Over the past week, I’ve been talking with friends here in Toronto, friends across the country and friends in Vancouver about the state of the arts in Vancouver in general, most visibly the seemingly sudden closing of the Vancouver Playhouse.
I posted a call for opinions on my website and Facebook wall, tweeted it and linked it to key friends’ Facebook walls as well, inviting anyone in Vancouver to participate. There are folks who refuse to hear negative comments, folks who dismiss positivity as unrealistic and many folks who I think are in the middle.
I sent out the questions that have been rattling around in my mind these past couple of weeks, and some folks graciously responded and took time to answer them. We have a stage manager, marketer, a playwright and an arts administrator we’ll call A, B, C and D. (Please note that D was added after initial publication.) Here are their opinions.
There seem to be multiple protests happening, multiple Facebook pages, multiple everything. Is it working? For lack of a better term, who is calling this square dance?
A: There is no clear leader in this movement, but several people have stepped up to the forefront, those being playwright Lucia Frangione, and actors Colleen Winton and Stephen E Miller. In terms of sheer numbers, Stephen E Miller’s “Save the Playhouse” Facebook page seems to rule the social media communication.
B: The protests started with Jennifer Clement, a fine actor here in town, perturbed by the news of the closure and frankly couldn’t sleep. She mobilized 150-200 of us to gather on the front steps of their final performance, encouraging them to “Keep the Lights On”. Countless letters of support had been written by then and were posted on the sides of the building including a notable one from playwright Morris Panych.
Playwright Lucia Frangione then thought to write out the draft of her latest show in chalk from the front steps of the Playhouse to city hall sparking the “Walk the Chalk” movement. T-shirts with messages written on them have been left at city hall and larger events are being organized as we speak under that same banner.
C: You mentioned that there are multiple protests happening – that part is intentional. The goal, according to those I’ve spoken with – is to keep pressure on the city of Vancouver and to keep the fact that this is a big deal in the minds of the public. To that end, there are folks attempting to schedule rallys, protests, and other actions for every single day. The challenge here is that there is no leader – there is no one person who the Vancouver arts community is able to look to right now. The Playhouse has not made any requests yet and most of the advocacy organizations – the GVPTA & Alliance for Arts and Culture do not want to take action until they know what sort of action the Playhouse would like to see taken. This is probably wise as any action taken by these organizations is certain to upset other companies or members.
But this means that we have three different Facebook pages/groups going and people are missing out on information OR being bombarded with it. I’ve also heard that there are now three separate Save the Playhouse petitions going around. Is this loose approach to activism working? I don’t think so.
D: Yes, there are multiple Facebook pages and individual timelines rallying support to save the Playhouse. Quite honestly it’s confusing – no one group has leapt into the forefront, at least not yet. The groups I have seen are lead by actors, designers, and other theatre artisans rather than patrons. I think this is more to do with the demographics of the Playhouse audience – I’d guess the vast majority are not social media users.
Who would you say are the leaders in the arts and culture community? What are they doing?
A: Often, when there is a financial crisis in Vancouver, The Alliance For Arts and Culture steps up. They are our advocacy group here in Vancouver, and most arts organizations here belong to them. There have certainly been communiques from both the Alliance and from the Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Association about this issue, but both of those organizations, like most other arts orgs in Vancouver, have suffered heavy cutbacks. The GVPTA has one employee, and the AAC had their budget slashed by $30K, and are only open 4 days a week in an effort to save money.
If we’re asking hard questions, one that many people are asking is “why did the Playhouse give up?” If there was going to be someone to spearhead the movement, shouldn’t they be taking some kind of leadership role?
There were two hundred people at the rally last week. Were you there? What was the mood?
A: I was there. It was a typical drizzly March evening. There were lots of people greeting and hugging and saying “it sucks that I’m seeing you under these circumstances.” There was sadness and discouragement and a lot of anger.
B: It was sad and frustrating and heartbreaking but also hopeful – power in numbers, I suppose. The biggest question is whether we can get in touch with non theatre artists, but the patrons themselves. The Playhouse had a subscription base of almost 5,000 – where are those people? Their voices seem vital to this fight.
