Donna Spencer

At the Firehall Arts Centre, Donna Spencer has played mentor to actors and producers for more than three decades

In early 2011, Donna Spencer, long-time artistic director of Vancouver’s Firehall Arts Centre, was thinking about how to produce a show using Leonard Cohen’s music. She had just called a director in Thunder Bay, Ontario, who had recently done a musical production inspired by the Canadian songwriter, when a message came in from Vancouver playwright and actor Tracey Power. She was writing a Cohen show, she told Spencer; could they meet to talk about it? “It still gives me chills,” Spencer says. “I called her and said, ‘Have you been listening to my phone calls?’”

That “serendipity,” as Spencer calls it, allowed them to continue a history of working closely together. In 2002, when Power was fresh out of theatre school, Spencer cast her in a satirical comedy she was directing called Urinetown: The Musical. She then produced Power’s shows Living Shadows—A Story of Mary Pickford in 2007 and Back to You: The Life and Music of Lucille Starr in 2009. In 2012 the pair began working on Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, with Spencer as producer, Steve Charles as musical director and Power as writer, director and choreographer.

Spencer helped her shape the production, which tells the story of a writer who has lost his ability to write. “It wasn’t about me being the magic person who made this work. It was about us talking about things,” Spencer says. “I’m a very curious person, so when I’m producing I still ask questions: ‘What is happening? I don’t understand that. What does that mean?’ And if you do that in a non-judgmental way, there’s an answer that comes out that allows the piece to be more fleshed out.”

Nurturing talent has been her mission since she co-founded the Firehall Theatre Society in 1983. It’s easy to imagine Spencer in the role: Power describes the artistic director as “like a mom” to her, equally generous in her personal and professional lives. The Firehall gained a national reputation for launching new and diverse Canadian work, often political. All of the works in the theatre’s current season were written by women, including Power’s musical production Miss Shakespeare, which ran in November. “I didn’t sit down and say, ‘This is written by a man—throw it out,’” Spencer explains. “But the pieces that I thought our audiences would be interested in were written by women. The bigger stages are still dominated by male writers, and I believe that women tell stories in different ways.”

Chelsea Hotel premiered at the Firehall in spring 2012 and toured the country. The production saw 288 performances, and Spencer hopes to remount it soon. “She certainly took a chance on me with Chelsea Hotel,” remembers Power, who calls Spencer a “champion” of her work. “There’s people along the way in your journey as an artist that keep cheering you on, telling you to keep creating and telling stories. Basically she’s given me a stage. And that’s a huge gift because it makes you feel like what you’re doing matters.”