A Progressive Federal Government is within our grasp

The Department of Culture, undaunted by the tragic reinstating of Harper’s arts-hating minority government through the lowest voter turnout in the history of the universe, responds to the cons’ latest boneheaded move by laying out a plan for us to push for a coalition government.

H/T to Aaron at Tracking Righteousness for this excellent summation of the latest comic tragedy from the Hill…

This short video from the DofC site breaks down the current situation to its numerical elements…

Green Thumb Theatre has a blog (?!)

crows_nestDid you know that Green Thumb Theatre has a blog? I didn’t, until just now. How did I not know that Green Thumb Theatre had a blog? And to top it all off, it’s awesome! For those of you unfamiliar with this company, GTT…

Creates and produces plays that explore social issues relevant to the lives of children, youth and young adults. We provide theatre that celebrates the language and stories of today’s generation and culture to stimulate empathy, debate and critical thinking.

Now who doesn’t want to hear more about this company? They have a production of Colleen Murphy’s The December Man up right now at Performance Works. (Guys…my video listings are free…)

People (and I’m going to sound a little Colbert-ish here), if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: Vancouver needs more theatre blogs. Many, many more. If you have one, or if you’re planning on starting one, please let me know. I have a lot of readers, I’m proud to say, with whom I will happily share your blog. Also, I would really like to read your blog. If you know of any regularly updated Vancouver theatre blogs that aren’t listed on my sidebar, please drop the link in the comments or email me at vanstage(at)gmail(dot)com.

Theatre bloggers unite!

Riding the elephant

elephantSeveral people have engaged me in nervous overtones about parts of our recent interview with local theatre critic Peter Birnie (none, however, in the comments section. I’ve got to find a way to make that a more attractive prospect. Any ideas? Leave ’em in the comments section.), wherein he prognosticates dark times ahead for our theatre industry here at home, due to an impending economic recession and the resultant belt-tightening that will inevitably occur; a gathering storm which he terms “the elephant in the room”. That there is recession on the horizon is indisputable, but for us here in indie-theatre land, exactly how big is that elephant, and how much damage is it capable of?

In his response to question #2 within his excellent interview; regarding the condition of the Vancouver theatre scene, Peter qualifies this gloomy foreshadowing as affecting primarily the large-house big budgets…

People’s priorities are already shifting strongly away from discretionary spending. Anything resembling a big-budget production, whether from one of the established local companies or in a bus-and-truck touring show, will find enormous difficulty filling houses.

He goes on to posit that smaller scale shows will fare better due to our resilient artistic community’s ability to “cinch in its belts once again and keep itself afloat”. I can’t speak much on the future of the civic theatres in the big rooms, as I don’t work there, but these ramifications for independent theatre interest me very much. And as people in my theatrical neck-of-the-woods have been fretting about it lately, I think we should probably have a talk about it.

The elephant doesn’t scare me at all. In fact, I think the elephant presents a great opportunity. For most of us in our corner of the art world, money is not an issue because we don’t have any of it, so, as Peter indicates, we’re just carrying on as per usual. But that very problem – a dismal lack of income – is the number one problem faced by us all, and that’s as true today as it was 50 years ago. Independent theatre has yet to find a way to make itself a viable industry here – one distinct from the three-digit-seat, subscriber-based houses – despite tremendous advances artistically and structured organization within several of the more durable companies. It’s still struggling as an expandable business sector. So, where are we falling short? (You know what’s coming…)

Marketing. Audience Building. Trend Making. In answer to question #4: “What does independent theatre here need to do in order to make the leap into a more wide-spread city consciousness?”, Peter responds:

There will be no leaping in the days ahead. Unless you’re willing to entertain for free, or accept vegetables as barter, you and your troupe won’t be gaining any market share in a city where just about everyone’s busy struggling to survive.

And here’s where I’m going to go ahead and disagree. A city hit by an economic downturn isn’t going to stay indoors and huddle around the radio for entertainment. It’s going to change its spending patterns, for sure, but people are still going to seek experience, they are still going to want to participate in the pulse that is the very reason for living in an urban centre. And the biggest advantage offered to us as performing artists in Vancouver is the sheer amount of residents that live within the city limits. Our audience doesn’t commute. Over half of our city is residential, a unique aspect that we should be using to our advantage. We’re the low-cost cultural experience that they can turn to, and commune at, as long as they can be told that we exist.

