CANADA/Column

Quebec fact or fiction?

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 14 1998
CANADA/Column

Quebec fact or fiction?

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 14 1998

'We're still here, baby!'

CANADA FOCUS B.C.

Vancouver’s live theatre is flourishing as never before

CHRIS WOOD

In Vancouver, a heritage building is one built in 1930. The 68-year-old Stanley Theatre, on Granville Street south of False Creek, lays claim more to heart than to antiquity. It is where three generations of young Vancouverites took first dates on a Saturday night and watched the cinematic epics of the 1950s and ’60s in wide-screen Technicolor splendor. In the years that followed, television and the rest of the home entertainment explosion took their toll, and in 1991, Famous Players closed the theatre. But after spending most of this decade dark, the Stanley is back. Its neon marquee has been relit, its Art Deco gilt freshly buffed up, and as the first new live performance stage to open in the city since livent Inc.’s Ford Centre for the Performing Arts in November, 1995, the Stanley seems set to regain a measure of its past glory. While Livent’s financial troubles mean the Ford now stands empty, the reborn Stanley is packing people in for a sold-out, held-over run of its opening show, Swing.

It could hardly be a sweeter moment for fans of the old building, who began organizing four years ago to preserve it, or for Bill Millerd, the Vancouver theatre-scene fixture whose Arts Club Theatre company is moving into it. Swing, a musical revue running until Dec. 30, is a frothy mix of 19408era music (delivered with sizzling grace by a 13-piece ensemble directed by trumpet ace Gary Guthman) and dancehall-inspired choreography. And three years after Vancouver’s perennially precarious theatre community greeted the arrival of Garth Drabinsky’s Iivent steamroller with the enthusiasm of a corner store welcoming Costco to the neighborhood, the Stanley’s splashy

rebirth is a welcome affirmation of an undiminished vitality. Crowed a member of one rival Vancouver theatre company: “Garth’s gone, and we’re still here, baby!”

Not only did live theatre in Vancouver survive the coming—and going—of Drabinsky quite nicely, by most measures it is currently flourishing. “I think there’s an explosion happening,” says Elizabeth Ball, artistic director of Carousel Theatre Company and a longtime observer of the Vancouver stage world. “There’s an explosion of creativity, an explosion of talent, an explosion of shows being staged.”

Vancouver’s theatrical offerings make no pretense of matching other North American centres with much larger populations, but they are far from lean. While Swing breezes on at the Stanley, across town at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre, John Gray and Eric Peterson will wrap up the Vancouver appearance of their touring, 20th-anniversary production of Billy Bishop Goes to War on Dec. 12. Meanwhile, stage adaptations of two children’s classics open this week: Pacific Theatre raises the curtain on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe— based on the much-loved C. S. Lewis

novel—while the Gateway Theatre stages the Don Harron/Norman Campbell musical version of Anne of Green Gables. Seasonal fare includes a remounted production of the homegrown comic favorite It’s Snowing on Saltspring, by Nicola Cavendish—featuring lewd elves and a seriously depressed dentist on Christmas Eve—at the Arts Club’s Granville Island Stage; Mavor Moore’s musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol at the Waterfront Theatre; and a dinner-theatre production alarmingly entitled A Traditional Dysfunctional Unforgettable Christmas, at Maz and Me’s Revue Theatre Restaurant.

There are, in fact, more actors and more companies—estimates hover around 30 in the Lower Mainland—producing more live theatre in the region than ever before. Enough, it seems, to make possible the kind of bravura conceit being mounted at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre late this week. Eight theatre companies will each get 24 hours to create and perform an original 15-minute play. Vancouver TheatreSports, meanwhile, presents something in a similar vein: its publicity described Countdown to Christmas as competitive

improv comedy modelled on a TV game show. “Some people have even argued,” says Millerd, not entirely in jest, “that there is too much theatre in Vancouver.”

