Death of the Playhouse, Act 2: will arts community unite around a new strategy?

Vancouver Sun drama critic Peter Birnie, back in town after a year Down Under, has resifted the ashes of the Playhouse Theatre company collapse and finds lots of blame to go around, with special mention for the City of Vancouver.

The Playhouse’s handicaps included “a bureaucratic straitjacket” composed of the civic theatre agreement, union rules and delays in the delivery of replacement rehearsal space, caused  by the Olympics.

Birnie makes passing mention of revisions to the theatre agreement negotiated last year by Playhouse direct Max Reimer, but leaves out the city’s $1 million bailout and the decision to present God of Carnage, in an effort to mitigate losses, a decision that now appears ill-advised. The obstacles raised by the city for 40 years proved insurmountable.

Nonetheless, Birnie’s piece includes some useful comments from actress Jennifer Clement, part of a Playhouse 2.0 initiative that hopes to fill the gap left by the collapse. Filling that gap — and determining what is a gap and what is the disappearance of outdated approaches — is the main question explored by the Globe‘s Kelly Nestruck in a much more incisive piece.

“The Playhouse might be the canary in the coal mine for Canada’s regional theatre network,” says Nestruck, “which was set up in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s time to look at what that institutional model offers us and ask whether it’s good value for public money compared with the smaller, more dynamic companies that are in comparatively robust health.”

Is it possible the city’s “straitjacket,”, an expensive one by any standard, had a counterpart in an outdated, restrictive business and creative model? It will be hard to find out if the debate remains confined, as Nestruck warns, to “grief and denial.”

A closely-related issue that must be confronted to achieve real progress is well-captured in this Salon article tweeted as a “must read” by PuSh festival’s estimable director Norman Armour. The “creative class” is in deep trouble, the article concludes, but do “creative class” workers get stirring ballads written about them by Bruce Springsteen, like the regular working class? No! No respect!

I found myself thinking about the Salon article during a visit this week to the picket line being maintained by Rocky Mountaineer workers nearly a year after they were locked out. It’s worth a visit if you think life is better in the regular working class, where the plight of the “creative class” is the least of their worries.

In fact, creating theatre that reaches people like the Rocky Mountaineer crew, who hold down jobs in a host of other hospitality, creative and commercial sectors during the off season, may be part of the solution to problems illuminated by the Playhouse debate.