We as a community need to keep doing what we’re doing, what we have been doing for all these years (working that day job and making great art the rest of the time), but we have to make ourselves available and increase our profile, and make sure we trumpet our inherently low ticket prices while we’re at it. I don’t care how theatre ticket prices are ‘trending’, keep them low – around $15-$18 – and keep the production quality high, and that elephant can be made to work for us. It might just be the ride we need to more financial stability.

I caught a play at Studio 16 last night: In the Boom Boom Room (in which, incidentally, Victoria Bidewell in the lead role will blow the back of your head off. The lady’s a force of nature.), and the place was packed to the rafters. On a Wednesday night in November at 20 bucks a pop. So don’t be nervous about the state of the union, embrace it, this is all work that needs to get done no matter what the market is doing. We just need roll up some sleeves.

There are others talking about this too, please check out this outstanding post from Nick Keenan’s Theatre For the Future blog called Curb Your Hysteria. An excerpt:

So what do we need to do to survive in a time like this? We need to fix our biggest weakness as an industry – our failure to learn from our mistakes, and the mistakes of other companies. We must lead with creative ideas of producing theater, which, I swear to you, already exist – this isn’t a matter of reinventing the wheel, it’s a matter of identifying what is already out there and saying “YES, this will work.”

And the indefatigueable MK Piatkowski continues her “White Paper” series with this article titled “Marketing for Independents”. It opens with…

The independent community needs much better and more targeted marketing. Some are starting to leverage social networking but much more needs to be done. Collaboration between companies and creating a pool of marketing talent that could be supported by the community as a whole would strengthen this immensely.

We need to market more than our next play. We need to market our industry. And we need to do it together.

This one goes to eleven: Peter Birnie

I’m fascinated by our relationship with the critics. When I hear members of the theatre community talk about them, it’s always with an amazing degree of passion, one way or the other. Nobody, it seems, is ever indifferent to them. I think it’s great, and a good indication that they hold some position of importance within our little community here.

Personally, I value them all quite highly, and I’ll tell you why. First off, I’ve met them all, and they’re all whip-smart, delightful individuals. Second, they are members of my audience, who both love theatre and love writing about theatre, and that’s a wonderful and rare combination. And thirdly they are not scared to give me an honest personal opinion of our work, and that is very rare, and just as valuable. I wish I could get an honest evaluation from every member of my audience. You don’t even have to agree with it, but you should listen for the value in it.

This week we welcome Peter Birnie to This One Goes to Eleven. Peter has been the theatre critic for the Vancouver Sun since 1997, moving up from his position as their film critic. (I say ‘moving up’, anyway.) We’re grateful for this chance to get to talk a little theatre with him…

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1) In one word, describe your present condition.

Alarmed.

2) With no restrictions on word count, describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.

We certainly live in interesting times. I have delayed answering these questions in the hope the crystal ball would clear. Instead it’s foggier than ever, and there are absolutely no indications our economic meltdown is yet at an end. Therefore, I boldly declare the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene to be absolutely dreadful — and likely to get worse.

Since no one is acknowledging the elephant in the room, let me say that, other than the one per cent of the population with buckets of cash stashed in tax havens, we are all, collectively, in very serious financial trouble. Pity poor Barack Obama, who inherits a disaster he cannot possibly ameliorate. Pity Vancouver’s theatre scene, which within six months will be starting to show the full effects of what can only be viewed as a recession if you’re wearing rose-coloured glasses.

People’s priorities are already shifting strongly away from discretionary spending. Anything resembling a big-budget production, whether from one of the established local companies or in a bus-and-truck touring show, will find enormous difficulty filling houses. Small shows will actually fare marginally better, but only because this city’s resilient artistic community will cinch in its belts once again and keep itself afloat. Start supporting each other as much as you can, folks, because it’s pot-luck from here on in.

3) How has Vancouver evolved as a theatre town over the last ten years?

A decade ago, the Stanley Theatre was opening just as the Ford Centre was closing. Garth Drabinsky’s grand plan to bring Broadway west wasn’t based in financial reality, and his curse has seemed to hang in the air over the former Ford ever since, as the Law brothers from Denver continue to keep afloat what is now The Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts. The Arts Club had no illusions about money, and in fact went through a business-modelling program so strict that the company knew it had to devote a great deal of energy to marketing, sponsorships and the boosting of its subscription base.

The result is the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage, named for a sponsor. The Playhouse is hoping for the same magic to happen when it moves into Wall Centre False Creek — when the credit crisis is over and construction can begin on the company’s desperately needed second stage.