Some of Millerd’s theatrical colleagues certainly saw Livent’s 1995 arrival in just such a light. At the time, many in the city’s theatre community feared the eastern entertainment giant’s lavish marketing budgets would scoop up their audiences. As it turned out, West Coast theatregoers greeted Livent’s huge and costly Broadway-style musicals with reserve. Ragtime, the last big show mounted at the Ford, “was a flagwaving, hugely American production,” observes playwright Moore, “that really had no relevance to Vancouver audiences at all.” While Livent faltered, companies like the Playhouse and Millerd’s Arts Club have been rewarded for years of effort spent building loyal local followings. Their audiences held steady and even grew. Typical of the sort of theatregoer the Livent productions failed to attract is Vancouver civil litigation lawyer W. J. (Bae) Wallace. A lifelong fan of the stage, Wallace subscribes to local companies’ seasons, and takes advantage of business trips to catch shows on Broadway and London’s West End. But stretching his legs between acts of Snowing on Saltspring last week, the veteran playgoer said he preferred that show’s home-

spun humor to Ragtime’s lush production numbers. “I wasn’t impressed by it,” Wallace said of the Livent show. “On a scale of one to 10, it was a four.” By contrast, he said, Snowing “is hammy, almost like a high-school play. But it amuses me.”

The flowering of onstage creativity does mask some problems. It has not been matched by any corresponding fattening of most B.C. theatrical artists’ bank accounts. “There is an explosion of activity,” says Ball, “but the artists are not getting paid.” Sometimes that is literally true. Even when it is not, the stage is no ticket to wealth for most of its acolytes. Among actors, even headliners for main-stage productions by established companies rarely earn more than $500 a week. Most performers, like the larger number of backstage staff—set designers, costume makers, lighting technicians and stage managers—consider themselves lucky if they work five months of the year. “A lot of people who are really passionate about theatre work,” says Snowing cast member Nicole Robert, “are living on practically nothing.”

Many veterans of the Vancouver stage insist their town is especially hard on thespians. According to one widely held view, the city is just too darn pretty, with too many alternatives to theatre. “Here,” laments Andrew Rhodes, who plays the dentist in Snowing,

“somebody’s at Kits beach and a friend comes up and says, ‘Hey, let’s go see a play. We’ll sit in a dark room for an hour and a half, and it’s only going to cost us 30 bucks.’ It’s, like, give it up!”

Moore, a dean of Canadian theatre, suggests another culprit: time zones. The same class of well-heeled patrons who support theatre, symphonies and ballet companies in Toronto and Montreal must rise earlier in Vancouver, he says, to keep up with eastern financial markets. “That means,” Moore concludes, “they’re not going to do as many late-night activities.”

Other burdens are more prosaic. One, despite the surplus Ford Centre’s 1,824 empty seats, is a shortage of performance space. The city has far more theatre companies than it has stages, with the greatest competition for small halls seating 150 to 200 patrons (the new Stanley seats 650). “There are a lot of orphan companies,” notes Georgia Straight theatre editor Colin Thomas.

Among them is the province’s oldest professional company, the Playhouse Theatre. Its rehearsal space, costume department and carpentry shops occupy a former factory in an industrial zone two kilometres from its 668-seat performance space— rented from the city. It is a situation artistic director Glynis Leyshon, like several predecessors, is eager to change. “It is not coincidental,” she says, “that companies that are doing well in this country tend to own and control their own space.” But no plan exists to give the Playhouse its own home.

What theatre in Vancouver does have going for it is the city’s burgeoning role as a television and film centre. Last year’s record of 167 productions shot in British Columbia, with a combined budget of $630 million, is expected to be surpassed in 1998. Those productions hire many West Coast actors and stage technicians and help sustain an ever-growing talent pool. But even that boon has its limits. The disproportionate income to be earned from film or television—“Work one day in a movie,” says Robert, “you make as much as in a month in theatre”—discourages many of the city’s better actors from committing themselves to stage performances.

For all those difficulties, Millerd is elated at the prospects for Vancouver’s newest stage. Without the Stanley, he says, “we could never have mounted a show like Swing.” Not everything that comes to the renovated cinema will be so fluffy, he promises. The next show slated for the space, Two Ships Passing, opening on Jan. 5, is a romantic comedy. But it is to be followed by a Morris Panych staging of Hamlet. Then in April, the Stanley will see the world première of Easy Money, a new comedy by Sherman Snukal set against the freewheeling Vancouver Stock Exchange. If Millerd’s instincts are right, it should be just the kind of West Coast-flavored fare to fire up the former neighborhood movie house. □