After 34 years producing children’s theatre at the Pumphouse, Storybook Theatre has announced through a scathing open letter that the company must find a cheaper venue. Storybook’s executive director, George Smith, writes that recent rate increases mean the Pumphouse is simply unaffordable and fees are not commensurate with what the venue provides.
“For us it represents a 70 per cent increase in a single year, and balloons even higher in the second year,” Smith’s letter reads. “Given the fact the Pumphouse has refused our many requests to meet and discuss alternatives or come up with compromises which would be beneficial to both parties, we are left to conclude that you are simply not concerned with losing us as a client.”
Pumphouse Theatre executive director Scott McTavish has faced a maelstrom of criticism from clients since a May 31 story in Fast Forward Weekly publicly revealed the theatre complex is doubling its rental rates.
It is not merely the price of putting on a show at the Pumphouse that theatre companies are taking issue with. Management and the conditions of the venue are drawing complaints as well.
“Dingy and old, carpets are old, stained and dirty looking, bathrooms, when they work, could use an upgrade. The lighting and sound system is in serious need of upgrading. I could go on,” says Mike Mathieu of Liffey Players, which left for a new venue in 2010.
“The theatre equipment, like sound board, CD players, light board, light instruments, etc. are horrendous and grossly inadequate,” Smith adds. “The seats are uncomfortable, the parking is not suitable, volunteers who sit in the green room regularly get bitten by spiders.”
“Outside of the Joyce Doolittle (Theatre), part of the ground caved in about a month ago. There’s some warning tape around the area and a hole in the ground. The bathrooms, dressing rooms and carpets need a major overhaul,” says Ayla Stephen of Sage Theatre.
“In the ladies’ washroom there’s only one tap that works properly. There’s one tap that burns people and then there’s another tap that freezes people. And then there’s two that don’t even turn on,” says Storybook Theatre’s president, Jacqueline Strilchuk. “There are bugs in the Pumphouse; they’re in the dressing rooms. They’re these little black bugs that congregate in the dressing rooms. It’s gross.... There are mice in the building. There’s one light circuit that works sometimes and doesn’t work sometimes. So we put our light in and for one show the actors are lit, and for the next show they go ‘oh boy, better change where I’m standing because there’s no light there.”
All four suggest the management at the Pumphouse, not funding, is the root of the trouble.
“The current decisions do not reflect a concern for the fate of their community partners. I think that is the core of this entire problem,” says Smith.
Sage’s Stephen says the Pumphouse management’s “situation and panic-mode decision-making will ripple through the ecology of the theatre community here. I think the landscape of Calgary theatre is going to have a shift in the next few years, but we’ve got a strong arts scene, and the community is tight, so it might just open us up to some new innovative ideas and companies.”
McTavish says his critics are missing the point.
“To boil the argument down to that sense of entitlement does a disservice to really what the discussion should be... which is the lack of appropriate incubator spaces in this city,” he says. “It should not be about the rate increase. Rate increases happen.”
He denies conditions at the theatre are as his critics allege, though he does admit to the obvious sinkhole in the lawn.
“Stuff isn’t more broken than before,” he says. “They’re saying we haven’t spent anything. It isn’t true.” McTavish explains some maintenance work was ignored while the Pumphouse was still planning a major expansion project. The project ran into funding problems and was cancelled in December 2011.
He says he has discussed these issues with clients numerous times, particularly to refute the allegation that rate increases are needed to pay for the cancelled expansion.
“That’s actually not the case. The reality is we’re talking about people who don’t know how to read financial statements,” says McTavish.
McTavish also says that if companies are forced to find cheaper grounds, there is little he can do to stop them, but he isn’t worried about filling their slot. He says when news of Storybook’s pullout broke, “within 10 minutes I literally had three emails in my inbox, all asking ‘so when are those dates? We’ll take them.’”
Meanwhile, Storybook’s Smith and Strilchuk are looking for a new home for the theatre’s popular Adventure Series. Strilchuk says their board of directors have all pledged to ensure the show goes on without interruption, merely in a different place. However, Strilchuk says she hopes the problems with the Pumphouse can be resolved and Storybook can return to its longtime home.
“I would like to be able to sit down and talk with [McTavish],” she says. “Our hope was that we could sit down and say, ‘hey, let’s all figure this out together.’ Because this is a building where there’s so many groups that come into this building who are having financial issues as well as us. And to price us out this way makes it impossible for a lot of people to be in this building.”
Strilchuk adds that while small theatre companies are willing to give the Pumphouse a lot of “leeway” in terms of the conditions, bigger players won’t.
“The state of the building the way it is, the people that could afford the new rates wouldn’t be in that building,” she says.