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.