Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Entire Performing Arts Industry to Blame for the Demise of the Vancouver Playhouse

Written by Matthew Jocelyn
Appeared in the Toronto Star, March 17th, 2012
View the article here
The Vancouver Playhouse announced on March 9 that, crippled by chronic deficit-related issues, it was closing its doors the very next day, a few months shy of its 50th anniversary. This was and is a day of mourning for Canadian theatre.
More significantly, it is a sign of the collective failure of all of us directly or indirectly involved in the performing arts industry in Canada, a failure to defend the indisputable need for strong, publicly funded theatrical institutions in our country.
Created in 1962, the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company was a forerunner of the boom of large regional theatre companies established countrywide throughout the 1960s, supported largely, at their inception, by the Canada Council for the Arts. Yet despite this generous support to create a network of centres for the performing arts, the intrinsic, lasting value of being an institution was never truly conferred upon them.
As with many such organizations, the Vancouver Playhouse remained a “company,” a rootless entity forced to rent its city-owned performance space and justify its existence through commercial success. The term “company,” though used widely in the theatre business, unwittingly and perversely infers a likeness to the private sector. Companies come and go, are bought and sold and in the end must turn a profit or die. Institutions, on the other hand, are part of the fabric of society, they give meaning while at the same time being engines for change, and for that reason are essential to preserve.
Which public school, which hospital, museum or university, which prison or military base, research centre or art gallery goes by the term “company” or is treated as one? Why then our country’s not-for-profit performing arts institutions, a fundamental part of our national identity, the home for the creation and transmission of our stories?
The bankruptcy of the Vancouver Playhouse is not a local problem — it is the failure of an entire system. It is a failure of the department of Canadian Heritage which, by allowing this disappearance, is depriving not only Vancouver but also the rest of Canada of a fundamental part of our national heritage. It is a failure of the Canada Council for the Arts, whose funding mechanisms are not attuned to the specific role of the country’s major performing arts institutions, forcing us to operate on an edulcorated commercial model as opposed to enabling us to fulfill the mandate of true creative licence and engaged public service that should be ours.
It is a failure of the province of British Columbia and the city of Vancouver. And it is a failure of the Playhouse’s board of directors, unwilling or unable to fulfill their charge as its guardians, or to actively rally support for its preservation.
It is also a failure of the performing arts institutional network of which I am a part, the large-scale not-for-profit theatres, each caught up in our own survival to such a degree that we have been unable to create a collective national voice. It is a failure of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT), an organization representing all professional theatre in the country, yet incapable of defending a major institution at a critical moment for fear of internal criticism from a membership dominated by smaller independent companies, most of whom also struggle to survive.
It is a failure of the two principal unions in the performing arts sector: Actors’ Equity and IATSE. Both were created as defensive mechanisms against American touring productions long before not-for-profit theatre came into existence in Canada, and both continue to confuse purely commercial theatre with theatre that has a mandate for public service, exacting often crippling conditions for our productions.
It is a failure of the media because, in general, the media are uninterested in the arts, and of theatre critics in particular, too many of whom assume that venting their (often alarmingly ill-informed) opinion is more important than “mediating” the work they are writing about, that is, helping audiences understand and appreciate its nature, its successes and failings, thus helping foster the curiosity and appetite without which theatre dies.
Sadly, it is also a failure of the artists — and here again I include myself — unable to produce a body of work that makes theatre a truly necessary, truly integrated part of our modern world, and of the audiences, insufficient in number, insufficiently curious, excessively influenced by the above-mentioned critical inadequacies.
It is, in other words, the failure of an entire system. And in this failure, each of us has lost, no one gained.
As with all true tragedies however, some form of catharsis can ensue. The disappearance of the Vancouver Playhouse can and must serve a purpose, must help us attain a deeper understanding of our profession, of the work we are (or aren’t) doing, the role we play (or don’t) within today’s world. This collective failure must be seized as an opportunity to undertake an uncompromisingly critical evaluation of how not-for-profit theatre has evolved in Canada over the past 50 years, of what we are doing (or aren’t) to ensure an artistically vital, socially integrated, institutionally rooted industry for the 50 years to come.
Simply put, it is time for an audit, a detailed medical examination of our collective corps malade. And in the wake, it is time to pursue whatever measures are required, be they surgical or otherwise. Without such fearless self-analysis, our entire industry is potentially prey to the same fatal disease as that which got the better of the Vancouver Playhouse.
As the curtain closes on the Vancouver Playhouse, I can’t help myself from asking: Who’s next?
A more insidious question follows, one for which we are all responsible: Who really cares?
Matthew Jocelyn is artistic and general director of Canadian Stage.


