Running the show

Image via Thinkstock
Image via Thinkstock

Local producer/director Matthew Willis talks Vancouver theatre

By Adam Tatelman, Staff Writer

The paradox of theatre performance in Vancouver is one of quantity. There are lots of opportunities, but also a surplus of actors. Combine that with super-expensive venues and advertising, and you have a perfect roadblock to discourage new faces from chasing their dreams on stage. What’s a young director to do?

Matthew Willis, head of Quimera Theatre Collective, met with the Other Press at the Vancouver Public Library this week to discuss his methods of producing and directing theatre.

“The first concern for me is space,” said Willis. “Something that’s been emerging in Vancouver is site-specific theatre. It can be done in a library, a parking lot.”

Insurance and zoning permits for site-specific performances can be acquired for close to $200, according to Willis. This is a mere fraction of what a formal venue would cost. For example, a space like the Queen Elizabeth Theatre rents to non-profit organizations for over $3,000, according to their website.

A great challenge, of course, is always the budget. Aspiring directors must always be willing to invest some of their own money into their projects, fully cognizant of the risk involved. The director’s goal should be to pay back all investors on a first-come-first-served basis.

Willis also finds it difficult to advertise on a low budget. Street-level productions cannot usually afford the large-scale billboard advertising that bigger theatre companies use. Instead, he relies on word of mouth.

“Social media is extremely helpful. Facebook, Twitter updates, Vlogs, Blogs,” said Willis. “I do a lot of cold-calling to artistic directors and theatre companies saying, ‘Look, I have this show going on, come see it.’”

He also sends over 500 e-mails per production.

In the course of any production, Willis finds that advertising auditions is less onerous since most Vancouver actors use the same sources to find parts.

“In my audition process, it’s not about finding who looks the part—it’s about finding who can do the part the way you want it,” he said. “The Vancouver Public Library has an audition page that actors visit quite frequently.”

He also recommends the use of Facebook groups to get the word out.

“Get as many people in the room as you can, because you’re literally shot-gunning it,” he said.

Willis also advises directors to take full advantage of post-secondary funding opportunities to improve their skills.

“You have to find an opportunity to make mistakes. The best place to do that is at school. I wouldn’t be the producer I am today if it wasn’t for the UBC Players Club,” he said. “This is your laboratory. This is your time to explore and to make mistakes and learn your own voice as an artist.”

Though Quimera Collective is an unofficial organization, Willis recommends creating a non-profit company. There is a lot of paperwork involved, but also a lot of benefits.

“You can write tax-refundable receipts for donations. You can get free space at CBC studios,” he said. “There are grants you can apply for that are only available to organizations.”

Willis described the rapid turnover among theatre artists as “a war of attrition,” though he maintained that a love of his work makes the struggles of production worthwhile.

“One of the things I love about being a producer is being able to make work happen for other people,” he said. “I get a satisfaction from just doing that, and I’ll keep doing it.”