Long before co-location became a buzzword, four independent Vancouver theatre companies co-located. There's a lot to be said for sharing a space with a bunch of other people who get you – your work, your needs, what you're up against.
Shared infrastructure and administration is great, but the creative cross-pollination has been particularly valuable for the resident companies of Progress Lab 1422. The benefits have extended well outside the walls of the East Vancouver space – to audiences all over the city, and far beyond.
"The whole centralizing of the creative and the administration is amazing for everybody," says Jonathon Young, artistic director with Electric Company Theatre, one of the resident companies.
"As soon as the space opened, the calibre of the work coming out was immediately better," adds Carey Dodge, technology director at Boca del Lupo. "It's not some kind of hypothetical experiment. Immediately, all of our work was stronger. Even some work was created that could not have been created otherwise."
The curtain rose on the concept a decade ago when 12 of the city's indie companies established an informal networking group they called Progress Lab – with regular meetings to talk about their work.
"That kind of collaborative ethic or practice was really exciting," says Marcus Youssef, artistic director with Neworld Theatre. "It made us feel less lonely and made us feel less competitive and made us feel like we could learn."
In 2008, Electric Company faced losing its office space. It teamed up with three other companies – Neworld, Rumble Productions and Boca del Lupo – and found an old garment factory available in the Commercial Drive neighbourhood, at 1422 William St.
Progress Lab 1422 opened in July, 2009.
The joint production and administration centre has become a game-changer for the Vancouver theatre scene: a professional hub, a catalyst for creation, and , at times, a performance venue. With four airy offices, a storage area for props and a 3,000-square-foot rehearsal space, PL1422 is also a great place to go to work.
"The psychological impact of having moved into a space that is funky, is clean, feels cool [is enormous]," Mr. Youssef says, while touring the facility. "A lot of times we feel like we're in really substandard … demoralizing spaces. And that's a real thing I think for culture in Vancouver – is to reject that kind of perception of us and self-perception that we're kind of charity cases or kind of on the loser end of things. Here we don't feel like that."
The rehearsal space has hosted some performances, such as the series Obstructions (where a theatre company was given an "obstruction" around which it must present the work), which wrapped up this year, and Community Dinner in 2011. Much of the film portion of Electric Company's cinema/stage hybrid Tear the Curtain! was also shot here.
PL1422 is a catalytic environment – there's a lot to be said for proximity when making this kind of art. Take, for example, the creation of the acclaimed Winners and Losers, which features Mr. Youssef and Theatre Replacement's James Long evaluating a list of people, places and things and debating whether they are winners or losers. While they were working in the Progress Lab studio developing the project, they were looking for more potential items to debate. They found Stephen Drover and Kevin Kerr in the Electric Company office upstairs, and asked if they would come down to the studio and throw out some ideas. Three of the suggestions improvised in that session made it into the show – microwave ovens, Roman Polanski and Germany.
The show, which has dazzled audiences in a dozen cities, opens off-Broadway in January.
The atmosphere in the building is friendly, helpful, collaborative and not competitive. The companies offer free office and desk space to younger, even smaller theatre companies. They share ideas, they help each other find resources – including staff (in this understaffed, under-resourced industry, the importance of this cannot be overstated).
"It really is statistically in everybody's benefit," says Becky Low, managing producer with Rumble. "If somebody goes to a Neworld show and likes it, they're more likely to come to another play later."
Mr. Youssef (who has consulted with companies elsewhere that are interested in the model) calls PL1422 and this creative collegiality "a generational response to our perception as we grew up in the nineties of the older institutions and the people running them. They played their cards close to the chest, they behaved like corporate entities. And there was a conscious and real desire [for our generation] to say: 'Hang on, we're not even really all that significant in the larger scheme of things … and maybe we can make the whole thing better as opposed to worrying about our infinitesimal fiefs.' "