  1. Michelle Kneale21 March 2012 at 14:14

    I think Matthew is correct on a lot of fronts; he's right, the arts industry needs an audit. I don't think, however, it is that we need to just audit the art that we're doing, we NEED to audit how we engage with audiences. We swim upstream against the current of 3-D movies and easily accessible television and movies from sources like netflix-- Blockbuster couldn't even sustain itself in this market. This isn't new, it has been happening for a while now, and we haven't really changed much to fit into the new way people take in entertainment. We still rely on words like "provocative and challenging" to sell our shows....but people don't go see movies because they're provocative or challenging, they go for other reasons. They go because it feels familiar (there's an actor they like, or it looks like it might win an oscar). They feel engaged because its easy to be engaged.

    I go to the theatre because I like to be told a good story, I like to be asked to use my imagination, and if I'm to be honest, I like a good spectacle (and we've got the technology and the creative minds to make a damn good spectacle these days). I go because it's intimate, it's real, and it's happening right in front of me

    ...So how can we sell that?

    I can't say that I know what we do to engage audiences in new ways, but we're an industry made of intensely creative and agile minds, so let's allow ourselves the time to envision and brainstorm what that might be.

    ...but please, most importantly, let's stop complaining about it and get towards doing something.

  2. I have spent some time in the theatre of late looking more and more at the audience and wondering who I'm sitting with. Some of the plays I've seen recently have had an intellectual bent and because I'm not completely engaged in the play, I'm looking around to see if anyone else is. They seem to be. But I can't help thinking that there's an inner chant resonating in their heads singing, "I am so smart. I understand this. This is for smart people, and I am smart." I then go back to the play and try to like it because I want to be smart, too. I wouldn't have time to do that if what was in front of me was truly great.

  3. It is great to read both the article about the demise of the Vancouver Playhouse; and Michelle Kneale's response. I agree with both the article and the posting.
    Yes, we have much to answer for as a society and how we support or do not support culture. Contrary to popular belief we NEED culture. MIchelle is correct about all the wonderful and amazing things that are happening with movies, and special effects and Netflix. Our world has become inundated with images and sound bytes. Most of it enduring for less than a second.
    The computer and the internet has completely changed the way we see the world. It has shortened our reaction time; our response to everything in our lives; and, provided us with the opportunity to really tune in, turn on, and then disconnect from the world.
    The internet and all the various products and cells connected to it and to us has catapulted us into a world that is often incomprehensible and appears to be a set of actions without consequences. How does this connect to theatre and for that matter to any of the arts? The theatre seems to have survived through the fall of empires; revolutions, genocides, Guttenberg, famine, politcal repression, war, and the industrial revolution. Therefore, I agree, the demise of the Playhouse is a mournful thing and now as Michelle suggests--what are we all going to do about that? Why not start another theatre? What can be salvaged from the Playhouse? Anything? Perhaps it can be reborn as another theatre. I don't know that there is one answer to this. I do know that to blame everyone (while it is a natural part of grieving) is not productive. Let's get on with it and keep moving forward. There is useful information that has survived. It is something that can be adapted to a new situation. Why not?
    If the Playhouse is no more then how about some other kind of house? Surely, the archives of that company are invaluable and contain great information to build something else.
    Why not, indeed? The ability to adapt is our blessing and our curse. Let's use it as a blessing this time to create something new.
    With the development of the computer and the internet and cell phones and the rest of it--books were supposed become extinct (I can't think of the right word) and with TV--movies were supposed to die out as well. Hasn't happened. Rather these things have changed and adapted, as did their predecessors. So, let's chalk that up to a sad experience and see what kind of phoenix could possibly arise from that theatre's demise.