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risky theatre at risk

andrew templeton: vancouver theatre

Andrew Templeton’s plays have been produced in Vancouver and London (see www.machinefair.ca) and he writes about theatre for the online journal Plank Magazine (www.plankmagazine.com) which he co-founded in 2008.

Leaky Heaven Leaky Heaven
photo Tim Matheson
THIS ARTICLE SHOULD HAVE BEEN A CELEBRATION BUT I FEAR IT WILL BE MORE OF A EULOGY. SHORTLY AFTER WINNING RE-ELECTION IN MAY 2009, THE GOVERNMENT OF BRITISH COLUMBIA SLASHED FUNDS TO THE BC ARTS COUNCIL (BCAC) BY 40%. THEY FOLLOWED THIS UP IN AUGUST BY WITHDRAWING ALL FUNDING TO ARTS AND CULTURAL ORGANISATION DISTRIBUTED THROUGH THE DIRECT ACCESS PROGRAM, WHICH USES REVENUES GENERATED FROM GAMBLING TO SUPPORT GOOD CAUSES. POPULARLY KNOWN AS “GAMING”, ITS CONTRIBUTION TO THE ARTS SECTOR FAR OUTSTRIPPED THE TOTAL BUDGET OF BCAC AND WAS, INDEED, THE LARGEST ARTS FUNDER IN THE PROVINCE.

Saved from the axe were a small percentage of companies with three-year funding commitments, although the Government originally wanted to pull the plug on them as well. The news gets worse: if the government follows through with plans outlined in their recent draft budget, provincial funding for the arts is projected to be down to $2.2 million by 2010/11. $2.2 million for culture in one of the richest provinces in the country, with a population of approximately 4.5 million.

The history of Vancouver theatre is ultimately defined by funding. While this might sound like a self-evident truth, I do believe that the traditionally meagre subsidy and the way it was delivered supported a unique flowering of creativity and risk-taking in Vancouver theatre. This flowering was, I suggest, wholly unexpected given the circumstances—and a credit to the individuals responsible—but like an exotic bloom it was vulnerable to changes in conditions and we may have just seen it pulled up by the roots.

I should be clear. The arts have always been starving in Vancouver. While the city prides itself as being home to the largest percentage of “cultural workers” in the country (it also has the largest homelessness problem, but it’s not clear if those two things are somehow linked), cultural assets have always taken a back seat to parks and community centres. It is a city that prides itself on inclusion rather than excellence and as a consequence has never made the same critical investment in cultural infrastructure that cities such as Montreal and Toronto have. Toronto, for example, made a decision to invest in its theatre infrastructure in the 1970s, a decision still paying dividends not just in the level of activity but also the place that theatre occupies on the cultural landscape. Toronto is a theatre city because a decision was made that it should become one. Indeed, it could be argued that Vancouver lags behind other major Canadian cities, including Calgary. When that city hosted the Olympics in 1988, a new performing arts centre was built. When Vancouver—a city with twice the population—hosts the Olympics (which take place in 2010) not a single cultural asset will have been created.

In Toronto, there is a network of mid-sized theatres able to support and train new and emerging artists through mentorship programs and the sharing of resources and space. There is no equivalent in Vancouver. What is termed ‘independent’ theatre—that is everything below the two major ‘regional’ companies, the Vancouver Playhouse and the Arts Club—are without venues. I would like to stress this: some of the most accomplished, professional theatre companies not just in Vancouver but in Canada do not have dedicated theatre spaces. This includes companies such as Touchstone, The Electric Company, Neworld, Green Thumb, Pi, Boca de Lupo and Ruby Slippers. Not one of them owns or operates a venue. Instead they are forced to compete with one another to rent from a tiny stock of venues, none of which is dedicated to theatre.

