Goodbye to the Playhouse

Max Reimer can’t be held responsible for the death of the Playhouse. I don’t think Max was the right person for the job, but nobody has been the right person since Larry Lillo; Glynis Leyshon wasn’t and Susan Cox certainly wasn’t.

The Playhouse couldn’t have had a nicer guy at the helm than Max. He’s generous, warm, and approachable. Under his leadership, the Playhouse became a genuine community player, more open than it has ever been to acting as a resource for smaller companies, sharing resources such as rehearsal space, props, and costumes. And Max has been involved in some terrific cooperative initiatives, including the recent and unforgettable co-pro with the Electric Company, All the Way Home.

The Playhouse was already sinking when Max came onboard and he was hired under ridiculous terms. He was expected to be both company manager and artistic director. Those are two full-time jobs and, not so long ago, the Playhouse announced that it was going to divvy them back up, with Max staying on as manager—which is, I suspect, where his skills really lie.

It seems pretty clear that, when the Playhouse board hired Max to be artistic director, they hoped that they were getting a fixer. Max had steered the Huron Country Playhouse in Grand Bend, Ontario, through its most lucrative years and, as director of Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius, Max resolved a five million dollar debt and won himself a Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in Business in the Arts.

But, in hiring a business fixer, the board left out an important part of the equation: artistic vision. That’s the element that has been missing at the Playhouse for decades.

Artistically, Vancouver is a long way from Hamilton or Grand Bend. And, within Vancouver’s theatre scene, the Playhouse occupies a prestigious position.

When Larry Lillo took over the Playhouse, he opened his first season with Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind, a tough, poetic show about violence and gender. In doing so, he served notice that we were in for an exciting ride. Don’t get me wrong; Larry also served up some middle-of-the-road fare, including Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles. But, generally speaking, he kept us on our toes, with revelatory interpretations of the classics, including Much Ado About Nothing and A Streetcar Named Desire, and unabashedly political work by Dario Fo, Athol Fugard, and Michel Tremblay. By challenging the audience, Lillo built the subscription base to record levels.

Then Susan Cox took over. Nice woman. Music hall queen. Completely wrong sensibility. Enough said.

Glynis Leyshon looked good on paper. Glynis is a very, very bright woman. But, in my conversations with her, she spoke more than once about programming for a “mass audience” at the Playhouse. But the Playhouse audience isn’t a mass audience; it’s an elite audience. And I’m not just talking about them being well heeled; I’m talking about their level of artistic sophistication. As I see it, this is an audience that wants to be challenged; condescending to it or failing to live up to its expectations will only result in a drop-off in subscriptions, which is exactly what we’ve seen. When the Arts Club took over the Stanley, artistic director Bill Millerd consciously programmed up for the space; he knew that, in that kind of venue, the audience would expect a greater level of sophistication. That’s what was needed at the Playhouse.

I’m sure that, through the seasons, the various boards of governors at the Playhouse have worked extremely hard to keep the institution afloat. I’m not knockin’ ’em, but I am saying that, in an arts organization, artistic vision can’t take a back seat to business concerns.

And, of course, the Playhouse was a leaky ship in many ways. It was ridiculous, for instance, that the city allowed them so little control over their venue that they couldn’t hold over their hits and that they had to move their sets to accommodate weekly afternoon concerts.

Before I shut up, I want to wave the tattered Canadian flag. Canadian arts funding has helped to create a culture in which audiences relish challenge. You don’t see that so much in the US theatrical scene, which runs on a more free-enterprise, lowest-common-denominator model. Supposedly big-deal shows that come out of the system are consistently disappointing. Think of Intimate Apparel or, God help us, Circle Mirror Transformation, both of which the Arts Club has produced recently. In the US, these shows are touted as adventuresome, but they’re boring. That’s why we have to continue to defend Canadian arts funding against philistines like Stephen Harper, and why artistic and social challenge, as well as fiscal responsibility have to remain priorities in our artistic institutions.

There have been some interesting comments on this post. Thanks for sending them. To read ’em, hit the Comments hypertext at the top of the post. – CT

 

 

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

Comments

  1. Colin…you nailed it. It’s what I have been ineffectively saying on Facebook since Friday and here you lay it out. Thank you.

  2. Reno Dikaios says:

    Good article and poignant in ways, however, the main issue comes with the board not defining a vision let alone the need for a leader. Max Reimer is as good as it gets. If someone like Max Reimer couldn’t steer the company into a passion, no one could. I feel the real problem comes from many factors but decidedly, in all companies, the board must take responsibility. I come from the other end of the spectrum where I had a board that stood behind me creatively, no matter what. Large companies don’t have that freedom. An artistic director who is busines manager has to answer to an established “idea” of what the Playhouse should be. I feel The Playhouse could easily continue. With new blood on a new board of directors. Because certainly, this “board” didn’t make the cut.

  3. Lucia Frangione says:

    Thank you for writing this, Colin. So easy to blame the AD. Thank you for fairly outlining the mess Max inherited, that all of them did, actually. I was thankful for the many beautiful and important new Canadian works that Max brought to Vancouver and some classics done up well, the creative uses of space and the co-pros that got some BC talent across the country and also provided for some local amazing productions. And I also really appreciate the note about Canadian theatre. It wasn’t until I went to San Francisco and heard Carey Perloff talk about how lucky we are in Canada to be as adventurous as we are, particularly in Vancouver, that I saw what we have been growing here. I want it to keep growing.

  4. You’re right Craig, Circle Mirror IS a beautiful play, requiring subtlety and authenticity. I decided not to see the production in Vancouver after I heard it was being done as a satire – wrong, wrong, wrong!

    As for the Vancouver Playhouse, I am very saddened by the decision to close. I reside in Victoria, where our audiences are perhaps less sophisticated, but even here theatre groups are constantly torn between choosing something “edgy” or something “safe”. The safe theatre certainly doesn’t interest me, but then I guess I’m not an “average” theatre-goer, whatever that is.

  5. Corinna Gilliland says:

    I was around for the birth of the Playhouse. I am sad to be around for its demise.

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