The Future of Theatres in Vancouver
This is a transcript of the conversation from the Vancouver Arts and Cultures Forum event held at the Vogue Theatre on October 4, 2007 about Vancouver’s heritage theaters, the Vogue, the York, and the Pantages, about our community interests, about ideas and opportunities related to our theatre and performance spaces, – and what we would like to see and do as we move into the future
Christopher Gaze, Creator, Bard on the Beach
Tanja Dixon Warren, President, Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance
Don Luxton, President, Heritage Vancouver
Tom Durrie, Chair, Save the York Theatre Society
Roger Chilton, Chair, Arts and Culture Committee, Downtown Vancouver Association
The York Theatre is a gorgeous little chocolate box, the sort of theatre we do not have and need in Vancouver. It is almost a hundred years old, and if you were sitting in it now, you would find it quite a bit smaller than this. It is as cheap as dirt to buy. It is less than a million dollars to own your own theatre. However once you own it you would need to spend a great deal of money, – millions, – to fix it up and make it good.
The bottom line is that we have an opportunity here in Vancouver to create a Theatreland. The York Theatre is exquisitely positioned on the east side just 200 yards below the storefronts of Commercial Drive and 300 yards from the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. We can make a pocket of theatres in Vancouver.
This theatre on Granville, once we get the street outside sorted out which I’m sure will happen one day, will be a fine place to come for the future. If there is a way of getting hold of this theatre and turning it back into what it once was, and giving it a vision and a part to play, why not. It exists. So also, the York Theatre, which has been here for almost a hundred years, and which, for relatively a small amount of money, can be saved and given new life for now and for the future.
We have to be visionaries.
Tanja Dixon Warren
I want to talk a bit generally about theatre space in Vancouver. I look at it as math. Vancouver is getting much bigger. It is growing every day. We have new people coming here every day. We have more visitors coming every day. And with that comes more artists. And with that comes more audiences. And we do not have enough spaces to put them. We were just nominated the best city in the world to live in, the best city in the world to visit, and coming up to 2010 we are going to be known all over the world. People are coming here and they are seeing what is happening on Granville Street, seeing theaters that are dark, and not only dark, but seeing there is literally nothing here. And if you go to the most cultural area of the city, Commercial Drive, there is fabulous a theatre there, but it is dark.
I feel so strongly that if you go to any great city, not only do you go to see their beautiful scenery and their fabulous buildings, – you also go to book shows. You know you can always go and book a ticket when you go to New York, or London, or Toronto, and we have to make this accessible to people here in Vancouver. We have to think of theatres as part of our culture, our artists, and our audiences, and we have to hear from those who love the theatre. If we make this a happening place and put traffic through it, I think the area will be cleaned up.
I think there is a different perspective on this. My day job is as a heritage cultural consultant and Vancouver shocks me sometimes. The growth that is occurring is in condominium residences. We build those really well and there are lots of them. We do not see the Art Gallery growing. We do not see other institutions growing; we do not see this kind of thing happening in our city. We are lagging behind in providing the kind of cultural services to our community that make this a complete, whole, and exciting city.
In the preservation of heritage structures and institutions, Heritage Vancouver has fought many times to help people understand that public assembly spaces, particularly theatres, are important from a preservation point of view, because its not about the outside of the building, which we traditionally talk about, but more importantly what is inside the building. For example, the Pantages Theatre came up for discussion as a social housing site, as well as the Stanley Theatre.
We can save the façade of this theatre because it is protected, – but we need to save the interior. We have to have this as a theatre or it becomes meaningless. From a heritage perspective, we have to start thinking about more creative tools to protect historic buildings and provide the kind of incentives that will actually allow them to be preserved. We need to think about the interiors as important as the outside of these buildings, – and we need to breathe new life into them as if they are an endangered species.
When we look around the city we can see certain theatres are threatened, being torn down, or being adapted in the way that the Plaza has been adapted into a bar, in the way the old Studio has been adapted into bars. Do we need more bars or do we need more theatres?
It takes imagination and some commitment and vitality to preserve and re-energize the theatre buildings we have. There are the three theatres, – the Pantages, the Vogue, and the dear York Theatre.
There is more than enough money in Vancouver to finance all of these projects and not lose a penny. Whether it is the political will or the will of corporate interests who have the money, we have to somehow make this happen.
I frankly don’t see it coming from the city government. We are very, very good at building condominiums and it seems to me that at some point we have to say that is enough. Let’s add some culture to this instead of the endless $300,000 of 500 square feet condominiums.
We were successful in saving the Orpheum Theatre and there is some movement happening toward saving the Pantages Theatre. We have two more heritage theatres left in this city. That is not very many, – and we have a real shortage of performing space where our theatre community can rehearse and perform.
