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British Columbia Vancouver’s unused theatres to host amateur performers with city subsidy

Amateur performers will have a chance to take to some of Vancouver's most prominent stages under a pilot program, approved by the city on Tuesday, aimed at getting better use out of theatres and performance spaces that, in some cases, sit empty for 80 per cent of the year.

Vancouver Civic Theatres, a city department, will grant subsidized rent to community arts organizations and non-profits for such spaces as the Orpheum Annex and the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Plaza.

Groups ranging from the Vancouver International Film Festival and Ballet BC to yoga collectives have been among those deterred by high rental costs, said Sandra Gajic, director of Vancouver Civic Theatres.

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"We have the demand by the not-for-profit sector, but the rental rates are a barrier," Ms. Gajic said.

Priority will be given to grants funding the 200-seat Orpheum Annex, a space with a yearly usage rate of just 20 per cent, she added. The Queen Elizabeth Theatre Plaza is another focus of funding.

With the plaza's only regular event being the Vancouver Christmas Market, it is left empty for the summer months – a space the Vancouver Farmers Market is looking to fill, dependent on rental cost.

The City of Vancouver already provides $2.6-million to art groups through its theatre rental grant program, but it is under pressure and overprescribed, Ms. Gajic said.

The one-year pilot project would begin immediately and have a maximum yearly expenditure of $100,000.

Councillor Heather Deal said the city offers non-profit rates at theatres, but the new grants could bridge the gap for rates that are still too high for artists and non-profits hoping to get their foot in the door.

"There's a lot of great ideas that need a little bit of help," she said.

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East Vancouver-based 45th Avenue Jazz Band performed last weekend at The Annex Theatre at the non-profit rate of $350, but director Jaelem Bhate said the group, comprising college students, still needed to raise funds at pubs and private gigs to support the rental and associated costs.

"It's a trade-off that to rent the space needed, it takes more work behind the scenes," he said.

When the band first formed in 2013, costs to perform were a barrier. Sponsorship was non-existent and the group performed at churches, birthday parties and for free on the University of British Columbia campus.

"There was a year and a half of not very glamorous performances," Mr. Bhate said. "No one will take a chance on you."

Performing at a space like The Annex is a chance to bolster the band's reputation, he said, noting that rental grants would be beneficial, but additional costs include marketing and staff.

Lights Up! Musical Theatre School is a performance company for youth in the Lower Mainland. The organization is for-profit, but it says renting large theatre spaces for non-profit rates by partnering with charities to raise funds means young performers have the chance to grace larger stages. Partner Lisa Oppenheim agreed that access to high-profile stages can mean a lot to community groups and rental is the main cost for productions.

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"For the kids, it's huge. For a lot of them, it's the first time they've gotten up on a real stage. It's a huge boost to their self-confidence," Ms. Oppenheim said. "It's something that can be quite challenging for smaller groups – it's an opportunity that can be hard to provide."

The grants shouldn't affect independent theatres, said Heather Redfern, executive director of The Cultch, a community organization that provides performance space rent-free for artist residencies and community activities at two theatres in Vancouver.

"Each artist or company should have access to the space that is most suitable and will best support their endeavour," she said.

But she added that marketing, technical personnel, front-of-house staff and production costs exceed rent concerns.

"Rent is only one barrier a community group faces to being in a venue. It is actually the easiest barrier to remove," Ms. Redfern said. "Real progress would be made if we could help arts organizations with these hard costs. Rent is about paying utility bills; these other costs are about paying people."

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