Dark Theatres and Wrecking Balls

Globe and Mail
By Marsha Lederman
Publish Date: October 13, 2007

For Vancouver artists, an Olympic challenge with the games just over two years away, the city is facing a stark shortage of venues to show off Canadian culture

At a recent event at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, respected former Vancouver city planner Larry Beasley informed the audience that, while the city may be world-renowned for its urban planning, it has almost no international cultural reputation. “Honestly, we are not even on the charts in terms of the growth and support of our cultural institutions,” he told the crowd. “[It’s] an issue I think we are far behind on.”

He won’t get much argument there – even if the idea is embarrassing for the local arts community. In a city known for its mountains, ocean and breathtaking views, cultural institutions are fighting to get on the map.

That fight has taken on new desperation as the 2010 Olympics approach. “We are going to be all over the world’s radar,” says Tanja Dixon-Warren, president of the Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance. “We should be taking advantage of that and showing off.”

But “showing off” requires something the Vancouver arts scene doesn’t have: space. All over the city, arts groups are outgrowing their homes. “As the city gets bigger, you automatically get more artists coming to the city,” says Dixon-Warren, who is also a theatre producer. “As a result, you need more spaces. That’s just math.”

The problem is particularly acute in the theatre community. Beyond the construction of a new 100-seat studio theatre at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, where Beasley made his frank remarks, there isn’t much good news these days for the more than 100 production companies in the city looking for space to put on their shows.

Dixon-Warren has been personally navigating the underequipped theatre scene for years. She has built sets in her garage (most recently for Angels in America) and lost money on productions she was forced to run in non-theatrical venues – because those venues didn’t come with chairs or washroom supplies, which she was forced to furnish herself.

Last week, Dixon-Warren was among the speakers who gathered downtown at the Vogue Theatre (a 1940 art-deco classic that has been dark for almost for two years) to launch a “call to action.” Hosted by Heritage Vancouver, a non-profit advocacy group for heritage conservation, the event focused mainly on efforts to save historical theatres from the wrecking ball.

The crux of their argument is this: It doesn’t make sense that, while theatre companies are struggling to find performance and even rehearsal space, several historical theatres in the city remain dark.

Take the York Theatre. Tom Durrie, a passionate theatre lover who spoke at the Vogue forum, has been fighting since 1981, on and off, to restore the York.

The theatre, on the city’s east side, opened in 1913. Most recently, it was known as the Raja Cinema, and showed Bollywood films. It closed last year, and the building was put on the market. “When it came up for sale,” recalls Durrie, “I thought, ‘My golly, now’s the time to act.’ ”

For a year, he tried to raise enough money to buy the theatre (the asking price was about $950,000, but renovations would likely cost around $10-million). But the day after the forum, Durrie received crushing news: The theatre had been sold. In an e-mail sent to members of the Vancouver theatre community titled “Too Late!” Durrie wrote that “unless [the buyer] has philanthropic intentions, we can say goodbye to one of the finest and most historic theatres in Vancouver.”

The news comes on the heels of the demolition of another old east-side Vancouver theatre. The Imperial on Main Street opened in 1912, but had fallen far from its former vaudevillian grandeur, operating for the last 20 years or so as a pornographic theatre called the Venus. For the last few weeks, crews have been dismantling the theatre and excavating the site.Condos will take the theatre’s place.

There is some optimism, though, about a major effort under way to save another historic theatre in a spot that seems unlikely to attract condominium developers.

The Pantages is smack in the heart of Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside. A group interested in revitalizing the troubled area has been working diligently to restore and reopen the theatre. It’s promising a big announcement on January 6, 2008 – the 100th anniversary of the Pantages’s opening.

As for the Vogue, its current owner wants to tear out the seats and replace them with tables and booths, and turn the place into a supper club featuring musical performances, guest speakers and – maybe – some theatre. He’s in the process of applying for a liquor licence.

Properly restoring any of these old theatres would cost millions. But at last week’s forum, Don Luxton of Heritage Vancouver put it in perspective: If people think it’s expensive to buy and renovate a theatre like the Vogue, he said, “try building a new one.”

In fact, people have tried. In the early 1990s, the city and province announced with great fanfare a new theatre complex in one of the city’s prime real-estate areas. The Coal Harbour Arts Complex was to include two theatres – a 1,500-seat lyric hall and a 350-seat studio theatre to be used primarily, but not exclusively, for music. But those plans fell apart when the provincial government decided to expand the Vancouver convention centre onto the waterfront site instead. (The city and province are holding almost $20-million earmarked for the arts complex, with the next steps to be announced by year’s end.)

The lack of musical-performance spaces has never been as evident as in recent weeks, during the civic strike. The dispute affected the 2,800-seat Orpheum, and such organizations as the Vancouver Recital Society and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra found themselves with few or no options for alternative venues.

For musical performances targeting smaller audiences, meanwhile, it is almost impossible to find an appropriate space. Those types of concerts generally end up in a church.

As for theatre, the size of needed space varies, depending on whom you talk to. Dixon-Warren says the city desperately needs more small theatres, in the 60-to-300-seat range. Durrie says a dearth of 500-seat theatres (about the size of the York) is the big problem. And at last week’s event, Luxton mused that it’s theatres about the size of the Vogue, with 1,100 seats, that the city could really use most.

The turnout at the Heritage Vancouver forum was hardly spectacular, with only 50 or so theatre types in attendance. However, there were a few suggestions that came from it: talk of creating a fund that would require developers to contribute to cultural infrastructure; a voluntary theatre-improvement fee, through which patrons could donate money at the same time they buy tickets; and involving sports personalities in the drive to save theatres.

Durrie suggested the group take a (recycled) page out of the environmental movement’s handbook. “Maybe,” he mused, “we have to chain ourselves to theatres.”

The suggestion came too late for his York Theatre – and for the Imperial, whose demolition progressed on the very day the save-Vancouver’s-historic-theatres forum was held.

Still, there is some good news coming for Vancouver’s cultural growth. The Vancouver Art Gallery – which has outgrown its current site, an old provincial courthouse on Robson Street – is about to announce details of a much-anticipated move to a new space.

The new facility will more than double the gallery’s size to 300,000 square feet (about 28,000 square metres) and will likely be in the city’s planned “cultural precinct” – the heart of which will be in what was once a bus depot (currently a parking lot) next to the city-run Queen Elizabeth Theatre (and also the planned site of one of two live stages which will operate during the 2010 Olympics). The VAG will make its announcement in the next few weeks.

But with only two years and four months to go before the 2010 Games, it seems unlikely there will be many shiny new buildings or tangible cultural change in time for the arrival of the Olympic flame – and the world’s gaze. “I do think we need to look at [solutions now],” says Dixon-Warren. “If we go away with a reputation of being a dud, it would be a big bummer.”