Academic journal article Theatre Research in Canada

Pushing Performance Brands in Vancouver

Academic journal article Theatre Research in Canada

Pushing Performance Brands in Vancouver

Article excerpt

In retail industry parlance, it was the equivalent of a soft opening. Two weeks before Robert Lepage would officially inaugurate the space with the Vancouver premiere of The Blue Dragon, the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival opened the new SFU Woodward's Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre to its first paying audience. On 20 January 2010, the sixth installment of the festival kicked off with Jerome Bel's The Show Must Go On, in many ways the antithesis of Lepage's spectacular style. Hoarding partially obscured the main atrium entrance, the last of the theatre's seats had just been installed, and crews were busy at work in other parts of the complex, which was slated to become the new home of Simon Fraser University's School for the Contemporary Arts later that fall. Still, there was palpable excitement in the air as PuSh Executive Director Norman Armour and Woodward's Director of Cultural Programming, Michael Boucher, took to the stage to welcome us not just to this new experimental theatre space, but to what those who had been following the progress of the Woodward's development in Vancouver's impoverished Downtown Eastside (DTES) hoped would be an equally successful experiment in community engagement and social action. Both had been key planks of the Woodward's brand ever since the project was announced in 2003, and all the public and private stakeholders and funders--including the city, the province of British Columbia, SFU, developer Ian Gillespie, and individual businessmen and philanthropists like Milton Wong--had bought into it. Armour, a SFU Contemporary Arts alumnus, worked hard to ensure that PuSh was one of the first cultural organizations to get in on the ground floor. (2) And to hear Armour and Boucher tell it that night, it was going to be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Certainly from their first conversations, Armour and Boucher recognized what each could give the other in terms of brand identity PuSh, whose mission is in part to present adventurous new work by international, national and local artists "in a spirit of innovation and dialogue" with the communities who inspire and receive it (PuSh, "Mission"), would gain access to SFU Woodward's state-of-the-art facilities, and in so doing have a recognizable downtown anchor for an important strain of its programming that spoke to the social and cultural complexities of urban living. SFU Woodward's, under immediate pressure to start paying for itself, could in turn tap into PuSh's growing audience base, one that tends to be younger, "hipper," and more receptive to interdisciplinary work--itself a key component of SFU Woodward's marketability as the newest one-stop performance hub in the city However, a year after Armour and Boucher stood side-by-side welcoming audiences to The Show Must Go On, their business relationship faced its first big test--at least from an outside perspective. I refer to the fact that in the interim SFU had accepted a $10,000,000 donation from mining corporation Goldcorp for naming rights to the Contemporary Arts complex. The resulting furor over Goldcorp's less-than-stellar human rights record, combined with the inevitable chatter of gentrification that increased as residents and businesses moved into the complex's condominium towers and retail spaces, might have meant that the glow around the Woodward's--and by extension PuSh's--brand would have been tarnished. By and large that has not happened. At the same time, the years since 2010 have brought other challenges for both organizations in terms of encouraging brand buy-in--from patrons, funders and area residents.

Using PuSh and SFU Woodward's as case studies, I ask: what happens when a performing arts institution's and a producing partner's mutual desire to produce intelligent work that speaks to the diverse urban community each claims to represent comes up against a competing corporate brand? How does this expose some of the complexities and faultlines in the "materialist geography" (McKinnie 13) that necessarily--and constitutively--informs both PuSh's programming at SFU Woodward's and the latter's placed-based identity within the DTES? …

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