Vancouver Playhouse closing causes worry at Langara’s Studio 58

The Vancouver Playhouse at night. The building remains but the performances are gone, for now. Photo: Devon Rowcliffe.

Langara’s own Studio 58 is one small theatre company that will be affected by the closure of the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company.

On March 9th, the Playhouse Company announced it was closing due to an insurmountable debt of $1 million.

“This is a city that calls itself world-class and in fact, that’s not true,” said Studio 58’s artistic director Kathryn Shaw. “You don’t have a world-class city that doesn’t have a flagship theatre.”

Critics, including former NPA city councilor Bill McCreery and former NPA council candidate Sean Bickerton, have said the Playhouse Company failed because their productions have not been in sync with their audience.

“I just don’t like to jump in and talk about that side, because it confuses the issue of the dearth of support for arts in Vancouver,” said Lindsay Brown, founder of Stop BC Arts Cuts. “But it is correct that the Playhouse has not been responsive to its audiences.”

“The thing is, that is not the only issue here,” Brown said.

Company faced many funding challenges

The Playhouse Company has had to deal with what artistic managing director Max Reimer called an “awkward business model” since its establishment in 1962.

Reimer outlined the Playhouse Company’s issues in a written statement in September 2011, explaining that having the city own the theatre and the company being merely a tenant created difficulties.

This arrangement limited the Playhouse Company’s chances to accrue revenue because they did not have control over the space. If a play was successful, the company could not extend its run because other events would already be booked.

The company would also bear the cost of taking down sets during the middle of a play’s run if other organizations were using the space in the daytime.

While funding of the Playhouse Company fell on the city of Vancouver as opposed to the province, Brown said the provincial government’s lack of investment in the arts also contributed.

Critics say artists get a free ride

Critics of arts funding accuse the government of giving artists a free ride to express their creativity without contributing to the economy. However, every $1 invested in the arts brings a $1.36 return, said Brown.

“[The] arts don’t operate like regular businesses. They need corporate and public support,” said Brown. “If you want art to look like business, you have Lady Gaga.”

While the closure means an immediate loss of around 200 jobs, the long-term effects will reach much further than that.

Playhouse a resource for all

The Playhouse Company’s collection of props, costumes, and set pieces were an invaluable resource for many small theatre companies.

“I think the quality of the work we’ve been able to do at Studio 58 has been largely attributed to the generosity of the Playhouse Theatre Company,” said Shaw.

With that resource now cut off, Studio 58’s budget may have to rise in order to accommodate renting costumes and props from more expensive sources, like antique stores.

Doubts about future for local actors

Another concern for Studio 58 students is the uncertainty of their post-graduation futures.

“It’s definitely compromised the future of these students because we always had students who graduated and went on to work at the Playhouse, and that door has closed now,” said Shaw.

While the students can find work at other theatre companies, the Playhouse was an established company that paid a decent salary. Small, struggling companies cannot afford to pay a comparable salary.

Despite the despairing news, members of the arts community deny Vancouver’s theatre community is dying.

“It means we have to try harder, we have to try different things,” said Kevin Bennett, a Vancouver live-theatre director and Studio 58 alumnus. “The good thing about this is, it is teaching artists to have a really good look at what they’re doing and what this city needs.”

Reported by Carly Rhianna Smith

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