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Money woes force Vancouver theatre company to close curtains

Jim Mezon as Mark Rothko in a production of Red at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company.


With his voice breaking and many of those in the audience in tears, the chair of the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company announced the curtain will soon close on its 49-season act.

Hundreds of people turned out for the Friday news conference, which quickly picked up the feel of a wake. Filled with hope, they had asked if anything could be done to save B.C.'s second-largest theatre company.

Jeff Schulz, chair of the Playhouse's board of governors, said no, a response that was echoed by civic and provincial politicians. Mr. Schulz said the theatre company simply couldn't go on – its pile of debt is too large, with no way to pay it back.

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The company's final performance, the musical Hunchback, will be held Saturday night.

"It's been a tough 49 years, and it's also been an amazing 49 years," Mr. Schulz said in breaking the news. "We've been part of the theatre ecology and part of the city for a very long time so the announcement we have to make today is particularly difficult, knowing how hard everyone's worked, how long this theatre company's been in existence."

Mr. Schulz said the company had a debt load between $900,000 and $1-million. He said it was particularly hard hit by the recession, and saw revenues and sponsorship decline sharply as of 2008.

When asked why the company didn't elect to file for bankruptcy, Mr. Schulz said: "We thought that as soon as you take the bankruptcy step, it's a very formal process. It also becomes a very expensive process. Our hope is to work with all of our creditors to do this in a more expedient, less costly fashion."

Max Reimer, the Playhouse's artistic managing director, took the podium after Mr. Schulz and said he was overwhelmed by the sense of loss.

"As I look around the room, I can probably identify almost everybody in here and there are a great many more. It really does take an entire village. It would be a shame not to recognize absolutely everybody's contribution, but that could take another 50 years," he said.

Mr. Reimer said about 15 company staff would be out of work, plus 200 contractors a season.

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After Mr. Reimer's speech, the crowd rose to its feet for a standing ovation.

Vancouver city councillor Heather Deal said the news was "devastating" because the Playhouse company has been pivotal in the culture of the city, not only for what it presents on stage, but for its work mentoring young actors and participating in school programs.

But she said the city saw Friday's announcement coming, and could think of no way to save the company.

"We did a very thorough analysis of the economics. It would take a $500,000-a-year grant to close the operating gap. We can't afford that," she said.

Spencer Chandra Herbert, the NDP's arts critic whose first job in the theatre world was through the Playhouse with a role in Macbeth, said the announcement was "very distressing."

"They say don't say Macbeth in the theatre. Well, I don't see how saying it today could make things much worse," he said in an interview shortly after the announcement, adding the company's economic impact was in the millions.

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Mr. Chandra Herbert said B.C. is in the midst of a cultural crisis, and accused the provincial government of sitting on arts funding.

But Ida Chong, B.C.'s minister of cultural development, said there was nothing government could do.

"Sadly there's not a lot that can be done to assist unless somebody comes along with a big, fat chequebook to bail them out of an operating deficit they have not just had this year, but in past years," she said.

Ms. Chong said the province has supported the company through the B.C. Arts Council and gaming grants. She said all of her funds are spoken for, and aimed at such files as one-time-only needs, new projects, and sponsoring conferences.

Nonetheless, she said the entire situation was unfortunate. "It is one of Canada's oldest, regional theatre companies and I know people will miss it."

The company's financial woes have been well-documented.

In June, Vancouver city council agreed to forgive a Playhouse debt of $426,888, and to provide an emergency one-time grant of up to $400,000. In April, the city agreed to provide a $100,000 emergency grant.

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Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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