This one goes to eleven: Paul Armstrong

Ladies and gentlemen, a man who needs no introduction to a very large hunk of Vancouver: Mr. Paul Armstrong, Producer-at-large. An omnipresent entity throughout our independent arts scene, Paul glides between the worlds of film, music and theatre with seemingly no friction. His indie-film showcase The Celluloid Social Club has been running monthly since 1997, which provides an opportunity to see brand new film here and to discuss it with the filmmakers.

Paul produces local music video, commercials and theatre as well, and is the resident producer for Lyric Stage Project.

1. In one word, describe your present condition.

Relatively content: mid summer – how could I not be? (Despite the weather.)

2. In your own number of words, describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.

The Vancouver theatre scene is at a cross-roads. It is the most innovative and dynamic that I’ve seen it for the past ten years but I find that we need to go just one more step to create truly great theatre. Perhaps because we are geographically isolated, we are not as in touch with innovative theatre as we think we are. Often we reinvent new theatrical forms that have already been developed in the recent past or a different part of the world. I think we need to be better educated about what is already out there so that our productions can advance the form of theatre on the international stage and not just locally. We also need to better develop our story telling skills; I often find that the innovation in form that we do have doesn’t serve the higher purpose of the play itself.

3. What does your role as a theatre producer entail?

The producer’s role is twofold: to ensure that the artistic work is as great as it can be and to ensure that the artistic work is as great as it can be given the resources we are working with. Basically producing is finding that balance between the ideal presentation and the as-close-as-we-can-get to that ideal presentation in the actual world. More specifically, the producer (at least on indie productions) offers an objective point of view on the script (if an original work), helps hire cast and crew, fundraises, finds sponsors, deals with the venue, oversees marketing and publicity, keeps the production on budget, among many other things.  In a word, a glorified manager.

4. What is the function of theatre within its community?

I have a probably overly-exaggerated belief in the potential power of theatre to change people by allowing them to see alternative realities to the existing status quo, by a powerful combination of inspiring thought (something other mediums such as film often shy away from) and feeling, with the end goal of inspiring change in oneself and society (but not in a didactic or overtly political or issue-driven way). I am sometimes drawn to the origins of theatre in the mystery religions of ancient Greece and think we perhaps have to return to these roots for inspiration and to see how far we have strayed. I think proscenium arch style theatre has a place but there needs to be an alternative theatre that takes advantage of the physicality of theatre – the fact that actors, audience and story are able to occupy the same physical space. This, I think, allows for the POV of the play to be experienced more directly by the spectator who then is forced to confront some of same decisions the characters are facing. The ideas and feelings expressed in the play then become real and felt and not just theoretical.

5. What do you see as the biggest challenge facing independent theatre start-ups here?

The biggest challenge is finding an audience. Vancouver is more of a film, sports and outdoors town so theatre start-ups often find it difficult finding an audience (besides fellow indie scene attendees). For the larger theatres it isn’t as much of an issue because of the built-in audience, subscription and higher budget marketing. Other challenges include finding an appropriate and affordable venue and raising the budget. Another issue is that under the local union rules here, a start-up can only use the same theatre company name, I think, three times if they are doing a co-op, making it difficult to build up brand recognition for your theatre company.  That all said, the challenges are almost always surmountable, as evidenced by the number of independent theatre start-ups in Vancouver- during the high seasons, there are more productions than one has the time or money to see.

Paul and his interviewer.
Paul and his interviewer.

6. What is indie theatre’s greatest asset in Vancouver?

Vancouver’s greatest asset is the flipside of some of the problems in local theatre: Being geographically isolated, we are perhaps a little culturally isolated. This can result in original, innovative theatre due to a lack of preconceptions and influences. Add to this a sense of physicality and this can allow for a unique experimentation with the form of theatre, including site specific and interactive works. I think Hive at Magnetic North shows off these assets very well as do some of the events and plays we are developing at the Lyric Stage Project.

7. What should we be doing more of towards converting a new audience of theatregoers?

We need to eliminate their preconceived notions of what theatre is and find new marketing angles. Basically the form of theatre needs to be more in tune with people’s sensibilities without dumbing things down, such as the need for more site specific and immersive theatre as discussed above. Nomenclature plays a big part – if you construct and market the play more as an experience I think that will intrigue, draw and hook non-theatregoers. This will also force a stronger impact on regular attendees by breaking their preconceived notions which tend to act as a defense against new ideas; if there is a pre-existing box for something, it is already labeled and its impact rationalized away.

8. What kind of material would you like to see more of on our stages?

I find that in the past there was great content in plays and then since the 1960s great experiments in form. It is now time to marry the two, which can only result in better theatre, by being intrinsically great as well as speaking to our current sensibility. Speaking of stages, I would like to see less stages and more site specific, immersive theatre that better enables an audience to not only see and hear and play but EXPERIENCE it as well. I would also like to see contemporary theatre sooner, ideally within a year of its world premiere, rather than waiting several years after it premieres in a major Eastern city.

9. What are your thoughts on our current model of theatre criticism?

I find that sometimes too much of the plot is revealed at the expense of true criticism. I also think that in Vancouver people don’t look at enough theatre reviews as newspapers are cutting down on these theatre reviews, and hence there isn’t enough of a variety of viewpoints. People should be reading more reviews on-line as well. I also find that reviews pay too much attention to the production rather than the underlying work which the production serves.

10. What are your top 3 business of theatre reads?

I don’t read business of theatre reads except for plays themselves or classic works of theatre criticism. I am currently re-reading The Theatre of Revolt by Robert Brustein.

11. What’s next?

The next play I will be producing, through the Lyric Stage Project, is the original production The 21st Floor to be staged at PAL in November. I continue to produce independent film screening events at the Celluloid Social Club and First Weekend Club’s Canada Screens. I am also co-directing and producing a documentary on the 1960s and developing several dramatic feature films.

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