C: In regards to the rally last Saturday, I wasn’t there. I had a gig and was backstage at the Vancouver International Dance Fest, but I swung by the Playhouse after my shift at 10pm. I wanted to be there when the final curtain call happened. When I showed up, I was the only one outside the building. The people who had been there at 7pm were nowhere to be seen, though their signs, chalk graffiti, flowers and candles remained. At 10:20pm an AD friend of mine showed up. The first words out of his mouth: “Where is everyone?” By the time the show came down at 10:45 there were about a dozen of us who had re-gathered and went into the lobby to share tears and hugs with friends and colleagues and to take a moment to sit in the back row of the seats and watch the technicians begin to remove the sets. It was very surreal. When I blogged about the closure, I referred to it as a time of grieving for the arts community, and that’s how it felt that night: like a dear friend was on their death-bed and we had been called close one final time to say good bye.
“I just went to City Hall as part of the “shirts off our back protest” – only one other person was there.” We can’t seem to get more than “a few hundred people” out to any sort of rally. What do you think it would take to get non-core people to go? People who value the arts but are not themselves artists?
A: I don’t know. I really don’t. Part of the problem here, and this has been reiterated over and over again this past week, is that the main support for the theatre in this city comes from people who are in the arts. For whatever reason, whether because of ticket prices, because of our beautiful city where people might rather spend time outdoors skiing or hiking the Grind, or walking the Seawall, because of the recession, or because we are simply just not the kind of city where the arts are thought of, by the average person, as something to do on a regular basis, we have a big problem getting bums in seats. Add to that severe cutbacks tot he arts since the summer of 2009 (with a bit of a bump in there for the Olympics), and it’s a recipe for disaster.
C: Just today I was talking with an artist in our community who asked if any action was taking place today. I said that I hadn’t heard of anything and didn’t think so. His response was that he thought that yesterday, but then ended up missing out on the “You can take our funding, you can take our buildings, you can take the shirts off our backs but you can’t take away our passion” walk to City Hall, which drew a total of TWO participants. Monday afternoon’s walk, in contrast, had 10. Either people are unaware, unavailable or apathetic. And I think in many cases it is a combination of the first two. I know people who want to take action, but 6 hours notice for something happening at 4pm on a week-day simply isn’t feasible for a number of the artists and administrators who are working daytime hours.
Many people have taken to Facebook to make comments that to my ears are more rhetorical than practical - I can’t seem to get an answer to the question, “by doing what? What are you going to do?”
A: My understanding is that our unwritten goal is to put enough pressure on the municipal, provincial and federal government to pony up the cash for a bailout. However, this already happened a year ago, and there are systemic problems with the funding, etc of the Playhouse that need to be resolved, otherwise, even if we do get a bailout, we’ll just be here again in another year.
B: The next step seems is that we all need to gather in a town hall type forum to generate what those radical ideas are. It’s not enough to be angry or frustrated, that isn’t going to accomplish anything, but likewise we can’t all act independently of one another – it’s the group mobility that will have impact and will have results.
C: My favourite conversation that has happened since the big announcement a week ago stemmed from the question, “What made the Playhouse special? What did they do that will be missed?” And I think that is an important conversation for us to be having. We need to stop for just a minute focusing on the size and the shut down and talk about what exactly we are going to miss. Because I can’t do anything (that I know of) (right now) to save the Playhouse, but I can figure out those things that I believe it has done well and brought to Vancouver in its 49 years and try to find ways to incorporate those values into my own artistic endeavours.
D: You asked me several questions about what’s being done and by whom. It’s hard to say when there’s so much going on. I wonder if there’s a feeling of fatigue in the city – is the demise of the Playhouse the proverbial straw that broke the camels back? Has the fight gone out of a city that has fought so long to keep culture alive? I hope not but understand why they’re/we’re tired.
“the demise of the Playhouse, for the public at least, was a one-day wonder. Sadly, it just didn’t matter much to Vancouverites. 200 or so people showed up to at the rally on closing night, mostly actors and theatre people. This was equal to about 5% of the remaining Playhouse subscribers. These people paid in advance for tickets to cancelled productions. Where were they? Imagine what would happen tomorrow if the Canucks or Lions were to announce they were shutting down or moving to another city. Fans would be marching in the streets.”
Thoughts on that statement?
A: This is part of the larger, systemic issue. People in this city will save their money and pay hundreds of dollars for a Canucks ticket, but they won’t darken the doors of a theatre. I’m not putting down the Canucks or the Olympics or whatever, but that is simply the reality of living in this city. Someone had a sign up at the Playhouse rally that read “My vision for Vancouver includes the Playhouse AND the Canucks.” RIght now, it really feels like either/or.
