Final Project Statement of Intent: The paradoxical world of theatre in Vancouver

In our first “Arts, Criticism and the City” class, playwright/professor Peter Dickinson got my Spidey-senses tingling when he warned that the arts scene “will disappear in this city if we don’t solve the affordability problem” (ex-reporters never stop thinking in terms of front-page headlines). But a week later, actor/ historian/professor Jerry Wasserman said the arts scene is thriving and “Vancouver theatre today is in the best shape it has ever been in.”  Two professors, two views of a theatre world both know intimately.

In my final essay for this course, “Theatre in Vancouver Today: A Paradox,” I explore this apparent chasm, beginning with a few historical glimpses. James Hoffman and Robert Todd’s articles on the history of Vancouver theatre show how it has always been shaped by external forces – booms, busts and changing tastes in entertainment — but ultimately always seems to spring back.

Much of my essay deals with the Pacific Theatre, which fits into the affordability-crisis theme because it is losing its space in the basement of a church at 12th and Hemlock that is being redeveloped for — what else?—condos. The theatre has an interesting history because it was founded in 1984 by artistic director Ron Reed, who wanted to explore themes of interest to him as a Christian (but he’s adamant he does not do “Christian plays.”) The theatre got no government grants or theatre reviews for its first 10 years – the suspicion, never proven, was that its Christian roots were to blame – but that changed when it got its own theatre in 1994. With grants, reviews and even Jessie awards, it soon became a regular part of the theatre community. Its move next year means a riskier, pricier future, but I argue that it will likely survive due to a number of factors, including the tools it developed during its first difficult decade.

As for the broader question of the life or death of the theatre community, I found a more nuanced situation than Wasserman and Dickinson’s earlier comments seemed to imply. In interviews with them and Pacific Theatre marketing director Andrea Loewen, I learned that all three agree Vancouver’s costliness is making life difficult for those in the notoriously poorly paid theatre world. But Wasserman said it’s always been tough to survive in theatre, and people do so through a combination of talent, resourcefulness, hard work and good luck. Dickinson and Loewen were less upbeat about how that’s working out for many people these days, but all agreed the thriving TV and movie industry is helping at least some workers stay in the city. My essay deals with a number of Dickinson and Loewen’s concerns about the impact of the affordability crisis, including the possible exodus of an entire cohort of mid-career theatre workers. There’s Emelia Symington Fedy, for example, who wrote a passionate article in the May 17 Georgia Straight about her plans to leave Vancouver. She was willing to put up with anything to pursue her dreams when she started out, she wrote, but now that she has kids, those sacrifices are just too much. Dickinson and Loewen agreed that losing people like her – well-trained contributors to the arts community and mentors for newcomers – could have a serious impact on Vancouver’s theatres in the future.

My conclusion is that nobody can predict how today’s economic climate will play out in the theatre world. But I note that the gap between the average rent for a one-bedroom Vancouver apartment ($1,950) and the monthly pay ($2,400) for an actor in a Pacific Theatre play seems like a metaphor for the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor in Vancouver. As has so often happened in Vancouver’s theatre history, the outer world is once again making its presence known on the stages of the city.

— Carol Volkart

References:

Brown, S. (2017, June 16). Average Vancouver rental price for 1-bedroom  apartment is $1,950, according to PadMapper. The Vancouver Sun. Retrieved from http://vancouversun.com

Dickinson, P. (2016, Summer). Vancouverism and its cultural amenities: The view from here. Canadian Cultural Review, 167, 40-47.

Hoffman, J. (2003, Spring). Shedding the colonial past: Rethinking British Columbia theatre. BC Studies, 137, 5-45.

Hoffman, J. (1987-88, Winter). Sydney Risk and the Everyman Theatre. BC Studies 76: 33-57.

Reed, R. (2015, Oct. 6).  Ron Reed: I’m a Christian, but I don’t do Christian theater/Interviewer: J. Byassee. Faith & Leadership online publication for Duke University. Retrieved from https://www.faithandleadership.com

Symington Fedy, E. (2017, May 18-25). A goodbye to Vancouver. The Georgia Straight. p. 21

Todd, D., (2013, May 8). B.C. breaks records when it comes to religion and the lack thereof. The Vancouver Sun. Retrieved from http://vancouversun.com

Todd, R.  (1979, December). The Organization of Professional Theatre in Vancouver, 1886-1914. BC Studies, 44, 3-20.

Wasserman, J. (2017, Feb. 20). Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre ‘heart’ Bill Millerd to step down as artistic managing director. The Vancouver Sun. Retrieved from http://vancouversun.com

Wyman, M. (2004). The defiant imagination: Why culture matters. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd.

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