The Arts Club Theatre Company

Taking the stage.

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The Arts Club Theatre Company had its beginnings in 1964, at the old Seymour Street gospel hall that served as its original stage. Some of its most interesting plays originated there, as did its fixation on long-running hits like Jubalay and Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Since the Seymour Street Stage’s closure in 1991, the Arts Club went on to acquire three other venues: the Granville Island Stage, the Revue Stage (home to Vancouver TheatreSports League) and the beautiful art deco Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage.

The Arts Club Theatre Company used to be known as “the only game in town”, a description not without an edge of cynicism. With its constant production schedule—compared to the Vancouver Playhouse’s much more abbreviated one—Norm Foster comedies, for example, and musicals like Black and Gold Revue seemed to be trotted out endlessly. But it was argued that they subsidized more serious work, like the Restoration theatre classic She Stoops to Conquer and Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, and it’s true. The Arts Club has never forgotten its responsibility to produce the classics alongside its more contemporary productions.

The company’s 27 years at Seymour Street were an important part of Vancouver and Canadian theatre history. The tiny 250-seat stage helped launch the careers of Canadian talents such as Michael J. Fox, Bruce Greenwood and Brent Carver. And it was here that works by Canadian playwrights such as Michel Tremblay, David Freedman and Carol Bolt were introduced to Vancouver.

It seems a good time to talk to theatrical artistic director Bill Millerd, who came on in 1972. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 1994 for his contribution to Canadian theatre. Having attained the honour of being Canada’s longest-serving artistic managing director, Millerd continues to lead the Arts Club along a path of artistic and financial growth.

The acquisition of the Stanley in 1998 significantly changed the direction of the theatre, Millerd says, entailing a business plan to account for a virtual doubling of the audience. This meant working on a subscription campaign, among other things. But a board member, Stan Hamilton, and his wife, Kathy, also asked, “What would you like to do that you’ve never done before?” To which Millerd replied, “Commission new work.” So, future seasons’ 15 annual shows will include five new ones.

This season, as well, there is something special in a July 22–August 22 production: David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, starring Will & Grace’s Eric McCormack, an immensely likeable actor who lives part of the year in Vancouver. He plays Roma (portrayed by Al Pacino in the 1992 film adaptation), one of the sleazy real estate guys essentially selling Florida swampland to suckers. It was McCormack and fellow actor Vincent Gale who approached Millerd about Glengarry, and Millerd says he went for it, noting the play’s relevance. He points out a parallel situation: “There’s a housing crisis going on. Today these properties could be worthless.”

Toronto-born McCormack is no stranger to the stage. He has played at the Stratford Festival and worked in New York. “No, I’ve never done Glengarry before, but I did American Buffalo when I was at Stratford. The challenge and the fun of Mamet is his incredible dialogue,” McCormack says of the fragmented, rapid sentences. “It’s unapologetically blue, but it’s poetry. And it’s as hilarious as it is dangerous.”

With Glengarry Glen Ross, this summer promises to be one of The Arts Club’s finest, and the show should be one Vancouver’s hottest tickets. It is a good time to love the theatre.

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June 18, 2010