The sudden news that the Vancouver Playhouse is closing after 49 seasons comes as a shock, of course. We assume these venerable civic institutions will somehow always manage to lumber along, despite economic downturns and hostile governments and digital depredations. This, after all, was the company that gave Canadian theatre its seminal play, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, that launched numerous Canadian theatre luminaries (including playwright Sharon Pollock), that was the redoubt of the city’s grey hairs and monied class. Those theatres don’t just die, do they?
But, in some ways, its shuttering is no surprise at all. Vancouver has a distinctly pallid theatre scene, as compared with those of similar-sized Canadian cities (Toronto, Montreal) or even smaller ones (Edmonton, Calgary). It is notoriously a theatrical tough-sell. Various reasons are given for this: the weather, weak provincial funding, the vigorous local film and TV industry, which tends to tie people up in projects involving a lot of sci-fi gibberish. To these, I’d add another: a hostile and/or uninformed local media, including and particularly the city’s flagship paper, The Vancouver Sun.
For many years, the Sun was home to a critic who used theatre as an excuse for his witticisms (one problem being that the witticisms were not all that witty; we’re not talking Kenneth Tynan here). This set the tone for various media acolytes, who grew up believing what he wrote constituted good criticism. (I’m not naming the critic, by the way, because he passed away recently and, if I must speak ill of the dead, I can at least make them immune to a Google search.) It also set the tone for his successor, Peter Birnie (not dead) — one of the most flagrant examples of a theatre critic learning on the job in recent history. Birnie has now been around long enough — 15 years — that he seems to have come to know something about his beat, but his basic attitude of disdain for it, pretty neatly encapsulated here, remains. (Apparently he doesn’t much care for the audience, either.)
Like his predecessor, Birnie — whatever his opinion of a particular show, and despite his occasional resort to boilerplateisms like “a rollicking riot of fun” — is congenitally incapable of creating enthusiasm for the idea of theatre, of going to the theatre. He just doesn’t have it in him. Contrast this with, for example, Liz Nichols in The Edmonton Journal, who, though she is hardly a mindless cheerleader for anything that comes along, manages to write with an enthusiasm for her subject and, even in attack mode, an energy that suggests to her readers that theatre is something worth their while.
Theatre people tend to underestimate the impact of good or bad theatre criticism on its healthy development in any given community. They understand that a negative review will hurt the box-office for whatever show they have on at that moment, but not so much the long-term effect of a dolorous reviewer. And the critics themselves will almost always underestimate their clout, because they’re uncomfortable with the idea that they have power over artists’ careers and livelihoods. The more powerful their position, the more likely they are to claim that they have no effect. But, even in these days of fracturing media, a theatre critic on a major paper who, on the whole, would rather be elsewhere, or who regards himself as the main event, or who is simply uninteresting and without insight, can do major harm over the years.
Make that a few decades and you have Vancouver. I’m not saying lousy theatre coverage in the Sun is what killed the Playhouse. But it’s a factor among many that shouldn’t be ignored.