wings, he squeezed 1,800 perfectly placed seats in to the building, cupping the audience around a stage framed by a dramatic proscenium arch.
It is part of the magic of the Centre that reclining in those plush, purple velvet seats, you have perfect sightlines no matter where you sit in the house. That, together with the building’s remarkable acoustics and the compressed lobby that just buzzes with excitement on opening nights, makes it a special experience.
“From an audience perspective, in the house, it’s the best theatre in the city,” says Brent Belsher, executive director of Belsher Entertainment, who among other things, has brought the National Ballet of Cuba to dazzle the city.
“In terms of watching dance or performances, there’s a closeness to it that makes it remarkable. In the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, the balcony dress circle starts in row 25, so that’s 25 rows away [from the stage]. With the Centre everything is just pushed forward … so it’s a much more intimate space.”
Small and grand at the same time, Mr. Belsher says the Centre “hits that sweet spot” of providing a perfect venue for shows that will attract an audience of between 1,200 and 1,800. The Queen Elizabeth has 2,900 seats, which makes it too big, for example, for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet or the Goh Ballet, or any number of musical shows, or the VIFF.
It is shocking that a theatre this great could be lost to the city’s arts scene without more of a protest.
But so far, Mr. Belsher seems to be the only one complaining. He hopes to change that before the deal closes later this summer.
“I’ve been rattling everyone’s cages … I just started a Facebook page saying Please Don’t Close the Centre … I’m really trying to pull out all the people I know,” said Mr. Belsher.
He has even tried a direct appeal to the Westside Church, hoping to inspire a little soul searching, but like the media in Vancouver, he has so far been unable to speak directly with Mr. Funk, who isn’t returning phone calls.
Mr. Funk’s silence is one thing but even more concerning is the silence of the community.
Are we really going to accept the death of the arts in this city, one venue at a time?