In 50 years, the Arts Club Theatre Company has grown from a small stage in a then seedy part of town to the largest non-profit of its kind in Western Canada that entertains more than a quarter of a million people each year.
“That really reflects on how in 50 years, absolutely, the theatre scene has changed so dramatically as the city has changed,” said Bill Millerd, artistic managing director.
The Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company, which folded last year, started the year before the Arts Club opened its first stage in 1964. Other than theatre that ran with professional actors at the University of B.C., that was it for the professional scene, Millerd said last Thursday.
“The Fringe launches today, that’s something that didn’t exist back then,” he said, noting that the movie and television industry have helped support theatre artists in Vancouver.
The Arts Club started its first stage at a converted second-floor gospel hall on Seymour Street at Davie, where the Vancouver International Film Centre runs today. Millerd joined the company as a part-time stage manager in 1969 and became artistic managing director in 1972.
That was the year the Arts Club co-produced Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris with David Y.H. Lui and put itself on the map with a seven-month run.
The Arts Club now entertains with three venues and touring productions, and Millerd says securing two long-term leases on Granville Island and a property on South Granville were key to the Arts Club’s longevity.
The company opened a stage on Granville Island in 1979, when Granville Island was completely changing. “We caught that wave,” Millerd said.
It took over the Stanley theatre on Granville Street in 1998. “There’s no question that the Stanley theatre dramatically changed the company, as well,” he said.
The Arts Club started a more organized approach to fundraising to open the Stanley, hired a general manager in 1997 and started offering reserved seating.
“People in the ’70s were… looser. They didn’t mind turning up without reserved seating and coming early, having a drink, putting their coat on a chair,” Millerd said.
“When I started out, we were a bunch of young people that really just wanted to put on plays,” he added. “And now it’s so much more structured, the company, it’s a business in a way as well as arts organization.”
The Arts Club will mount 14 productions during its 50th season, which kicks off with the Canadian premiere of Pulitzer Prize finalist Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, Sept. 19.
Millerd is particularly excited about the March premiere of Helen Lawrence, a mixed-media spectacle set in Vancouver in 1948 that was conceived by Stan Douglas.
“Stan is a very, very important and exciting visual artist, but also he’s just bringing a whole new technique to stage craft, ” Millerd said.
Challenges for the future include improving the company’s production facilities, continuing to build an audience for new work and keeping tickets affordable. The 70-year-old said he wasn’t sure when he’ll retire but he hopes the company will continue to commission new works and produce contemporary comedies, award-winning classics and popular musicals after he’s moved on.
“I don’t think the company will dramatically change in the way that it has changed in the last couple of decades,” Millerd said.
He says the company is in good shape, thanks to the wide appeal of the Broadway musical Avenue Q, which closes Sept. 14.
“If you’d asked me that question last year, I would have said we’ve had a rough summer, things are tough,” he said. “So it’s so seasonal, so much of it depends on the kinds of shows and whether people want to see them or not and whether you’re receiving the donations you need as a non-profit society. It’s never stable, let’s put it that way.”
He said others deserve recognition for the Arts Club’s vitality.
“I’m a visible person as the artistic director and Howard Jang as the executive director, but really it’s everybody else, it’s the people you see on stage, it’s the people that work behind the scenes, the production staff, that really makes the company a whole and is maybe why we are still here, because of their dedication.”
One stage manager started with Millerd, some of the carpenters have been there 20 years and others have worked at the Arts Club for 10 and 15 years.
Anniversary essays written by Vancouver theatergoers and critics will grace the Arts Club’s website starting next month. For more information, see artsclub.com.
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