Queer Theatre Companies Struggle for Space in Vancouver

Is something like Toronto's Buddies in Bad Times possible here?

September 21, 2018

By Becca Clarkson / Photo: Poly Queer Love Ballad

You’d be hard pressed to find another slam-poetry musical centred around the relationship between a polyamorous bi-sexual and monogamous lesbian in Vancouver—the same city boasting Canada’s only gallery presenting multidisciplinary queer art.

Even after the SUM Gallery opened this March, the co-creators of Poly Queer Love Ballad say the scope of work that can be queer made or have queer themes is limited by Vancouver’s lacking resources.

Anais West and Sara Vickruck won this years Fringe New Play Prize for their cross-genre fiction—though it’s based on the couple’s lived experiences. Part of that prize, valued at $8000, was free rehearsal and performance spaces.

“If you don’t have space to perform your art, what do you do?” Vickruk says. That question was a theme at a panel recently held by the Frank Theatre Company on the future of queer theatre in Vancouver.

The Queer Arts Festival successfully secured the funding required to open SUM Gallery’s tiny flex space this year, but one permanent space will not supply the demand for queer made queer content.

“There are many kinds of queer work, and different forms require different kinds of spaces,” says QAF Artistic Director SD Holman. They were approached by West and Vickruck at last year’s festival, and agreed to host the pair’s show at SUM Gallery next May.

“My favourite thing is cross-genre work, and this show melds slam poetry, theatre and music together,” says Holman. “It’s a story that’s not often told, poly and queer, and as queers we have to tell our stories over and over because they continually get erased.”

All six performances of Poly Queer Love Ballad received a standing ovation at the 2018 Vancouver Fringe Festival, and two shows sold out Revue Stage’s 198 seats. But not every one can take the risks that made West and Vickruck’s project so successful.

“The stakes are so high and the risk is so big in terms of what you could lose, money wise,” West says, adding that when larger mainstream companies do queer work, it’s generally not new. “It’s Angels in America, or a Tennessee Williams play that’s tried and true.”

This year, Vickruck performed with the Arts Club Theatre Company when they put on Fun Home–a show written by lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel that boasts Broadway’s sole lesbian protagonist.

“Certain things could have been done better about the show and marketing it, but it’s a step in the right direction. We need it to not just be a queer theatre company’s rally,” says Vickruck.

“We dream of a larger theatre space like Buddies in Bad Times here in Vancouver,” adds Holman.

It’s hard for Artistic Director Evalyn Parry to imagine Toronto’s theatre scene without Buddies in Bad Times—a completely queer staffed, queer focused company founded in 1978.

“The bar would be set a lot lower on what theatre can be and do to challenge society and create community,” Parry says. The theatre’s been the 40-year-old company’s home since 1992. “Having access to space like this allows for the development of new queer work, the distinctive queer aesthetic and voice in the city.”

While Parry can only speculate on why it’s taking Vancouver so long to secure a permanent space for queer theatre, she can guarantee affordability has a lot to do with it.

“The levels of poverty and suicide in the queer community—they’re social markers that tell us many people inside these groups don’t have the same access to resources. With artists it’s all about resources.”

Having a permanent office space, let alone a permanent black box and cabaret that can seat 400, is unheard of for queer theatre companies in Vancouver. Even advertising was hard for West and Vickruck to secure. Facebook refused to promote the shows trailer or images, in which the underwear clad pair share a kiss.

“They said too much skin was showing and that they were too sexual in nature,” West says, though she’s personally seen content promoted with women in underwear on the same site. “I feel like it probably has more to do with the queer aspect of the show.”

And while Holman believes it will always be difficult to be a non-commercial artist and space in a gentrifying city, they still have recommendations for Vancouverites looking to help in queer theatre’s rally for space.

“If you see a lack, don’t make it a competition, create the space you need, just like we did in creating QAF and now SUM. Make friends and partners in art with us,” Holman says.

“Remember we are queer artists just trying to support artists and bring you interesting work; none of us can be everything to everybody.”

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