Theatre, Vancouver Playhouse (1963 – 2012). Passed away suddenly on Saturday, March 10 surrounded by friends, family and protestors who insisted that they were conducting a vigil instead of a wake. The Theatre will be deeply missed by its artistic director, board of directors, fifteen permanent staff, two hundred contractors, hundreds of artists, thousands of subscribers and millions of fans of Canadian culture.
The Theatre had a long and, perhaps unsurprisingly, dramatic life. It survived numerous marriages, divorces, trysts and trial separations involving countless artistic directors, board members and Canadian artists. Born in 1962, the infant Theatre was deposited on the doorstep of managing producer Michael Johnston by the municipal government. Although Vancouver had a thriving amateur community, it was determined that a professional theatre was needed to improve the city’s cultural life.
“If you like your theatre coarse and vulgar,” wrote Jack Richards in the Vancouver Sun, “you may think [the Hostage] is great.”
Living rent-free on an annual budget of $147,000, the Theatre had a stormy childhood in a single parent household - Johnston served as sole producer, manager, designer, advertiser and occasional usher. Once matured, the Theatre quickly engaged in a passionate affair with playwright Brendan Behan to produce its first offspring: The Hostage, a controversial play set in a brothel. “If you like your theatre coarse and vulgar,” wrote Jack Richards in the Vancouver Sun, “you may think [the Hostage] is great.”
During its first ten years, the Theatre continued to forge many liaisons with new Canadian playwrights, all at a time when most producers were interested in classics and imports from the West End (its record was six world premieres in four seasons). Authors deeply involved by the Theatre in those years included George Ryga, James Clavell and Eric Nicol.
“To me, this type of play is completely disgusting.”
Though artistically successful, their creations often found opposition from several quarters. The amateur community, angry at being supplanted as the theatre’s source of culture, was especially vitriolic. This led to further opposition in the press and the government, mostly based on the Theatre’s preference for controversial plays. In 1969, city alderman Earle Adams opposed a municipal grant after a production of The Filthy Piranesi by William D. Roberts. “A couple of men loving each other and a couple of women who love each other on the stage!” exclaimed Adams. “To me, this type of play is completely disgusting.”
These squabbles climaxed in 1970 during the Theatre’s short-lived union with artistic director David Gardner, whose first season ended with a $100,000 deficit. It is rumoured that the provincial government only stepped in after Gardner agreed to a caveat: from then on, the Theatre would avoid “vulgar or controversial productions”. A production of a play about the October Crisis was quickly scrapped in favour of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite.
...“well intentioned” but “theatrically ignorant”...
Perhaps not coincidentally, this was also the time when the Theatre acquired its first real home at 575 Beatty Street. Until then it had been living in multiple locations, including a costume shop on Cambie Street and a rehearsal space on Homer. Life on Beatty Street wouldn’t last: eventually, the Theatre moved to West 7th Avenue, which it sold in 1988 before leasing the very same offices back from the new owners. It would find itself dislodged again in 2007 after the city needed to make room to build an Olympic village.
By 1972, drama critic James Barber called the Theatre’s board of directors “well intentioned” but “theatrically ignorant”, remarking that the Board was “both gentle and genteel, basically scared of anything new and untried, dependent for their opinions upon the opinions of others.” This was the same year the Theatre raised eyebrows after it was represented at the National Arts Centre not by a British Columbian play but by an new adaptation of Treasure Island.
But Barber’s critique would be continually challenged as the Playhouse began to complement its relationship with mainstream authors with a secondary stage, devoted entirely to producing experimental and adventurous work. It also revealed a continuing dedication to new Canadian plays, such as Crabdance by Beverly Simon and North Shore Live by Tom Wood, Nicole Cavendish and Bob Baker. And its love of controversy also continued, most notably with an infamous version of Peter Shaffer’s Equus in which tickets were scalped.
The patterns of the Theatre’s earliest years would echo throughout the rest of the its life. Through a host of artistic directors - including Christopher Newton, Larry Lillo, Guy Sprung and Glynis Leyshon - the Theatre continued to fight for a balance between the mainstream and experimental, the new and the old, the Canadian writer versus their more popular American cousin. The fight for municipal funding also continued. Although the city occasionally gave the Theatre grants, these were often withheld to pay for debts and years of back rent. It was not until September, 2011 that Vancouver city council forgave part of the Theatre’s debts and provided funding to help the Theatre move back into the black.
With a reported debt of nearly $1 million dollars, it asked its board of directors to terminate its life...
But by the beginning of 2012, this cancer of debt had become too great: having lived with the malignant tumor almost since its birth, the Theatre woke up one morning to find it could no longer endure. With a reported debt of nearly $1 million dollars, it asked its board of directors to terminate its life; by then, it was so exhausted, it did not even want to finish its final season.
It is perhaps appropriate that death came following the final performance of a new Canadian work, a re-imagining of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. A contemporary take on an old classic and an experimental version of a mainstream gem, the show perfectly epitomized the type of theatre the Theatre loved best in its brief 49 years of life.
There are many who still hope that the Theatre will be resurrected in future years. Family members have asked that in lieu of flowers, mourners should write letters, make contributions, hold protests, sign petitions, and contemplate the many ways in which the story of the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre may be the story of all theatres, all artists, and all types of Canadian culture.
A petition to save the Vancouver Playhouse can be found here