We’ve also seen an explosion in young talent trying to make a name for itself. The Electric Company is the gold standard for small companies seeking to carve out a niche, and one of its smartest policies has been a strictly disciplined approach to finding funding. Since those already narrow avenues of opportunity are squeezing tighter every day, I expect to see many more multidisciplinary groups formed in a bid to keep diverse groups of artists employed.

4) What does independent theatre here need to do in order to make the leap into a more wide-spread city consciousness?

There will be no leaping in the days ahead. Unless you’re willing to entertain for free, or accept vegetables as barter, you and your troupe won’t be gaining any market share in a city where just about everyone’s busy struggling to survive.

5) Please describe the current relationship between Vancouver’s theatre artists and the critics.

I can only speak to my own experience, but I suspect it’s the same for any critic — anyone I praise thinks I’m the greatest critic since Kenneth Tynan, anyone I criticize thinks I’m an idiot.

6) When reviewing, should all productions be held to the same standard, or should a sliding scale be applied dependent on the experience of the company?

It’s obvious that I try to avoid reviewing amateur productions. There are exceptions, such as Royal City Musical Theatre or Theatre Under the Stars, so I always declare early on in the review that “this group of amateurs” — or words to that effect — have done a good/bad job. Any professional production, however, should be assessed as something people will pay to see. Is it worth their money?

7) What’s your best piece of advice for the young theatre company just starting out here?

Keep your day job. This economic shitstorm gives you precisely no room to manouevre, so think of Orson Welles and The Cradle Will Rock, and seize a theatre.

8) What is your fondest theatrical memory?

Each time I come away from a show filled with the glow that comes from witnessing something special, that production then becomes my fondest memory. It happened recently at the Telus Studio Theatre in the Chan Centre with Ryan Beil and Zachary Gray breathing new life into Billy Bishop Goes to War, and again at Performance Works as Katrin Dunn’s Touchstone Theatre provided a rich forum for Janet Munsil’s new play, Influence.

9) What would you like to see more of on our stages?

The great works. The big ones, Chekhov and Shakespeare (no insult to Bard on the Beach, but something on a real proscenium stage in a real theatre in the dead of winter). The heavy ones from America, Streetcar and All My Sons, Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey. The classics of Canadian theatre, Tremblay especially. More Mamet! Can’t wait for Main Street Theatre’s Glengarry Glen Ross. I have acquired a rep as a guy who loves musical theatre, which is true, but I still crave depth and darkness. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing many genuine attempts to capture the pain that’s coming to society — and that’s a good thing.

10) What are your top 3 theatre reads?

I read all of the local critics faithfully, to see if they got it right. I scour the theatre blogs from Toronto, New York and London, and read whatever catches my fancy. That’s about it — the rest of my reading is as far removed from theatre as possible, in a bid to maintain my sanity.

11) What’s next?

I’m on the verge of finally, after years of pleading, getting a blog from The Sun that allows me to archive reviews and give Wasserman and vancouverplays.com some competition. Please stay tuned.

Great production pics: Billy Bishop in Deep Cove

Further to Rebecca’s post on production pics, I love these ones sent to me by actor Damon Calderwood promoting his company’s 30th anniversary production of the musical Billy Bishop Goes to War at the Deep Cove Shaw Theatre.

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I’m a sucker for anything WWII related, especially the RAF (I wanted desperately to be a Spitfire pilot when I was eight). I don’t know where they sourced the plane from, but they obviously went to a great deal of effort to put these shots together. Very cool.

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First Impressions Theatre celebrates its 25th anniversary season with one of Canada’s most popular and internationally renowned musicals: Billy Bishop Goes to War, by John Gray with Eric Peterson. This heart-warming, funny and moving narrative is based on a true story about Canada’s World War I flying ace, Billy Bishop.

Audiences will fall in love with Billy Bishop as he recounts his days in combat as a rebellious young Canadian fighter pilot and unexpectedly becomes the most decorated Royal Air Corps officer and heroic figure of the Great War.

Veteran Vancouver actors Damon Calderwood and Gordon Roberts are teaming up in this two-man show with Equity director Gerry McKay to bring the iconic Canadian musical Billy Bishop Goes To War to the Deep Cove Shaw stage. Damon Calderwood will star as the feisty Canadian WWI flying ace Billy Bishop performing 18 different characters while Gordon Roberts will perform the role of Narrator/piano player.

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