Saying goodbye to the Playhouse Theatre Company
// Julian Legere

After 49 years of serving as Vancouver’s regional theatre, the Playhouse Theatre Company officially announced that, following the closing of their co-production of Catalyst Theatre’s Hunchback on Mar. 10, they would be winding down operations. The closure comes on the heels of a $1 million Vancouver city council bailout last year which did little to solve the Company’s longstanding financial decline.

With the loss of the Playhouse Company, the effects on the arts industry, on artists, and on theatregoers, not only in Vancouver but across the country, are devastating. “It’s very sad,” laments Nicolas Harrison, Capilano theatre instructor and long-time member of the Vancouver theatre community, who has worked extensively at the Playhouse. “It’s quite disturbing.”


In what Liz Nicholls of the Edmonton Journal describes as “a frugal, labour-intensive industry that lives so close to the bone,” the loss of this enormous theatre company spells disaster for the always-precarious economy of the arts. The Stratford Festival, one of the largest in the country, with a budget of $60 million, reported a measly $53,000 surplus last year. However, that seems like raging success compared to Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, who have an estimated $400,000 deficit on a budget of $11.5 million. Citadel’s executive director Penny Ritco describes that amount as “manageable” in the Edmonton Journal, underlining the fact that deficits are considered business as usual in the arts world.

One of the biggest short-term blows from the Playhouse closure is to Catalyst Theatre, whose critically-adored original musical Hunchback served as the swan song for the Playhouse company, leaving Catalyst out $120,000, which artistic director Eva Cairn is calling “massively significant”, as quoted by Postmedia News, for the small company: “It represents 20 per cent of our revenue budget this year,” she says. “We've been slowly building a financial cushion for the last five years. It doesn't put us in danger, but it's a huge setback. We have less flexibility for the next couple of years. Instead of the beginning of long-term financial stability, money goes back to being a huge priority. Instead of the healthy surplus we projected, we're back into a debt-reduction phase again.”

Even more critical are the local repercussions: the closing of the Playhouse means the immediate loss of 15 permanent and around 200 contract jobs. That’s over 200 people who are now out of work, many of whom may leave the city or even the province to find opportunities elsewhere. Harrison agrees that although “artists in the Lower Mainland are essentially nomadic anyway, the ones who have been able to be stationary will have to join that nomadic circuit.”

Although the failure of last year’s million dollar “bailout” from the City of Vancouver suggests that the blame is on the company itself for mismanaging funds, that isn’t necessarily the case. As the Artistic Managing Director of the Playhouse, Max Reimer, explained in his public defence of the grant, the Playhouse is “the only established arts organization in Vancouver not ever assisted with an annual municipal operating grant.”

Capilano University theatre instructor Stephen Atkins agrees, and points out that “to say $1 million is really, amortised over the 50 years, $20,000 a year.” According to Reimer, all the $1 million did was “finally allow us to sit at the table as an equal with the rest of the organizations.”

To know that so little was done by the government to help save the company, “I find the whole thing abhorrent,” says Marie Barnes, a six-year Playhouse season ticket holder and lifelong supporter of the arts.


Aside from the economic consequences, the Playhouse closure will also likely have an enormous effect on the type and quality of theatre being produced in Vancouver. Historically, regional theatres such as the Playhouse have served as an outlet for new works and artists. The Ecstacy of Rita Joe, a seminal piece of Canadian theatre addressing the issues facing Canadian Aboriginals, premiered at the Playhouse in 1967. And more recently, another hugely important social piece relating to Canadian Aboriginal history, the rock opera Beyond Eden was created and premiered as a Vancouver Playhouse/Theatre Calgary co-production.

The Playhouse also provided opportunities for smaller companies, such as Catalyst Theatre with Hunchback, or Electric Company last year with Studies in Motion to share innovative works with larger audiences.

Barnes says she was always most amazed by “the variety and surprise of [Playhouse] Productions.” Furthermore, the Playhouse has been, as reported in the Globe and Mail, a “training ground and showcase” for such theatre artists such as the now widely-renowned playwright Morris Panych.

