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Arts Club Theatre Company artistic managing director Bill Millerd, left, and Peter Cathie White
Arts Club Theatre Company artistic managing director Bill Millerd, left, and Peter Cathie White

Arts Club Theatre Company artistic managing director Bill Millerd to retire Add to ...

After 45 years, the Arts Club Theatre Company’s artistic managing director Bill Millerd has announced his retirement. Next season will be his last.

“When somebody said it was 45 years, I went, ‘No, that doesn’t seem possible,’” says Millerd, 73. “But then of course it is. It flashes by.”

Millerd, who was born in West Vancouver, graduated from the National Theatre School and returned to Vancouver in 1968; he hated the winters out east. He landed a job as a stage manager for the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre, the regional theatre company, and in 1969 began doing some work as a stage manager for the upstart Arts Club.

The Arts Club’s home at the time was a former-gospel-hall-turned-auto-repair-shop. He became artistic director in 1972 and in 1973 the society was formed. The company has grown exponentially under his watch. From the tiny theatre on Seymour Street, the company now has three venues, new, purpose-built office space and an annual budget of around $14- to $15-million with 15 to 18 productions including shows that tour to other venues in British Columbia. It is the largest not-for-profit urban theatre company in the country and the largest theatre company in Western Canada.

In an interview, Millerd said the real game-changer for the company was the run of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which opened in the summer of 1972 and ran for an incredible seven months. “That really put the Seymour Street stage on the map, as it were. I mean, 30,000 people came to the building who had never been in it before.”

According to board chairman Bruce Flexman, more than 20 per cent of the productions staged during Millerd’s tenure have been premieres of new Canadian plays. “He leaves a company that is artistically innovative, financially sustainable, with a growing endowment,” Flexman said in a statement.

“I think leaving the company strong is essential,” Millerd says. “And I think also after 45 years and constantly hearing that theatre is dead, it’s good to know it isn’t.”

The 2017-18 season, also announced late Monday, will feature three new Canadian plays: Governor-General’s Award-winning playwright Kevin Loring’s Thanks for Giving, about a First Nations family at Thanksgiving; Me and You by mask-maker Melody Anderson, about two sisters; and Forget About Tomorrow by Jill Daum, based on her real-life experiences with her husband, Spirit of the West frontman John Mann, who has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Two recent Arts Club premieres will be brought back for encore productions, Mom’s the Word 3: Nest ½ Empty; and Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille’s Onegin.

While this wasn’t deliberate, Millerd noted as he was programming the season that all three world premieres deal with family in some way.

He figures that’s a good theme to go out on.

“Really, with the Arts Club, lots of people talk about the family,” he says. “And that sense of family is reflected in all three plays; even a family that’s sometimes in disarray, I think, says something about what held the Arts Club together when inevitably we went through some tough times. It wasn’t always clear sailing. And we’ve had a lot of employees who have stayed with us. The pay’s not great, Vancouver’s an expensive city to live in, so the fact that they’ve stayed with the company and grown with it, I’m very grateful to them.”

A search is now under way for Millerd’s replacement, led by Alexander Whitehead Executive Search in consultation with Flexman and executive director Peter Cathie White. The plan is to have someone in place by September, 2017.

Millerd’s contract, which ends in August, has been extended until the end of February, 2018. His intention is to work in tandem with his successor for about six months. “And then I think I need to get out of that person’s hair,” he says. “So I’ll be there in support and then bugger off somewhere.”

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