Firehall Arts Center celebrates 40, welcoming audiences back to live theater again — Stir

LOOKING BACK AS THE Firehall Arts Center opens its 40th season, Donna Spencer admits to feeling some of the same challenges she did back in the early 1980s after the theater first opened its doors.

This post-pandemic live season isnt exactly like starting all over again. When the 1906 firehouse—Vancouver’s first—was converted into a theater in the early 1980s, Spencer came on board to help build its audiences and programming from the ground up. But she admits with a good-natured laugh that entering the 2022-23 season after a few years of full and semi-shutdowns in the performing arts gives a slight sense of déjà vu: “It does kind of take me back to a feeling of a new frontier in some ways.”

“What it does feel like in many ways is, yes, we are rebuilding our audiences,” she explains to Stir. “When I got involved in the arts in my early days, we did not have a vibrant community of arts and we did not have as many companies or opportunities to see theater and dance. And in the intervening years, Vancouver has grown in terms of the number of artists who live here and the opportunities.

“We really do want people to come back and enjoy theater and dance in a way that they did before,” she adds of the process she faces in the 2022-23 season, “and I think it’s going to be difficult, because we all have new habits. That’s really a goal that all of us that are creating performances and productions are going to have to embrace. We have been told, all of us, to stay apart. We’ve been told to enjoy things online—and for very good reason! But that has created new habits. We’re not used to going out joyfully to the theater and not questioning whether we’re going to be safe.”

This season’s roster is programmed in part with getting people back into seats for live performances. If there was a guiding theme for the plays, dance, and musicals hitting the intimate stage this season, it’s “hope”—something Spencer feels audiences are looking for right now.

That plays out in Khoj – A Contemporary Kathak Dance Extravaganza, the Indian classical dance show that kicks off the season this week, featuring Edmonton’s Usha Gupta Dance. It’s followed October 14 and 15 by The Unbroadcast Life of Mildred Bailey: produced by Red Cedar Theater and directed by Columpa Bobb, it’s about the influential Indigenous-American jazz singer of the 1930s, with music and story by Russell Wallace with music by Tony Wilson. Even Manami Hara’s work, Courage Now(November 19 to December 4, coproduced with Vancouver Asian Canadian Theater), about a dark chapter in history, has a hopeful story: it follows the real-life tale of Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara, who helped thousands of Polish and Lithuanian Jews escape the Nazis in 1940.

That kind of programming stays true to the guiding principles of inclusion that Spencer had in mind when the Firehall was just starting out. Look at some of the venue’s first decade of programming, and you see that it was a pioneer in diversity in the arts: R.A. Xiaomi’s Yellow Fever; David Henry Hwang’s OB (Fresh Off The Boat), George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum, or George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe.

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