Dead Theatre Walking

March 12th, 2012 § 4 comments

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?



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  • Julie H.

    I did a blog post about this for StageSource a while back. The stories about this company break my heart–people (theater makers and audiences both) need to be able to grieve before the plug is pulled. Great post.

  • Michael Puttonen

    Your intuition about this “suicide” is to be trusted.  Looking at their financial statements from 2009 & 2010 (the only ones I could find online), this company was far from unhealthy, as theatres go.  Perhaps this season has produced a serious decline in b.o., but the Chair claims not.  What’s up? It really isn’t clear.
    I just keep thinking that a factor in the deep background may be that the company’s major fundraising event, its hugely successful Wine Fest, wants to go its own way, and keep its $400k surplus for its own purposes, and the Playhouse Board would rather quit than fight. 
    The majority of the Playhouse Board were appointed en masse in 2009, and this seems, at best, like a bunch of prominent business people who knew their own businesses, but not the theatre business.  I don’t know that there is a real case for closing this theatre. The Vancouver Symphony receives 8% of its revenue from the provincial government.  The Playhouse receives 4%.  If the Playhouse provincial grant had parity with the Symphony as a percentage of revenue, their insurmountable debt would be retired in three years.  The company pays $300k a year in royalties.  3 seasons of public domain scripts retires the insurmountable debt.  Ideas like this, dumb ones and good ones, should have been thrown around the “Playhouse community” before this suicide.  No ideas were discussed with anyone.  Just a surprise announcement late on a Friday afternoon. .

  • The Canadian theatre community is grieving the loss of the Vancouver Playhouse but we can’t say we didn’t know that it had been struggling for many years. The current management team put together a comprehensive analysis of the Playhouse’s situation which they presented to decision-makers at all levels. 

    A complex set of challenges led to the decision to close the company despite the best efforts of senior management. The mix of municipal, provincial and federal funding varies widely across the country and the Playhouse had not historically had a comparable level of funding with other institutions of its size. Their municipally owned venue came with another set of challenges including the inability to extend hit productions to take advantage of strong sales. Similar systemic challenges existed on the expense side too. The deck was not stacked in the Playhouse’s favour.While we are in grieving mode, we also need to acknowledge the extensive artistic contribution that the Playhouse has made to the Canadian theatre community and the hole that its end will make in our ecosystem. We also need to celebrate the series of very fine management teams that kept the Playhouse afloat for so many years.

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