He's a devoted fan of musical theatre, but Jim Buckshon never imagined himself a props master.
The president of a music production company was merely looking for some new office space, when he wound up stumbling upon a whole new line of work. Not props master, really – but owner of the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company's enormous collection of props: chandeliers, bird cages, tea cups, skeletons, baby carriages, rows and rows of chairs.
"Want to count? It's in the multiple 100s," said Mr. Buckshon of those chairs, touring through the storage area on Friday, showing off the vintage typewriters, paper mâché turkeys, and stacks of vintage luggage.
"There's probably enough suitcases to sink the Titanic."
The Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company shut down operations last March, a day after publicly announcing it could not continue. There was some hope of reigniting the 49-year-old regional theatre company, but on December 13, it disbanded. The board members resigned the following day. According to a note on the Playhouse website, the company is insolvent and cannot pay for bankruptcy proceedings. (Attempts to reach former board chair Jeff Schulz were not successful.)
The props collection – amassed over many years, and an important asset to the theatre community – was almost a casualty of the financial mess. But Mr. Buckshon stepped in to save it.
In May 2011, he was looking for additional space for his company, Renegade Productions, and struck a deal to sublet space from the Playhouse at its East 2nd Avenue facility. Renegade would pay rent to the Playhouse, which would in turn pay the landlord. The two organizations got along beautifully.
When the Playhouse shut down, Mr. Buckshon was blindsided. He learned from its landlord, the Beedie Development Group, that the Playhouse hadn't been paying rent (which was already below market, according to Beedie) for "several months" – including Renegade's share. The Beedie Group asked Mr. Buckshon for proof that Renegade had been paying the Playhouse, he produced that proof, and was offered the lease for the entire building– including the scene shop, props department and wardrobe department.
The Playhouse had surrendered assets to the landlord for moneys owed, so the landlord was stuck with all the props (the Playhouse removed the wardrobe, according to Beedie). The Beedie Group offered the collection to at least three other theatrical enterprises, but nobody bought them – not because of the price (which Mr. Buckshon says was relatively low) but because of the cost of moving, cataloging and storing the collection.
Beedie offered the collection to Renegade, at, again, a relatively low price. Mr. Buckshon, knowing this was important and sensitive, sought the advice of now laid-off Playhouse employees. They not only encouraged him, some volunteered to sort through and move the collection to a different part of the facility.
Renegade sold off some of the props to the theatre community and later to the general public – some of those chairs, old suitcases, figurines, coffins.
"We had five of them and we sold three," Mr. Buckshon said of the coffins. "Because no one ever really takes more than two."
Between the cost of buying the props, moving them, donating some, cleaning out the area and throwing out anything they couldn't use – five dumpsters full – Mr. Buckshon estimates it cost Renegade about $15,000.
Well worth it, he said. By the time he was ready to rent them out, there was a lineup of B.C. companies who needed them.
"I think it's tremendous what they're doing. They did take on a big load," said Brian Heath, production manager for Gateway Theatre, which used Renegade for its production last year of Fiddler on the Roof. "I know that props is not a money-making venture."
Mr. Buckshon knows that, too. He's subsidizing the props and theatre operation – Renegade Arts Society – with his music operation, providing staff to run the props division for free, and subsidizing the rent and utilities. He also rents out rehearsal space to local theatre companies – the old scene shop has even been used as a black box theatre – and Renegade offers studio space to 14 visual artists where the wardrobe shop used to be.
And he's building up the music side of the business: In the old Playhouse space, he's created some 50 rehearsal studios, used by local acts such as Dan Mangan, Hey Ocean, Said the Whale, Yukon Blonde and Hannah Georgas. He's building a recording studio in the basement.
Now, Mr. Buckshon is getting into theatre production, too, co-producing Stephen Sondheim's Assassins with Pipedream Theatre Project at Performance Works on Granville Island next month.
"They were short on money and they knew we had theatre assets," said Mr. Buckshon, who will partner with Fighting Chance Productions next season. "We're going to basically try to fill some of the vacuum in Vancouver theatre … that the Playhouse left."
He's now working on photographing and cataloging the vast props collection – he figures there are at least 10,000 items – so he can get photos on line, where other theatre companies can access them.
"I would have made more money on other things, but I wanted to keep that collection intact," he said. "It's something the theatre community needs and we're in a position to be able to do it. We love theatre and as long as we're not losing a bundle on it, we'll keep it going.
"All's well that ends well."