As Tom said, there is little reason for the corporate world to become involved, and government with a little luck would respond to what the community wants. But
It is important to talk about he specific things can we do, whether it is to get the corporate world involved because they have the money, or how we get our government to respond to what the community wants and needs. I would like to open the discussion for ideas.
Speaker from the forum
When looking at The Vancouver Playhouse, which will be a production facility, a vital space of what we are very, very short in Vancouver.
In the arts, it is always or invariably, when you get to rehearse a play the production facilities are in basements of places or warehouses, the worst and cheapest places that can be found.
The City of Vancouver did a wonderful thing with the Performing Arts Lodge site just behind the Westin Bayshore Inn. For once artists are able to live in a beautiful neighborhood, a dignified spot, and we do not have to be way out of town somewhere cheap. Now we have a premium spot and for once respect was given to the artists.
We have to find the resources to save these precious theatres. There must be individuals who are willing to step forward, possibly for naming rights or for all sorts of different things.
These things can be done. Look what was done with the Dance Centre recently just down on Davie and Seymour Street, that was done but it needs somebody to stand up and for us all to get in behind.
It needs to start with tax incentives from the federal government so individuals can step up and contribute. There are lots of people with money in Vancouver who can make this city not only one of the most livable cities in the world, but a culturally iconic city, where people go because we are a resort city, because we can eat well, and because there are theatres everywhere.
Speaker from the forum
Maybe this is totally a new idea, but when we go to the airport and take a plane, we pay airport improvement fees. I do not know if theatres can charge fees.
Our theatre community, and I include the audience as well as the artists because there is no such thing as theatre without an audience, could introduce a similar idea. When we are selling our tickets, whether through Ticketmaster or anyone else, we could ask our audience, who is buying a ticket, if they would like to contribute to a theatre improvement initiative. We want to save this theatre or to we want to create more spaces and would you be willing to give a buck? If that could be done, and when you think about all the people who go to the theatre, and if half of them gave a buck, there would be a little money there, and I think it would also show the community, and the business community, and the funding bodies of government, that we are doing something too. We are not just coming and asking.
Speaker from the forum
Here is another approach to keep building on this. I was just in New York where they brought in a redevelopment corporation where there are tax incentives, public subscription, and other things, that took redevelopment out of the hands of the municipal government and put it in a private authority in lower Manhattan. There are different models for doing this.
Granville Street is such a fascinating part of the history of the city. This was the theatre district. This was the entertainment district. This was where people came for entertainment. Having this as an entertainment district is the direction the city was starting to take. It seems the idea of entertainment is drinking. It is not that the bar and restaurant activity is bad, but there are other activities that should be in this area.
The development of Times Square was directed so those assets that needed to be preserved were preserved. There was density being built into the area that allowed this to occur and there were ways to direct the proceeds and there as funding to preserve key parts of our heritage and our culture. I would personally like to see some rethinking about what happens on Granville Street around those objectives.
I would like to see some rethinking on what happens on Granville Street with the historic buildings that are still here. I think there are more historic theatres than we are talking about because I consider the Plaza a historic theatre for example. I consider the old Studio a historic theatre. I consider this entire collection on the street of historic entertainment venues to be a real and important part of the City’s history. It would make it a more interesting street, a more interesting destination, and make it what it traditionally was, the heart of the city.
Speaker from the forum
Right now millions of dollars are being spent on the construction of sport facilities. It seems to me that a few crumbs might fall on the table for the construction of cultural facilities. This won’t happen unless our government and the people who are doing this realize that the public wants see their money spent on cultural facilities. It would be my urging for everyone to become politically active and let the city government, the provincial government, and the federal government know that we believe a city is not a city without culture.
Speaker from the forum
Andrew Wilhelm-Boyles speaking. I am a theatre man. I love theatre. I love old theatres. I like playing in them. I like sitting in them – when they are comfortable. I like playing in them when they have proper loading bays and proper wings space. I like socializing in them when they have proper social space and proper lobby space, and not all theatres have that.
I am suggesting we need to broaden this discussion a bit because we are very focused on the heritage theatres. I support preserving them obviously, – but I think they are questions about how they are refitted and retrofitted so they can be well used by both the artists and audiences.
I also suggest that we need other spaces. This community needs other theatre spaces, rehearsal spaces, and presentation spaces of all kinds, – exhibition spaces very much smaller than this. I think we need to approach governments and the private sector to expand and balance the availability of workable and usable performance, rehearsal, and exhibit spaces.
Theatres are a kind of sacred space. What is most sacred for me is what goes on the stage. It is how artists and the community communicate with one another through the agency of that art. I would like to see us balance available spaces in ways that permit artists to do their work to the best of their ability and share the space in ways that are really accessible with the audiences. I would like to see some spaces which are highly flexible and adaptable to all kinds of events, because that is what is happening in other parts of the world.
Question from the forum
What is the possibility of selling density bonus?
