It was an opening night that almost didn't happen. God of Carnage was supposed to end the season for the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company, but when the company announced its abrupt closing last month, the production was left in the lurch – as was the co-producer, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.
Behind the scenes, a flurry of negotiations began almost immediately to bring God of Carnage to the Playhouse Theatre anyway (the city-owned physical theatre remains open). Vancouver Civic Theatres announced that it would present the show, and there was joy and relief in the arts community.
Many people had attended a hastily arranged protest outside the theatre the day after the closing was announced. They carried clever signs, traded stories about the company's 49-year run, shed tears. They said they wanted a chance to show their commitment to the Playhouse. Also, they wondered, wasn't there any way to save it?
Actor John Cassini is asking where those people were last Thursday, when God of Carnage opened to an almost half-empty theatre. "It spoke volumes," says Cassini, who is one of the play's four stars and the only one who lives in Vancouver. "I don't know where the fight for the theatre was on that night."
The Playhouse has 668 seats. On opening night, 343 tickets were spoken for. Of those, 256 were comps.
"That was an epic fail," Cassini says. "To come out ... and see those empty seats, I've got to say, in the first couple of minutes of the show, I think we were all, as actors, a little shocked."
He had seen opening night as an opportunity to make a statement about the importance of the Playhouse and theatre in general in Vancouver. Imagine the message that a sold-out house could have sent, he says. "It was an embarrassing display."
After God of Carnage's well-attended run in Winnipeg, and given the meaning attached to this show-that-almost-wasn't, Cassini had anticipated a frenzy at the box office, and certainly a packed opening night. "In all honesty, it was a little heartbreaking."
The audience noticed too. Actor Mackenzie Gray, who has recently wrapped filming Man of Steel, has never worked for the Playhouse, but has been active in the protests and was there on opening night. "I hardly saw anybody from our community there and I was just shocked," he says. "I thought, 'How could they not be here?' "
Gray went home and posted a message on Facebook. "Okay Vancouver, I dare you: make a [expletive]effort," it began, noting that the play was excellent, but attendance was "pathetic."
It's possible that a $20 charge may have stood between a sold-out house and what the Playhouse got. The company has traditionally papered the house on opening night by offering complimentary tickets to members of the theatre community. For this performance, while there were some invited guests (including media), some people who usually receive comps were offered tickets at $20 each.
"I don't know if it's a sense of entitlement, but it's easy to say I'm fighting for the theatre when you never pay for it," Gray says.
The leadership of the Playhouse announced its closing on March 9; its debt load of up to $1-million was unsustainable.
The financial problems were partly a result of its much-criticized operating model: The resident company of the Playhouse had to rent the unionized facility from the city, and was not receiving an annual municipal operating grant. Last year, the city approved a bailout package totalling close to $1-million, but the company was unable to resurface from a perfect storm of challenges, which included the recession.
Gray says poor attendance at the Playhouse could detract from the community's appeal to City Hall for help. "You've got to show the bean counters at the city, who just look at bums in seats and say, 'Oh, you couldn't even come to the opening of the final show of the company's history that took months and months of negotiating and wrangling?' "
Ticket sales are improving with word of mouth and some good reviews, but the performances are hardly selling out. "The trend lines are looking the way I want them to," Vancouver Civic Theatres director Rae Ackerman says, "but we have a long way to go."
God of Carnage is at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre until May 5.