A Gospel Hall Turned Theatre
The Arts Club was founded in 1958 as a private club for artists, musicians and actors. In 1964, it was renamed the Arts Club Theatre Company and it opened to the public in a converted gospel hall at 1181 Seymour Street. Its founders included Yvonne Firkin (B.C.’s “First Lady of Theatre” according to Vancouver historian Chuck Davis) and CBC radio personality Otto Lowy. The first production was Moss Hart’s Light Up the Sky. The 250-seat theatre helped to launch the careers of Canadian performers like Michael J. Fox, Eric McCormack, Bruce Greenwood, Ruth Nicol, Janet Wright, Winston Rekert, Lally Cadeau, and Brent Carver. Additionally, new works by playwrights including Nicola Cavendish, Morris Panych, Sherman Snukal, Anne Mortifee, and John Lazarus premiered at this theatre.
Bill Millerd – Canadian Theatre’s Longest Serving Artistic Director
Bill Millerd took over as artistic director in 1972 and would hold the position for the next 45 years, making him the longest serving artistic director in Canadian theatre. Millerd oversaw the growth of the company to include year-round programming, the construction or renovation of four theatre buildings (see below) and the building of a large and loyal audience (the company had more than 17,000 season ticket holders in 2016-17). Over 550 plays were produced during Millerd’s tenure, over 150 of which he directed himself. “One thing that set the Arts Club apart from the Playhouse, the major game in town at the time, was Millerd’s brave programming of gritty new Canadian plays like David Freeman’s Creeps, David Fennario’s On the Job (the professional stage debut of Bruce Greenwood) and the West Coast premieres of Michel Tremblay’s plays in English translation,” writes UBC Theatre professor Jerry Wasserman. “Another distinction was Millerd’s decision to stick with local acting talent and develop local playwrights… Vancouver audiences responded enthusiastically to work that was from their community and about it.” Millerd, who received the Order of Canada in 1994, announced his plans to retire at the end of the 2017/18 season.
Expanding into Western Canada’s top theatre company
In 1979, the Arts Club moved to a 450-seat theatre on Granville Island and four years later, it acquired the smaller Revue Theatre next door. The 1990s were a time of major transition for the Arts Club. The original Seymour Street location was closed for demolition in 1991, but in 1998, the Arts Club took over the historic Stanley Theatre, a former movie theatre on South Granville. The new 650-seat location allowed the company to produce larger musicals like Mary Poppins, Beauty and the Beast and Billy Elliott. In its first season at the Stanley, the company took in more revenue than the rival Vancouver Playhouse for the first time in its history. In 2015, the Arts Club expanded again to a state-of-the-art theatre space at the BMO Theatre Centre in Olympic Village, a space it shares with Bard on the Beach. From humble beginnings in a 250-seat space on Seymour, the Arts Club Theatre Company is now Canada’s largest not-for-profit urban theatre company and the largest theatre company in Western Canada.
The Vancouver International Film Centre
The original Arts Club Theatre was closed for demolition in 1991. “When the building was torn down — which was about a year after we left — we went and scavenged some bricks,” says Millerd. “I gave one of the bricks to the film festival at the time when they were opening their building.” In 2005, the site once again became a space for showcasing arts and culture, when the Vancouver International Film Centre was built. Home to the offices of the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Centre offers year-round programming, screening films from around the world.
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