Answer from the forum
There is a six month temporary freeze on the density bank. The city is going to study the issue. There are concerns about the density bank because in many ways it has been too successful and has filled up very quickly. The density bank has been filling up for several reasons, not the least of which is the rising cost of construction, so there are larger amounts of density being transferred into the bank for sale and it is not being taken up as quickly as it has been in the past. And a limit on where density can be transferred. This is what the city is going to be studying for the next six months. In the meantime, there is a temporary freeze on it.
If we are going to use density to help direct land use, get public policy in place, and implement some of these initiatives, then we have to be thinking about how it is going to be handled. I would suggest that with these facilities and cultural strategic plans, we also have to be thinking about the mechanisms of how we are going to achieve this, and thinking about density bonuses, redevelopment corporations, tax incentives, and whatever tools we can bring to the table to get us there soon.
Speaker from the forum
Speaking as someone who has worked in every theatre, what we need are facilities, the right facilities, facilities we can fill six nights a week, like a 1000 seat theatre,. Somebody has to be willing to step up and operate it and put something on in it. Its one thing to save the building but it is a much bigger challenge to fill the building and keep it alive with activity. I think we should keep that in mind before stepping into beautiful spaces.
Listening to the observations and ideas in this conversation about where we might go, there were a number of things that could give us something to act on
I found the Redevelopment Corporation in New York interesting. Often those kind of corporations are created by government but it makes me wonder about the possibility of creating a development corporation created by the community because we have a lot of organizations who represent a lot of different interests who could benefit from a development corporation for the arts and cultural world of Vancouver
If we think about how voluntary taxes and tax incentives could assist in creating a development corporation, not necessarily buy, create or own theatres, but to creatively pursue ways to increase our capacity for the cultural development in this City. There could be some way to connect these and other ideas in a way that would allow our community to take a little more charge of what’s going on and of our future.
I also notice that we are saying we have been a little asleep at the switch. We lost the Imperial Theatre and there is something else under threat now. In an earlier conversation about our heritage structures and our performance spaces, someone observed that we do not have a good inventory of what we have, and who owns them, and how they operate. Some are privately owned, some are not for profit, and some are public. We could be looking at these models and thinking about how we could create other models.
Andrew made the point that it is not simply preserving our space. We are also in need of more space in our community. We have a shortage of production facilities, flexible space, space that could work for many different purposes, and we don’t have that. Perhaps a development corporation created and driven by the community is a way to increase our capacity.
Speaker from the forum
This is an issue in Vancouver. We have single focus, arms-length groups like the Park Board and the School Board that may or may not have heritage or other issues in their mandate and it is sometimes hard to get through all the coordinating. The city is initiating a process to begin this cultural inventory with a strategic prioritization, which is great. Let’s start by supporting the existing process and getting behind it.
Let’s have more agreement among groups about our common goals. I think in this growing city we have grown out our clothes. I think if we are going to have a city worth living in, we need to develop other aspects that include culture and heritage and many other things, other than stadiums. We need to look at this city as the cultural Olympics. We want to feature the city the way it should be for the cultural world.
I think all of these issues are things we can think about, and through forums like this, I would like to see more common goals between the groups involved and that we are actually working in the same direction. I think this is exceptionally important, especially if we are going to go to the city process and bring our opinions with us.
Speaker from the forum
I am hearing two streams. One is historic preservation. There is obviously a real value in preserving historic sites and making sure that they do not sit empty or dark or, even worse, get demolished. But the other issue is the sort Andrew was pointing to. The practicality of what the city’s needs are, and more important, the demands of the audiences and the greater culture.
We are living in a society where a close up of a bowl of apples sells a condo, more often than not you on these condo ads you don’t even see a floor plan, you’re directed to a website and if you’re interested in the apples you go to the website. We are living in an experience-based society. I am an artist and that being my passion I will go to the Orpheum or the Playhouse even though I don’t like the experience of the space. We are all here because we share a love of the art and the passion for what is happening on stage
People have an appreciation for what is happening on stage and they want to feel like they are having a special experience. That is why we go to New York. It is not just what is on the stage, it is the splendor and grandeur of it all.
Speaker from the forum
I think there are two of the most important things going in other parts of arts and culture, you mentioned New York and London they both the destination and the experience, and we don’t necessarily have that in Vancouver. I have a problem when I look around and there are not enough of our own people supporting this information session to support us. If we want to go to the business community and say we need the money, and there are many people in Vancouver with money, and we cannot support ourselves and come out here. There are lots of artists and lots of theatre companies. How many theatre companies are here? I meant who actually took the time to come here and send one of your representatives to be here.
