The new artistic director of Vancouver-based Arts Club Theatre Company aims to keep advancing one of Canada's oldest and largest cultural organizations
1. What’s the challenge in taking over from Bill Millerd, who was at the Arts Club for 47 years?
I would say it’s not a challenge; it’s an amazing opportunity. Bill’s created this fantastic legacy. The Arts Club is an incredibly vibrant place artistically, financially and organizationally. It’s a great launching pad for us moving into the future.
2. What were the main factors in choosing your first lineup, which starts in September?
When I’m thinking about programming, I think about the idea of conscious eclecticism. By that I mean intentionally trying to find shows that create sparks and rub up against each other. I don’t go, OK, we’re going to do a season about home, or we’re going to do a season about family. I read thousands of plays and watch a lot of theatre, and then I start to think about our audience and our three stages. There’s many other factors, too. I’m thinking about local voices and diversity and gender parity, and what shows are accessible, and which ones are pushing the genre or the form further.
3. How do you attract new audiences to the theatre scene?
I think there’s something about theatre that is an event, that is participatory. In this season, all of the 18 shows play with the relationship between the audience and the performer. By that I mean things like Blind Date, our first show of this season. In it there’s a clown who’s waiting for her blind date to show up, and he doesn’t. So she goes on a date with an audience member. All of the performances are very different; it’s all very consent-driven; no one gets dragged up on stage if they don’t want to be. So that’s one of the ways. There’s also getting titles like Mamma Mia! or Matilda, which everyone has heard of.
4. Arts organizations mainly get by on a combination of public and private funding, as well as box office receipts. How do you balance those?
Eighty percent of our revenue comes from our patrons, whether that’s box office or individual donations. So it’s a huge part of this organization and a high percentage for a not-for-profit. I think that’s something to be really proud of, the way we value our patrons and then our patrons in turn value us.
There are things that are important to a not-for-profit’s mission—like our educational opportunities, our professional development for artists—that are not revenue-generating. So when we do receive support through donations, or government support, those things help us create programming to better society as a whole.
5. What can other businesses learn from the Arts Club’s success?
The Arts Club has always been entrepreneurial; it’s always been scrappy. It started as a private members’ drinking club when the liquor licensors decided that you could only drink in public if you were part of a club. And that club decided they wanted to put on plays.
Now it’s the largest urban not-for-profit Canadian theatre company; they grew it from this tiny little thing to this. In the ’60s, there were regional theatres set up across Canada that received direct Canada Council funding, and this is not one of those theatre companies. So it’s always had to be patron-centric, to think about where the revenue is coming from. It’s both about being risky and entrepreneurial, while being detailed on expenditures.