Thursday, 22 March 2012

Passing of The Playhouse opens up opportunity

The demise of Vancouver's Playhouse Theatre Company mid-season surely is cause for fretting and hand-wringing.  The word "tragedy" quickly falls off people's lips when describing how the doors slammed shut after a final performance of Hunchback earlier this month.  Whatever the financial woes that led to the crash, perhaps now is a good time to reflect on the venue itself.

Here are two side-by-each letters from the Saturday, March 17, 2012 Globe-&-Mail that bracket two aspects of what might be behind the theatre's problems, one of which was my own submission.

Life’s stages
Having just seen Nicola Cavendish deliver her fabulous performance in Shirley Valentine at Theatre Calgary, I realized that any live theatre, not just the Vancouver Playhouse, is facing at least two life-threatening challenges (Curtain Falling On Vancouver’s Cultural Scene – March 15). One is the e-entertainment the young generation favours, and the other – sadly – is an apparent lack of interest among visible minorities and new immigrants. Just look around the auditorium and see how many people are under 50 or a member of a visible minority.
John Cihal, Calgary
For 15 years, I was a freelance reviewer in Vancouver. I regularly lamented the Playhouse stage as “awkward” and “amorphous”: too detached from the audience for intimate scripts, yet too thin and skimpy for more sumptuous productions.
Since I became a paying consumer of live theatre, it has seldom been the company’s choice of scripts that has kept me away. It’s the off-putting venue, simple as that. The place needs a serious retrofit as theatre-in-the-round. That would connect viewers to the stage literally and figuratively. As W.P. Kinsella put it: Build it and they will come.
W. Baird Blackstone, Tsawwassen, B.C.
In mounting Broken Leg Reviews, a few pieces I wrote in the mid-80's fell out of a musty old file.  In looking them over, I found I commented repeatedly on what I felt are limitations on the *room* itself.  

Here's one submission from "back in the day" about a play by David Pownall called Masterclass that I characterized as "...a juicy little potboiler of a play that tries -- successfully -- to recast Josef Stalin as just a chummy little peasant boy at heart."

As for the role the Playhouse stage qua stage had in Masterclass, meanwhile, I observed thus :  

    "The Edward Kotanen set is appropriately gloomy, unfriendly and foreboding. The only trouble is the fact that the sort of semi-intellectual nature of this four-actor piece is at once too little and too much for the 36 feet of proscenium of the Playhouse stage.
   "Only when Zhdanov and Stalin smash Prokofieff's entire syllabus of recorded 78 r.p.m.'s -- all across the stage in a pathetic, chilling litter of shattered art, lit.-&-fig. -- only then is the cavernous stage put to almost full use."  

The operative word being "almost".  

Meanwhile I think Mr. Cihal's point is probably more of a "core" issue, along with funding arrangements with various government levels, disappearing lottery gaming dollars into general revenue &c.  

And I certainly don't disagree with folks who grumble about "Why is there always enough money for a new retractable roof for Beastly Place but not enough to keep a 40-year-old theatre troupe alive...?" 

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