Friday, February 01, 2019

"the best soil" - why pacific theatre grew where it was planted | ron reed

"Espresso" at Pacific Theatre

A few years back I did an interview with Jason Byasee, who was new in town and interviewing some Vancouver Christians whose work caught his interest. I suppose it was a way to get to know the lay of the land in his new city, and to meet people; Jason is a remarkable "connector." In fact, within a couple short years he had built such a remarkable network of relationships here that he ended up on the Pacific Theatre board, as an advocate and "cheer-leader" who is also very smart about leadership and most other things.

I recently heard from a theatre student in Iowa who had read the article and was puzzled about something. Jason summed up some of my meanderings this way: "There are other places where this could have worked, but we’d have been different. I’d have been a different person; I’d have built a different theater. But this place drew me. I’ve often wondered what it would have been like if we’d planted someplace else. But this is the best soil." What did I mean by my cryptic comment about "the best soil"? So this morning in an email I tried to make sense of that.

Here's what I wrote...

"The Seafarer" at Pacific Theatre

There have been a number of professional theatres with Christian mandates. Each company is quite distinctive, reflecting not only the attributes of its founder / artistic director, but also somehow suited to the city or region where it is located. Compared to four other such companies operating at the present time - Rosebud Theatre in rural Alberta, Chemainus Theatre on Vancouver Island, Taproot Theatre in Seattle, and Lamb’s Players in San Diego - Pacific Theatre includes in its repertoire plays which are much more “edgy,” and also tends to produce a higher proportion of plays which deal much more directly with Christian faith. Regarding that latter point, I should be clear that Taproot, Lamb’s, and Rosebud all do include a significant number of explicitly faith-related plays, and PT does produce about one a season without any direct religious element (this season, The Wolves; last season, Ruined and Almost Maine) but the other companies are far more likely to present shows which are simply good quality scripts without religious elements. Plays only Pacific would produce Espresso, Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train, The Seafarer, The Woodsman, Cherry Docs, etc. Plays the other companies would produce which PT would be very unlikely to choose: Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol (Rosebud), Arsenic and Old Lace (Taproot), Noises Off (Lamb’s), Little Women (Chemainus).

So my point about soil is that each company (plant) grows in a way that’s suited to the soil where it’s planted. Chemainus is a tourist destination; it avoids any edgy or challenging content, and aims for entertainment. Rosebud has that component, but was also founded with a very strong (and relatively conservative) Christian emphasis (more typical to Alberta than to the West Coast) - and it's near a big city allowing for more challenging content, at least on its small second stage. Lamb’s and Taproot are both in American cities, but originated as part of a vastly larger (and distinctively American) Christian/church subculture than you find in Vancouver, and still serve a core audience that originates in that subculture, so they are more likely to produce some plays which are just good old Americana, and perhaps feel less free to do plays which would likely alienate the core audience they have built. Pacific Theatre, on the other hand, is located in the centre of a very urban, very secular city, and in a theatre community which, apart from the two largest companies, is very edgy (and it's no coincidence that PT's founding artistic director - me - was drawn to and feels at home in that sort of theatre community). And even the Christian community here is far less culturally conservative than you would find in Alberta, or in an American city. So the plant that has grown here suits to its soil; we have the freedom to be much more challenging in the work we present, both because of the artistic community and the city we serve, and also because of the distinctives of the Christian subculture that has grown up here.

As I mentioned, it’s also true that because of my basic artistic interest and, I suppose, my CalArts training, I am an artistic director who is much more drawn to controversial material than some others (though the four I have referenced all have varying interest in / tolerance for such work; in some cases, they simply feel more constrained by other factors).  I just wouldn’t be interested in running a theatre where I was unable to create quite challenging/edgy work. Also, I am not ambitious to grow a large theatre: I very much prefer smaller, more intimate performance spaces, and my aversion to administration gives me no motivation to create a large company with a large staff which needs larger ticket sales to sustain itself. So as well as each company being shaped by its locale, it is shaped by the values and aspirations of its artistic director.

Also, when I founded PT, Vancouver had no other theatre company producing “Christian positive” plays, though that has shifted significantly over the years. But while "our kind of plays" do show up from time to time on other Vancouver stages now, faith-connected work is still our predominant emphasis in, as I have said, a very secular city. So as much as our faith orientation may limit our audience size (which is okay with me), it also creates a distinctive identity in a city with many other theatre companies. Lamb’s Players, Chemainus and Rosebud are in places with considerably less professional theatre, so they tend to produce varying proportions of work which simply serves an audience that just wants to see a good play. In Vancouver, there are many other options for “good plays” - but our faith mandate is distinctive in our city, and in the past 20 years (though not for our first 15) that uniqueness gives us a great deal of visibility (and affirmation) in the cultural community. In a town with dozens of smaller theatre companies, PT is definitely unique, and that distinct identity has attracted and built a very loyal audience. Clearly, the other companies I've mentioned have also forged highly distinctive identities, and in most cases their faith orientation is a significant part of that identity - but PT's programming is just that much more focused on plays that deal directly with those stories, themes, and characters.

My theatre would not have flourished in Chemainus, Lamb’s Players might not have suited Vancouver so well, etc. I probably said to Jason Byasee that "each community gets the theatre it deserves”, which is my tongue-in-cheek way of saying that the company evolves in ways that suit it to the soil (and cultural ecology) in which it grows.

"Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" at Pacific Theatre

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