If a 49-year-old person suddenly announced one day that they were terminally ill and committed suicide the following day, you’d be stunned. And that seems to be the prevailing sentiment in press coverage about the sudden closure this past weekend of the Vancouver Playhouse in British Columbia, Canada, just one year shy of its own half-century mark. That said, the press coverage that’s emerging notes that the financial problems of the theatre were not unknown, so this is more akin to someone who knew they were sicker than most may have been willing to believe, and that their self-directed passing was driven by a desire to neither take on, or impose, any further burden. In a sad irony, it had one production left this season: God of Carnage.
From the vantage point of New York, why should I care about what has happened in Vancouver? Because it is neither the first regional theatre to close in recent years and it will not be the last. I cannot pass judgment on the decision of the company’s board to close, I cannot effectively analyze the factors that led to the company’s significant financial distress. I can only marvel at what was by all accounts a sudden endgame, even if there had been portents for some time. The closing of the Vancouver Playhouse evokes other examples here in the U.S. – The Intiman in Seattle and Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis are two that spring to mind – but the fact is that there are theatres closing constantly these days, and while the world economic downturn is surely a major factor, it cannot be the sole reason.
As Michael Crichton wrote in his thriller Airframe, no single mishap brings about a plane crash; it is instead a series of events stemming (often) from a single fault, snowballing into an “event cascade.” If you prefer a human metaphor, I’ll give you a simpler one courtesy of Dr. Sherwin Nuland in How We Die: we die when we stop taking in oxygen, everything else leads up to that point, and in business, commercial or not-for-profit, money is oxygen. When it runs out, time is up.
As companies large and small close, there is often an enormous amount of hindsight: about the cultural loss, about the decisions that led to the closing, about whether different steps could have or should have been taken, even whether the company can be revived. Certainly organizations that announce a death watch – “We need $1 million by June 30 or we’ll have to close” – put a very specific goal and timetable on their distress, in hope of driving a campaign or surfacing a heretofore unknown benefactor. Other companies slash staff and productions, but in many cases that diminishment only serves to lessen the work that might draw audience or donors. We hear of victories and life goes on – witness Pasadena Playhouse – while others fail to succeed and pass into memory, preserved in the minds of their audiences and artists for a generation or two. Perhaps their existence is recorded in annals like Theatre World or local newspaper archives, but the reveries are quickly overtaken by more current events, by companies that emerge as viable entertainment alternatives, by the pharmacy that sets up shop in the building that was once home to great art.
I have lost friends and family to illness with shockingly little notice and I regret that I did not have the time for closure with them. Whatever has taken place in Vancouver this past weekend, it afforded audiences in general and the arts community in particular no time to prepare for the hole that was to be left so suddenly, which is why crowds gathered outside the theatre on its closing night on Saturday and why others gather as I write to read plays at the site of the now shuttered company. Would more alarm have helped save the company, or would it simply have given time for everyone to prepare both professionally and emotionally for the inevitable? I can’t say.
But maybe, just maybe, we need to know if our institutions are in death throes, maybe a stoic, silent walk to the gallows or hope against hope for divine intervention benefits no one. I once literally had to appeal to the state’s governor to save a venue I ran, and I wasn’t shy about saying that the company would close if promised funding wasn’t forthcoming; the proverbial death chamber stay of execution did come and that company survives more than a decade later. Yes, it’s embarrassing to admit failings, but isn’t the best time to own up to them before it’s too late for any possible salvation? Maybe the arts – their staffs, their creative artists and their boards of directors, as well as the media that cover them – have to start keening as loudly as possible before there’s a death, not after, however unseemly it might be. It doesn’t always work, to be sure, but will it hurt?