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Theatre companies tiptoe warily into new arts space

At the base of the enormous Wall Centre development near Vancouver’s booming Olympic Village neighbourhood is a 260-seat theatre space…

By rheatherington , in Culture , on November 21, 2012 Tags: , ,

The Olympic village cultural space (concept drawing shown) will be the future home of three theatre companies
(Illustration: GBL Architects)

At the base of the enormous Wall Centre development near Vancouver’s booming Olympic Village neighbourhood is a 260-seat theatre space first intended for the Vancouver Playhouse.

When the Playhouse closed this past March, it was unclear what would happen to the space.

That question was answered recently when the city of Vancouver conditionally accepted a proposal from the Pacific Theatre, the Arts Club Theatre Company and Bard on the Beach.

This will allow Pacific Theatre to move out of the church basement where it co-exists with Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, give Bard on the Beach its first real home, and provide adequate rehearsal space for the cramped Arts Club. Not to mention the immeasurable community solidarity and cultural appeal for Olympic village.

This past summer the city asked for applications from local non-profit arts organizations and attracted the interest of Ballet B.C. and Goh Ballet among others.

But only the theatre companies proposed to use the entire 44,000-square-foot space, putting them at the top of the list. According to Frank Nickel, production and business manager for Pacific Theatre, the theatre companies’ successful application stood out for its comprehensive plan and collective approach.

[pullquote] Vancouver’s theatre companies: A closer look

Pacific Theatre

This founder-driven company is in its 29th season and extends religious purpose to its community involvement. The company’s apprenticeship program has produced successful actors, directors and technicians who go on to work professionally in the arts.

The Arts Club

The Arts Club has big things planned for its 50th anniversary next year. Vancouver residents can look forward to a collaboration with Emily Carr students, who will design a program linking all three of their stages, an outdoor urban art project in collaboration with the Vancouver park board, and much more.

Bard on the Beach

Now in their 24th season, Bard on the Beach attracts tens of thousands of patrons each year to their beautiful waterfront location in Vanier Park. As well as producing over 200 performances in the summer, Bard on the Beach offers Young Shakespeareans Summer Workshops, and the learning continues with Bard in the Classroom during the school year.[/pullquote]

Nickel says the move will be a significant upgrade for Pacific Theatre and give audiences a premium theatre experience.

“While our art is truly outstanding and Jessie Award-winning, our facilities are not…so being in that new space would be a big game-changer for us.”

Hurdles ahead

Wall Financial Corporation is still building the cultural space. When it is finished, it will be transferred to the city. The city then plans to lease the space rent-free, according to the city’s cultural services office.

Operating costs and lease agreements are still unconfirmed and the $12-million construction price tag to outfit the unfinished space will be the first challenge for the three theatre groups to overcome.

With the death of the Playhouse and the recent announcement that MusicFest Vancouver 2013 has been cancelled, the project is coming at a difficult time for the arts in Vancouver. All three companies are working on extensive fundraising and feasibility studies that Nickel says are vital to prevent another loss for the city’s cultural community.

“After the collapse of the Playhouse Theatre Company, the city has to be really cautious that they don’t set people up for failure, especially arts organizations.”

Community impact

Wall Financial, which has helped restore several other theatres in the city including the Stanley and the York,  built the theatre space as a community amenity contribution valued at $7.7 million.

Nickel says the value of a theatre in Olympic village is potentially exponential, particularly when Pacific Theatre also plans to rent out space to other arts associations.

“Performing arts organizations or performance places for theatre, music, that kind of stuff really can anchor a neighbourhood and provide spinoff benefits for restaurants, bars and afterhours activities.”

Howard Jang, executive director of the Arts Club, says the diverse range of residents in Olympic Village gives theatre companies a whole new opportunity for public engagement. He is excited about the possibility of operating in that neighbourhood.

“It’s one thing to have a London Drugs down there but…[the cultural space] could very easily be a microcosm for what a community is built around.”

Olympic village’s new cultural space will house Pacific Theatre productions such as The Spitfire Grill. (Photo: Francesca Albertazzi)

Kaylee Johnston, a Vancouver-born musician, is looking forward to the arts community moving into her neighbourhood.

“I think that’s amazing. Right now, a lot of the arts stuff is happening downtown and in Mount Pleasant but not in the specific area of the Olympic Village. There’s actually nothing going on.”

Christopher Gaze, artistic director for Bard on the Beach, also anticipates a thriving cultural centre, and said in an email that the assortment of people and liveliness associated with culture spaces carries a strong energy.

“Imagine all the actors, stage management, cutters, sewers, administration, artisans all pouring in and out of the area – and a theatre to boot! We can be a hub of artistic activity in a new and vibrant community. It has thrilling potential and I hope with all my heart that we achieve our dream.”