On a smaller scale, many companies in and around Vancouver, and throughout B.C., have depended on the Playhouse’s extensive non-monetary resources to bring their own shows to life, including a five-decade stock of props, costumes, and set pieces that were often rented by other theatres. Costume Designer Nancy Bryant is quoted in the Globe and Mail saying, “It’s a resource that every theatre in this province uses. I do a lot of period shows, and without the resource of these costumes, I can’t do them.”

The Playhouse also loaned out rehearsal space to other companies, which Harrison identified as “one of the hardest things to find when you’re putting on a show.” The loss of the Playhouse will affect theatre throughout the province and across the country, and as Barnes says, “the arts have been snubbed once again.”


The sad end of the Playhouse Theatre Company is also a sign of the increased success of the ArtsClub, since the two were competing for the audience base who can afford to attend larger productions. Part of this may be due to the difference in ticket prices (with ArtsClub shows starting at $29 a ticket, and Playhouse shows at $33 for previews,) but the ArtsClub is still much larger than the Playhouse, with three theatres and a touring company , and has seen consistent growth. Quoted in the Vancouver Sun recently, executive director Howard Jang says, “Even during the economic downturn we found our donations had increased, so our funding is stable. It’s a tough game out there, but we’re doing very well.”

Yet he admits that part of the reason the ArtsClub has seen such success is because they depend more heavily on mainstream types of theatre compared to the Playhouse: “We are seeing our mainstay shows doing very well,” Jang says. “Where we find challenges are in the more difficult works that are not so well-known.”

Those “not-so-well-known” works are precisely the kind that the Playhouse has a history of producing, and especially with new works (the likes of Morris Panych in his earlier days, as well as original shows already mentioned). Furthermore, one need only compare some of the plays they have chosen in past seasons to see the contrast.

For example, the Playhouse opened their 2010–2011 season with the musical The Fantasticks; toward the end of the same season, the ArtsClub mounted a production of Hairspray. Although The Fantasticks is far from obscure (it holds the record for longest running musical of all time with an off-Broadway run of 42 years), it certainly cannot rival the instant name recognition of Hairspray, likely created in large part by the hugely successful 2007 film adaptation. The contrast between these two shows is telling. Given the growth of ArtsClub donations, it’s clear that pleasing the audience is of greater importance than artistic exploration, as the patrons are saddled with most of the responsibility of keeping theatres profitable.

As much as the ArtsClub has grown, it is clear that much of the Playhouse audience base has turned to them, but what of the smaller companies? Harrison points out that the smaller companies “are not competing with the same types of shows” and therefore not for the same audience either, but hopefully some theatre patrons will “turn to smaller companies, such as Touchstone, Blackbird theatre, or the Electric Company, to fill the gap.”

However, he says, nothing can truly replace the Playhouse: “To have a troupe that’s been around for close to 50 years, you can’t recapture that,” says Barnes. “Sadly, I think it’s unlikely that smaller theatre groups like Catalyst will thrive without their help.”


Despite all the doom and gloom surrounding this loss, there is still a place for optimism. “The loss of the Playhouse doesn’t mean theatre in Vancouver’s about to go down,” says Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance Executive Director Eleanor Stacey in the Vancouver Sun
. Harrison also thinks there is “potential for something good to come out of” this tragedy. The ArtsClub’s strength, for example, is proof that there is still a hunger for theatre in Vancouver: “I’m grateful,” says Barnes, “that their roots dig deeper and that they’re maybe going to be around longer.”

As Stephen Atkins puts it so beautifully: “You have to be an optimist to be an artist. Resistance creates creativity. Things like the lack of theatre space, the lack of funding, should only fuel what drives an artist to create. We should be able to create under the direst of circumstances. In countries that have been ravaged by wars, it’s usually arts and people’s ability to create that pulls them through.”

//Julian Legere, writer
//Graphics by Alexandra Gordeyeva

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