I think it’s fair to say that in the public imagination, theatre is associated with specific buildings; buildings that act as reservoirs of memory and provide what I call a sacred space for performance. It doesn’t matter how shabby the conditions, it is a space given over to performance as opposed to any other form of activity. In Vancouver those spaces can and are also used for Pilates and kick-boxing. Indeed, by way of a personal example, in trying to book a space for a theatre event next summer one of the prime locations in the city wasn’t available for the weekends because it was booked for weddings. Monday and Tuesday evenings were free. As Ivan Habel, General Manager of Green Thumb, told me in an interview last year, “We’re so poor in Vancouver that we don’t even realise the level of our poverty.”

So what happens in a city where theatre is almost invisible? Well the most obvious answer is you turn to found locations. Site-specific theatre has become one of the forms for which the city is now most widely recognised. I think it’s fair to say that in reality very few theatre companies explore location as a rigorous part of their process; Radix is the one exception that springs to mind—their work genuinely comes out of the locations they work in—but for most of the others, location is a sort of backdrop to production. Perhaps the best example would be Boca del Lupo who ran an annual summer show in Stanley Park which involved performers abseiling from trees (until a wind storm a couple of years ago laid waste to the trees). Another example is Other Freds, a production created by Only Animal, which took place on Granville Island and used False Creek as a backdrop. Other Freds, like the Boca shows, was not specifically about that particular place and time, rather it was held outdoors and could best be termed adventure theatre. These shows were very popular and the usual justification provided is that this sort of large-scale, outdoor theatre is somehow in tune with the city’s adventurous spirit. While there may be an element of truth to this, in a city where it rains for eight months of the year it seems unlikely that we crave the outdoors as much as we like to pretend.

And this brings me back to funding and the flowering of theatre in unpromising soil. Over the last decade Vancouver has seen an explosion of theatre activity and a proliferation of small and micro theatre companies. Given the lack of infrastructure and the meagre funding available, this may appear baffling. It is my contention that it was actually these very restrictions that caused the proliferation and through this proliferation an explosion of creativity (if not always quality).

On a practical level, with no formalized system of support, emerging theatre artists were left with little choice but to “do it for themselves” and start a company in order to get their work produced. This push to form a company was further compounded by the fact that to qualify for Gaming funding, groups had to formally constitute themselves as non-profit organisations with all the requirements that entails. In other words, what in other cities might have been an informal collective of artists in Vancouver became legal entities. It is also worth noting that there were no artistic standard requirements attached to securing funds through Gaming. To receive the funding you just had to prove certain levels of activity and community engagement. As long as you were doing what you said you would do it didn’t matter if it was any good. This situation was then further compounded when BCAC adopted a policy—perhaps in the face of so many companies requesting funds—of handing out smaller grants to more companies. This ‘scattergun’ approach meant that over the last 10 years Vancouver has been home to dozens of tiny theatre companies all surviving on micro budgets (and hundreds of hours of unpaid labour). Under these conditions, it was quite possible for a micro theatre company to be able, within a couple of years, to legitimately compete with established companies that had 30 years experience.

The downside of this situation: companies were thrown into competition with one another over scarce resources and there was fragmentation within the community. The upside: with no formal mentorship to guide practice and no major funders asking for accountability, Vancouver enjoyed over 10 years of theatre experimentation and risk-taking. When no one really cares, you can pretty much do what you want.

Although many theatre artists in Vancouver would reject this assertion, I do believe that a sort of Vancouver school came out of this period; a school with an aesthetic style very different from the cool sophistication of Toronto. The work had a much more anarchic ‘in the moment’ feel of experimentation that put one in mind more of the visual arts. Often, the work would focus on the experience itself—either in a circus tent (Leaky Heaven), walking through Stanley Park (Boca del Lupo’s summer shows), sitting in your car or wandering through IKEA (in two of Radix’s more famous pieces), being in a warehouse (The Electric Company), a nightclub (Screaming Weenie) or a rave (Upintheair Theatre). Linked to this, the work was often conceptual in nature, for example Theatre Replacement’s Clark and I Somewhere in Conneticut, which was constructed around the idea of performer/co-creator James Long finding a suitcase of photographs (see review). Indeed, it often felt as if Vancouver shows could be reduced to a Hollywood style pitch: drive-in theatre, the show set in the trees, a show based on a suitcase of photos.