Speaker from the forum
Spencer Herbert from Parks Board speaking. I think one of the issues is who runs it. The discussion around a development corporation, and the discussion around the theatre community and how we work together, is key because I hear from people who say we should do something about this, we should do something about that. I know in this room there are many people who are doing something. It is easy to say why didn’t we do this, – but it is a lot harder to pull those groups together and pull those people together, and I think today has been exciting. I think this discussion needs to continue. I know it will open lines in arts and culture, in the Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Association, and all of you up on the stage. So I’d love to hear from people but I think we need to find ways to cooperate, to take on those tasks, because it is easy to say but harder to do. Thank you for being here and hopefully we’ll all be here to continue.
In talking about how theatres operate, there are three levels. There are theatres owned and operated by the city which seems to me to be appropriate for large facilities like the Opera House and the Symphony Hall. There are privately owned theatres. There are theatres that are owned by the city but operated by non-profit associations, like the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. There are privately owned facilities like the Metro which is owned and operated by the Metro Theatre Company, and there are other theatres that are owned by companies like the Arts Club. I would like to see support by the community when it comes to building preservation that says to the city, – don’t let this building be used for anything else other than a theatre, whether it is going to be privately owned or however it happens, and to not have demolition permits issued
When we say we, it is not just we the heritage groups and we the theatre groups. We the public have to get our act together and really begin to understand some of the priorities in this city. We are in an awful rush to develop, and that’s fine, but what do we get out of that I guess is the question. Do we just get more density, and more people, and nothing to do? We also have to think about the fact that we are living in smaller and smaller spaces. One of the issues that comes from that is what great theatre and performance spaces really represented. These were the living rooms and these were where people went to be entertained before TV mesmerized us. So these are our public spaces. That is what I get when I look at these from a heritage point of view. These were the places we came to congregate, be entertained, and come together, and be social.
I leave you with one thought about the Vogue. Before the seats are ripped out, the floors leveled, and the tables and chairs go in, I would like to know what the need is for an 1100 seat theatre in this city. I think it is the size of theatre we lack. I would like to see some of that come out in the city process. I would like to identify what our real needs are, – because if we think this is expensive to buy and renovate, – try building a new one of this size.
It is part of the development of the arts, – to make them robust so they can stand on their own feet. We are going to have to work on this. This is not going to happen over night. I really think we have to have more people. We should have had this theatre full of people. We should have 1138 people, – and people standing outside demanding something happen. That would have been more effective.
Tanja Dixon Warren
I just want to say thanks for this event happening. I think it was great to hear from everybody. From my point of view, any theatre we can have just rocks my world. I love them all. They are magic to me. I love the new ones. I love the old ones. I think if we can save the ones we already have, that’s fabulous. I really believe in getting the public involved. I will be telling my dad, my brother, and all those people they can tell because they go to theatre. They come to watch their daughter some time and that’s a good reason to come. I think it’s just a matter of getting everybody on board and talking and passing the word around.
I don’t think it is just this size of a theatre. I can speak from the theatre community. Here the majority of our theatre companies are small, project based, and independent. We also need those 50-60 seat and 150-300 seat theatres that are affordable for smaller companies. For example when we produced ‘Headway’ it was sold out around the block, packed to the roof tops, we had this great deal, we had this funky venue but I spent too much of my budget buying chairs because venues aren’t basically equipped .
Many smaller companies are going into ‘found spaces’ and part of our responsibility is to make sure the bathrooms work. Then there is operational money. Suddenly we are trying to put our show up and we are spending our money on chairs, or making sure the pipes are safe to hang the lights, and making sure the bathrooms work. I think we really have another big, big, huge issue. I have learned being a venue operator myself and having taken over a venue a couple of years ago that gave me the take on that side of the business. The rents here are extraordinary. It is expensive to run a venue.
I think Roger was trying to capture it in some sort of business plan. Actors and people of the theatre are generally viewed as artsy and flaky, not business smart. But if we get in behind business people, sign on with them, work with the city so that we can get this strong overview culturally for our venues and our amenities, we can make this the kind of city we all dream of, – that we all know it can be.
That is the way to move forward. Events like this are vital to bring us all together. Yes, there are not enough of us here. But there are enough good minds here, there is enough passion here, to start to draw it together, to work through, to invent new ways in which we can come together, to create new venues in all sorts of different ways, and have them funded privately, and by non-profit societies, and in all sorts of different ways.
On behalf of our hosts, Heritage Vancouver, the Alliance for Arts and Culture, the Community Arts Council of Vancouver, the Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance, and the Downtown Vancouver Association, I would like to thank all of you for coming out and taking interest in this. Perhaps we will be able to keep the conversation going. Thank you all.
Conversation transcribed and edited by Shaheeda Shariff.
Janet Leduc of Heritage Vancouver is shepherding the future of the Vogue Theatre
Tom Durrie of Save the York Theatre Society is shepherding the future of the York Theatre
Charles Barber of The City Opera and Peter Fairchild of Pantages Theatre Society are shepherding the future of the Pantages Theatre.