B: It’s a sad state when culture has fallen to the bottom of the priority list, which seems to be an consistent issue here in BC whether it be decimating arts cuts or bum deals with the city that yield the closure of one of our oldest cultural institutions. Many people have said that perhaps culture can’t compete with hockey rinks and mountains. I don’t know – how much money was pumped into renovating that stadium – CIVIC money, PROVINCIAL money. Does theatre need to have a strictly commercial appeal and return? Maybe? Patrick MacDonald from Green Thumb theatre brought up a really good point which is that when any other industry has a closure, say an automotive plant, no one complains that they won’t be making cars anymore, they talk about the job loss, the revenue loss, the effect on the economy, but in the arts we always get caught up with the product. The closure of the playhouse takes $3 million away from the local economy…
C: How do we get other people to come to these ralliess and other actions? First, we give them more than 24 hours notice (whenever possible) and we schedule them at times that artists and people who love the arts can actually attend. 4pm on a Wednesday is not a time that anyone with a day job can be a part of a rally. 7pm on a Saturday does not allow for working artists to be present. We should be looking at Monday evenings or some other time when people are actually available. And we need to be engaging our boards & their friends, using company mailing lists to invite audience members & donors, and turning to some of the folks who are now-famous but got their start (or a chance) in the Vancouver Theatre community to speak out. But right now any action that is more involved than the click of a mouse is rare and poorly attended. People will sign a petition because it is easy. Taking to the streets, engaging the public, and even writing to our politicians take more effort and that seems to not be a priority for folks.
We joked on Saturday (before the rally) that if we wanted people to take us seriously we’d have to riot. It was a joke, but there is certainly a ring of truth. When the Canucks lose there are riots in the streets. When we all lose one of the cultural cores of our city we are polite and shine flashlights.
D: Over the weekend I spoke with a few Playhouse patrons who live an analog life (as opposed to a digital one) and their response was universally dismay & sadness. One even said she felt as though she was grieving a death in the family. The Playhouse Theatre Company has been a pillar of arts experiences for so long and for many thousands of memories are tied up in its productions – first dates, time with friends, stories that changed attitudes and altered perceptions, sheer delight that transcended the workaday doldrums of everyday life.
What are you going to do? Are you going to do anything? What do you think has to be done?
A: Protests continue. Sunday, probably our largest protest to date, was called “Drag the Chalk.” The actors from La Cage au Folles came up with it. Groups of folks dressed in drag and costume did the walk from 350 Powell St to City Hall.
I sent an email to Steve E Miller about World Theatre Day, March 27, so I think we’ll be organizing something big for then.
B: As part of the cast of La Cage, the final Playhouse show, we Walked the Chalk in drag as part of a larger organized walk this Sunday. It got some press from the Georgia Straight and we hope that our numbers are significant. And then we coordinate our efforts at the town hall meeting and strategize the next move. (insert Georgia Straight article)
C: I’ve written my letters – to the mayor & council, to my MLA, the minister of culture, the premiere, to my MP, the federal minister of arts & heritage, and to the PM. I have attended whichever of the actions I have been able to. I have taken steps to document what has happened - I want to do more, but I don’t know what else I can do. And so I find myself, like much of Vancouver, waiting for a leader to step forward and call us to action with a clear, attainable goal.
Can anything be done, in particular for the Playhouse and in general?
A: At the risk of sounding like a cynic, I think it’s a long shot that the Playhouse will be saved.
B: The Playhouse (or its staff) have said over the past couple of days that it is still possible for this season to be saved. That with a miracle of private donations they would be able to resurrect The Cat Came Back, God of Carnage, & The Exquisite Hour. But they have also suggested that if that doesn’t happen, then nothing can save us.
D: I wonder if this is truly the demise of the Playhouse. A company with so much history that has nurtured and influenced countless artists and small companies, can’t really die. The essence of The Playhouse is infused in so much other work and, I hope, the expertise of those who lost their jobs at the Playhouse will stay in Vancouver. But what about the future? Will the Arts Club and Bard on the Beach be able to expand their “incubator” capacity to fill the void? Or will The Electric Company and Boca del Lupo and others rise to take on that role? Yet there’s part of me that wonders/hopes/wishes that the Playhouse will be resurrected in a new form.