And like Hollywood, narrative and storytelling were frequently lost in the service of the visual or the experience. Many of our leading companies have a strong visual style—perhaps most obviously Electric Company, Leaky Heaven and Boca del Lupo. These visuals almost always derive from a mixture of high and low technology. Good examples are Boca’s My Dad, My Dog (see review) which had puppets mixed with projections and anything by the Electric Company (see review). This influence can be seen in the work of companies which are notionally text-based such as Rumble, Touchstone and Ruby Slipper who produce work with a high sense of visual style.

The generation of theatre artists I’m talking about are now in their thirties and forties and have arrived as mid-career artists with impressive track-records as creators and producers of work. An attempt to bring the community together was spearheaded by Kim Collier of the Electric Company with an initiative called Progress Lab. Made up of 11 of the largest independent—and for the most part creation-based—companies in the city, the original purpose of Progress Lab was to share resources and knowledge, in effect to make up for the lack of infrastructure. As Collier explained to me, there was a generation of theatre artists working in the city of whom she knew very little, despite being of similar ages and having similar career paths.

The success of Progress Lab has been demonstrated by the recent opening of a dedicated rehearsal and administrative centre shared by four of the companies. In terms of public perception, the real breakthrough came with an event called HIVE. A three day affair, the concept of HIVE was of a central hub—a bar—with 11 a la carte short performances going on simultaneously in different rooms. Taking place in a converted funeral parlour in the Downtown Eastside, HIVE was a tremendous success—a sort of coming out party for the city’s independent theatre sector. It was such a success that when our national English Language Theatre Festival—Magnetic North—was hosted here in 2009, the programming included HIVE2. Although the number of companies remained consistent, HIVE2 was bigger in every way, the venue was now an old factory warehouse and the companies were given more money to create more elaborate work.

The change of location dramatically altered the experience. Where the focus of the first HIVE was as much on the collective experience of being at the event (ie it was enough to just hang out), HIVE2 was much more about creating a frame in which to present 11 separate productions. The increased space allowed the companies to exercise far greater control over the environment and many of them, including the Electric Company and Leaky Heaven, actually built their own mini-performance spaces. Another interesting aspect was the way that companies were borrowing from one another. The Only Animal’s piece in HIVE2 had a clear echo of the show Radix made in the first HIVE and both were deeply affecting and honest works.

Now, as part of the Cultural Olympiad—attached to the 2010 Olympics—we have HIVE 3. In theory, the work of Vancouver’s independent theatre sector is about to be presented to an international audience. But just as the companies prepare themselves, they learn that the precarious funding system that created the circumstances for HIVE to exist—the culture of risk-taking and adventure, the lack of oversight—has been ruthlessly cut away.

For their part, the federal government provides substantial cultural funding to the theatre scene here through the Canada Council for the Arts and to a lesser degree Heritage Canada. The holy grail of federal funding for theatre companies is a Canada Council operating grant which covers three years of activity. Many of the larger independents will be on operating grants but by no means all of them. Companies not on these are forced to compete for project funding annually with no guarantee of subsidy from one year to the next.

If all the proposed cuts to arts funding in BC are carried out over the next two years, those on Canada Council operating grants should be able to continue but in reduced circumstances, although it is unclear what will happen without the BC contribution given the requirement of securing mixed sources of funding. Those applying for project funding will be in a more precarious position.


This is the second of a series of articles on the performing arts in Vancouver. The first, by Alex Ferguson looked at the relationship between theatre and community in the city, and the third will survey the dynamic dance scene. Coverage of the 2008 and 2009 PuSh International Festivals of Performing Arts can be found in RT83 and 90.

Andrew Templeton’s plays have been produced in Vancouver and London (see www.machinefair.ca) and he writes about theatre for the online journal Plank Magazine (www.plankmagazine.com) which he co-founded in 2008.

RealTime issue #93 Oct-Nov 2009 pg. 16

© Andrew Templeton; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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