That Donna Spencer created one of Canada’s first culturally diverse theatre production programs in Vancouver may not seem radical these days, but it was a big deal in 1985.
“In the early days, people were going, ‘Why are you doing that? Why would you do that?’” said Spencer, artistic producer of the Firehall Arts Centre. “When we started the training program for artists from culturally diverse backgrounds and heritages, on one occasion we had a bomb threat.”
A jury of her peers—the Electric Company’s Kim Collier, the PuSH Festival’s Norman Armour and Bard on the Beach’s Christopher Gaze—recently chose Spencer as the theatre honouree at the 2012 Mayor’s Arts Awards.
They recognized Spencer’s efforts to make the performing arts more inclusive, establish the Firehall Arts Centre and her directorial and production work in theatre and dance.
In addition to raising her twin sons, Spencer Chandra Herbert, the MLA for Vancouver-West End and the official Opposition critic for arts and culture, and Douglas Herbert, a broadcast journalist in Kamloops, Spencer says her greatest achievements have been helping change the way directors cast productions and reflect Vancouver on stage.
The program that the Firehall ran for five years, until its funding was cut, put trained actors from different ethnic backgrounds on stage, immersed in various aspects of the arts and better connected to those who could help them further their careers.
“There were 24 people, in all, that participated in the program and I think around 20 of them are still working in either the arts or the film industry,” Spencer said, mentioning Columpa Bobb of Manitoba Theatre for Young People and Jay Ono, executive director of Vancouver TheatreSports, as participants.
She and Firehall staff paved the way for non-traditional casting and for stories written by people from a range of backgrounds to be presented.
“Vancouver has changed and there are many companies now that are [trying to get different voices out there],” Spencer said. “Every artistic director thinks about inclusivity and that certainly wasn’t the case then.”
The Firehall’s 30th season includes a new play, God and the Indian, by aboriginal playwright Drew Hayden Taylor, his fifth work to be produced at the arts centre, Spencer noted.
Of course, establishing an arts venue in the Downtown Eastside on East Cordova Street at Gore Avenue 30 years ago was also no small feat.
“There certainly was no Performance Works, there was no Pacific Theatre, there were very few performing spaces at that time... it was the first live performing space in the Downtown Eastside, Chinatown, Gastown area since the Pantages Theatres had been built and then closed or turned into movie houses,” Spencer said. “And it was a repurposing of a building that had long served out its life as a firehall, so that was also something that had not really been done in Vancouver other than the Cultch.”
Spencer won a Jessie Richardson Outstanding Direction Award for Urinetown, the Musical and for Reading Hebron. Among other honours, she’s a member of the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame, a recent recipient of a B.C. Community Achievement Award, recipient of a YWCA Women of Distinction Award and is producer of the annual Dancing on the Edge Festival of Contemporary Dance.
Spencer chose director and co-artistic director of Chop Theatre Anita Rochon as the emerging theatre artist to be honoured at the Mayor’s Arts Awards.
“I believe in the value of a really good story in theatre. I’m very much interested in content as opposed to concept,” Spencer said. “As a director and as a storyteller, [Rochon] starts from the story perspective and then determines how concept might be used.”
Rochon is a recipient of the Siminovitch Protégé prize and was recently awarded the Ray Michal Prize for Outstanding Direction. The 33-year-old graduate of Studio 58 and the National Theatre School of Canada is directing the Electric Company’s upcoming Initiation Trilogy, which takes audiences on an immersive journey around Granville Island, starting Oct. 15.