Photo by Sarah Race.

Remembering Norman Armour⁠⁠—The Man Who Connected Vancouver Performing Arts to the World

The first time arts producer Norman Armour died, I wasn’t sure the shoes were really his. A man was lying on the floor during the intermission of Mary Margaret O’Hara’s legendary 2012 show at Club PuSh. Someone said it was Norman, but when I looked at the feet poking out from the crowd, I thought the footwear looked too shabby.

At least Norman’s friend Michael Boucher, an SFU arts programmer with a paramedic background, was paying proper attention. He saved Armour, whose own prior lives were as a Black Top cabbie and an Ultimate Frisbee player. After the ambulance arrived, the crowd was sent outside, while those in charge at Granville Island’s Performance Works decided whether the show could go on.

A lot has turned on Norman’s heart. It stopped again as the ambulance pulled away past the Arts Club Granville Island. But word eventually came from the hospital that he’d been declared properly alive, and the crowd was summoned. O’Hara stood centre stage in front of a fabulous group of local jazz musicians. She looked at the set list on the floor in front of her, hesitated, and then sang: “Whatcha gonna do when the body’s in trouble?”

On Monday, November 20 of this year, theatre mavens gathered at Granville Island Brewing to launch the 2024 PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. Norman Armour was on everyone’s mind. He’d died for real the night before at Vancouver General Hospital’s palliative care unit after an eight-month battle with lung cancer. It’s hard to imagine a loss more deeply felt in Vancouver’s arts community.

PuSh is just part of the reason for that.

Festivals have played a big role in building Vancouver’s cultural infrastructure. Vancouver is a young city, and it’s in Canada. We are not at the centre of things. Festivals helped build Vancouver’s arts audiences, touring capacity, and relationships between local and international artists. Vancouver’s jazz, folk, and children’s festivals were innovative enough to resonate well beyond our city and help us become our own place.

In 2003, though, theatre didn’t yet have that advantage. So with Touchstone Theatre’s Katrina Dunn, Armour founded PuSh. Everything became possible: blindfolded tours of the city, haircuts by children, a theatre production that shut down Water Street. “We developed an audience that trusted us,” Armour said.

It’s one thing to say he led PuSh, and he did, until 2018. It’s the how, though, that really matters.

PuSh exemplified all that is right and good about the arts community in Vancouver. It tackled Vancouver’s particular cultural challenges directly. Armour credited his time as a student at SFU, which “wasn’t about turning out people who waited for other people to create situations for you. You were going to create your own situations.”

Armour had Ontario family bona fides—leading lawyers and lecturers and theatre pioneers who shaped the cultural scene. He came from the quintessential Ontario town of Port Hope. Yet just as he chose theatre because it is collaborative, he chose Vancouver because its arts scene was not Toronto’s. We were having our own moment of collaborative growth.

Until PuSh, Armour ran the small local theatre company Rumble Productions. He was a theatre director and actor, whose IMDB profile lists roles in the middling sci-fi and TV cop shows that are the staple of the local production industry. He was Myron Overdick in Kingdom Hospital, and Dr. Sanford Ellicott in Supernatural, and he had a part in the Oscar-winning, Vancouver-produced Capote as a zealous “literary enthusiast.”

Vancouver has never been an easy city for young artists fresh out of school. “Who doesn’t immediately go ‘Do I stay here?’” Armour told SFU’s Am Johal last month on the Below the Radar podcast. Ultimately, he said, that forces you to focus on local relationships, and how people can work together, and what you have in common.

No one outstripped Norman Armour for building relationships among our artists and with those around the world. When tributes poured in, and they did pour into a Google doc that ran to 79 pages just a week after his death, they came from China, South Africa, Germany, New Zealand, Mexico, Argentina, England, and Belgium. Vancouver’s performing arts scene was often innovative, but it could also be parochial. PuSh opened it up. The walls between theatre, dance, song, design, and performance art fell away. International producers were invited to the city, and Vancouver artists toured the world more frequently. Armour’s sharp curatorial vision was central to all of that.

PuSh was a catalyst. One result is The Post at 750, where various Vancouver arts groups now share offices in underused space in the CBC building on Hamilton Street.

When Armour stepped aside from PuSh in 2018, he took a job as a North American ambassador for Australian culture. People knew what he had done, and what he could do. All of which was possible because he was so blessedly Norman. Always talking, but also always listening, to everyone, with both curiosity and compassion. Always ready to call bullshit, with a smile. Always funny.

One of his last projects was a collaboration with the Vancouver International Film Festival. In October, 32 Sounds and Winnipeg Babysitter—a documentary with Oscar-nominated director Sam Green as the live narrator, and a tribute to Winnipeg public-access television, respectively—exemplified how boundaries can be broken down. Another was a collaborative book on the history of stage performance in Vancouver, with artists at the helm.

Once, when Armour was in New York, he was surprised to learn that a stranger knew him by reputation, that he “took care of people.” What does it mean to take care of people? “That’s not me,” Norman said in the podcast interview. “It’s the people doing all the other work.” It is, he believed, about creating agency, creating a sense of community ownership.

Those things last. And they are made possible by people who have a clear vision but also some humility. Armour always shared the credit. Some he shared with his partner, artist and curator Lorna Brown. “I wouldn’t be alive now, if it wasn’t for her,” he said in the podcast.

A lot of memories and opportunities will live on because of Norman Armour, because he helped us work together. That was his choice, and we are better for it.

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Post Date:

December 1, 2023