Grieving the Playhouse

The text messages, emails, phone calls, tweets, and Facebook messages started shortly after 2pm.  The Vancouver Playhouse had announced that after 49 seasons instead of launching the celebratory 50th anniversary season, they were closing down due to overwhelming debt. Closing night of the current show - tomorrow – will be the final performance. As the day has gone on and I have continued to speak with friends and colleagues the responses are the same: shock, anger, and grief. For many the Playhouse was a first exposure to professional theatre. For others it was the stage they dreamed of one day gracing or celebrated achieving that goal. For others still it has been a place of employment.  For all of us it has been a touchstone of our cultural community.

My ticket stub for the 2001 production of The Edible Woman

I first attended the Playhouse in fall of 2001. October 25th to be exact. I have the ticket stub to prove it. I was in grade 10 and my high school in Vernon, BC had a program in the drama department where twice a year they would load a greyhound bus with 50 students and 5 chaperones and drive to Vancouver, Victoria, Edmonton or Calgary for four or five days of seeing theatre, touring schools, and getting experiences we wouldn’t get in Vernon.  That trip was my first experience of professional theatre other than TYA. I don’t know how many of you saw The Edible Woman, but the lights came up and there was a man, naked, in a bathtub, thrusting against the air and then Jillian Fargey slid herself in under him while narrating. So there’s one first the Playhouse afforded me: my first time seeing a man’s bare behind. I remember not loving the show, but I also know that I’ve previously blogged about how the bed that flung out on to stage in that show felt like magic to my young self.  We saw many other shows on that trip (Flying Blind at the Arts Club’s Granville Island stage, Elizabeth Rex at the Stanley, All Grown Up at the Gateway to name a few) and I look back on that trip as being one of the places that my love of theatre began to flourish.

My ticket stub for the 2012 production of Hunchback

Most recently, I was at the Playhouse last night.  It was my fourth (and final) time to see Catalyst Theatre‘s Hunchback. I’d been going as a volunteer for The Cultch which meant that in exchange for sitting at a table and telling people about the upcoming shows at The Cultch I got to go see Hunchback for free. I knew it was my last time going to see Hunchback, but I had no idea it would be my last time attending a show by the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company.

Members of the Vancouver theatre community are planning a memorial for tomorrow night before the final performance.  They are planning to gather at the Playhouse at 7pm.  There is more information available via the facebook event page. I can’t go as I will be backstage elsewhere, but I will certainly be thinking of them.

There is a large part of me that is not ready to give up hope. During the press event they repeatedly said that with the help of sponsors and/or donors it would be possible to salvage the company. While I pray that they will find the support they need, I recognize that it is unlikely.

A couple of times already today I’ve found myself overwhelmed by waves of grief as I try to imagine Vancouver without the Playhouse. Their impact has stretched far beyond their performances. I can’t think of a single company in Vancouver that hasn’t rented their rehearsal room or rented or borrowed props or costumes. And I’m sure their are implications that I have not yet begun to consider and that we won’t begin to see until it is too late.

Allowing the Playhouse to cease to exist is a huge mistake for Vancouver and for the province of British Columbia.  It is one of Canada’s oldest theatres and has been the cultural heart for this city. Someone on facebook (I can’t remember who at the moment) referred to today as a Cultural Black Friday. And I agree.

Please use the comments to share your memories of the Playhouse – shows you loved (or hated), firsts, and other stories.

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Comments (3)

  1. SUSAN WEISS

    Lois,

    Loss is tragic, whatever the loss is.

    It is hard to imagine the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company having to close its doors and this definitely leaves a big and deep hole in the entire Vancouver community.

    The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, in the 1980’s, went through something similar with a huge and unsustainable debt load due to a sharp decrease in subscribers, sponsorship and donations and the list of woes went on and on.

    Three levels of government bailed out the VSO, to no avail.

    I sat at many meetings with Cabinet Ministers, the Canada Council, the BC Government, the BC Arts Office, the Chief Bankruptcy officer for the Province of British Columbia, (who became the President of the Board of Directors of the VSO in this terrible period of its history), VSO musicians, the Music Director, and many, many, others trying to “save” the VSO.

    I was commissioned by the Province of British Columbia to prepare a financial and artistic recovery plan that the Province of BC could understand and begin to help implement a recovery process.

    The Vancouver community could not imagine a world-class city without a symphony orchestra; and neither could I.

    The short story of this downturn for the VSO is that it did close its doors for a time. The organization hired Ed Oscapella, (may he rest in peace), to put the organization back on track, financially, artistically, (when he took over there was no articulated strategic artistic plan, long or short that addressed the needs of the Vancouver community to have an world class symphony orchestra).

    Through some years of trials and errors the VSO made good strategic decisions on how to involve the community to re-build the VSO and today we can all happily say the VSO has succeeded, splendidly.

    Will the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company come back again? Perhaps, in another form, location, and it will be a vibrant entity in the Vancouver community; I certainly hope so, and I believe it will.

    This is not to place blame, but many level headed and experienced cultural entertainment professionals warned that the “secret” bailouts as a “Band-Aid” fix, and, also the manner in which the bailouts were managed would not work. I know the movie; I lived it in the 1980’s with the VSO.

    In my humble opinion running to the government for a bail-out is a short-term fix, and the City of Vancouver who owns the Playhouse facility is getting a good kick in the butt and maybe a wake up call that either they should operate the Playhouse facility professionally; (there are some models for government doing this successfully), or get out of this facility operation business and leave the artists alone to do what they succeed at – create fantastic programming and theatre entertainment.

    Now is the time for some serious, serious, reflection on the part of the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company community, being the actors, directors, designers, creators, staff, stage management, production management, technical production management, marketers, publicity, fundraisers, and board of directors for all of them to come together. And first look after their supporters – ticket-holders, donors and clean up a mess.

    There is always tomorrow, and there will be a tomorrow for the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company.

    The next step is to re-build, and what this re-build looks like is up to the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company community.

    Vancouver is blessed with talented, experience willing individuals, corporations and other entities that can help and make a difference; (the VSO and Ballet BC came back, so I am hopeful)

    I am there is spirit, tonight; Lois, light a candle for the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre community, for me, thank you.

    Susan Weiss

  2. Pingback: IN RESPONSE TO LOIS: GRIEVING THE PLAYHOUSE « Business of the Arts

  3. Lana

    Even here, all the way in Edmonton, we are feeling the impact of this extreme loss. My “day job” aside, as a theatre artist I think we all feel completely shell shocked. The West coast has lost a flag ship, and as you said Lois, the full impact won’t be felt for some time…

    Somehow – even from far away I too am consumed with grief for all the people’s who’s lives will be changed forever, for the colleagues I have come to know while working with them on Hunchback, and for the Canadian theatre landscape which will now posses a very obvious black hole.

    In times like this, it is certainly comforting to be part of a big, loving, strong, theatre community who has lived through much adversity and triumphed over many challenges before.

    Thinking of all of you in Vancouver! xx

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