Should she stay or should she go?
That’s what a theatre student who moved to Vancouver to attend Langara College’s Studio 58 asked theatre director Richard Wolfe on Sunday. “I didn’t know what to tell her,” Wolfe said.
As artistic director of Pi Theatre, Wolfe said the death of the 49-year-old Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company is “not good for the arts ecology of the city.”
He noted box office size dictates salaries, so actors and designers would have to work on three times as many shows for an established alternative theatre company such as Pi to earn what they would from one Playhouse production.
Wolfe believes the loss of such a prominent theatre company could influence tourists, even those who wouldn’t necessarily attend a theatre show, to travel elsewhere. “The more excitement you pull out of the jigsaw puzzle, the more pieces of the puzzle you remove, the less rich and full the picture is,” he said.
The Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company announced March 9 that it was winding down operations after the final performance of Catalyst Theatre’s Hunchback March 10. The company that animated the city’s Playhouse Theatre facility at Hamilton and Dunsmuir couldn’t continue with a million-dollar deficit.
Jeff Schulz, chair of the board of governors for the company, said the recession in 2008 and 2009 saw significantly reduced ticket sales and sponsorship. At the same time, the company had to move its production facility elsewhere, which incurred extra costs each year.
The board streamlined the theatre organization to save money, hired artistic managing director Max Reimer and changed its residency agreement with the city so it could use the downstairs recital hall without having to pay incremental fees in the last two years.
The board also collected significant private donations. The city forgave the company $426,000 in rental costs last year and gave it $500,000 to carry on.
Schulz, chief customer and marketing officer with ICBC, joined the board in 2007 because he wanted to help an important Vancouver cultural institution. He never thought he’d have to make such a wrenching decision.
“I’m really sad,” he said. “I have seen how hard everybody has worked and how committed people are and what a community this is... Personally, I’m devastated. I wish I could have done something different.”
Actor Jeff Gladstone, who’s performed with the Playhouse, calls the demise of the company “heartbreaking.”
“I only hope that it’s the beginning of a new era of theatre in Vancouver where there’ll just be a redistribution of funding and talent and I hope it leads to a brighter future,” he said.
Wolfe believes the death of the large theatre company would hurt smaller theatre groups. He says the larger marketing budgets of the Playhouse and Arts Club theatre companies allowed them to “penetrate the consciousness of the average person to consider theatre as a legitimate entertainment alternative… so with that, it’s not good for smaller companies either.”
The defeated company hopes to bring the last production of the season, God of Carnage, to town as a touring show. Supporters held a vigil outside the theatre and started a petition to save the Playhouse theatre company.
Schulz said Friday the company would need a million dollars to survive and half a million to survive its 50th year. “We were going to announce a theatre school and a bunch of other things in our 50th year. We had a really exciting plan.”
He said the 15 full- and part-time staff would be paid first, creditors second.