VANCOUVER’S ARTS CLUB THEATRE ‘HEART’ BILL MILLERD IS STEPPING DOWN AS ARTISTIC MANAGING DIRECTOR
22ND FEBRUARY 2017
Bill Millerd, who has overseen Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre Company for over 40 years, building it into the top theatre company in Western Canada while mentoring such diverse talent as Michael J. Fox, Michael Buble, Nicola Cavendish and Eric McCormack, will step down as artistic managing director at the end of the 2017-18 season.
The 73-year-old Millerd has run the Arts Club since 1972 — for 45 of its 54 years — building it into the biggest urban theatre in the country (excluding Ontario’s Stratford and Shaw festivals). He has overseen the construction or renovation of four theatre buildings, the production of more than 550 plays — 178 of which he has directed himself — and built a large and loyal audience for the Arts Club with more than 17,000 season ticket holders in 2016-17.
He has also hired, cultivated and in some cases discovered many of the country’s best known and most successful playwrights, directors and performers, among them Bruce Greenwood, Janet Wright, Joan MacLeod, Morris Panych, Brent Carver, Ann and Jane Mortifee, plus Anosh Irani, in addition to Fox, Buble, Cavendish and McCormack.
As for Millerd’s proudest achievement? “Survival,” he said. “After 45 years the company is healthy and thriving, and in a very good position for future success.”
Arts Club executive director Peter Cathie White and board chair Bruce Flexman, who will help oversee the search for a new artistic director, credited Millerd for much of the theatre company’s success.
“Bill Millerd has been the heart of the Arts Club for 45 years, and I have enjoyed immensely the time that I have had the privilege of working with him,” Cathie White said in a statement. “He stewarded this theatre company from being a 150-seat venue to what it is today — Canada’s largest not-for-profit urban theatre company.”
They point to his leading the Arts Club from its origins in the small Seymour Street theatre to its current year-round programming on three stages (the Stanley on South Granville, the Granville Island Stage and the new BMO Theatre Centre in Olympic Village) plus a three-show annual tour, significant new play development programs and a stable financial base.
Millerd has also been devoted to producing new work. Nearly 20 per cent of the company’s productions during his tenure have been premieres, a trend that will continue during his final season in 2017-18, which will feature three new plays plus the second run of three earlier Arts Club premieres.
Along with this original work, the rest of the 2017-18 season represents the winning formula that Millerd has developed over his four-and-a-half decades at the helm: Tried-and-true popular musicals, comedies and dramas, recent hits from Broadway and the West End, a couple of edgy contemporary plays and remounts of modern classics.
Nearly half of next season’s 16 offerings come from Canadian playwrights, in a strong representation for a company with the kind of broad popular mandate the Arts Club enjoys. That has been one of Millerd’s signal achievements: From the beginning he’s championed Canadian work, something that might be considered natural for a Canadian theatre company but which has historically been far from the case.
Born and raised in West Vancouver, Bill Millerd majored in political science at UBC and then went to Montreal’s National Theatre School to study stage management. Returning to Vancouver in the late 1960s, he stage-managed for the Vancouver Playhouse and Arts Club, both having opened only a few years earlier. He also began directing, and in 1972 took over running the Arts Club, then operating out of a second-floor former gospel hall at the corner of Seymour and Davie streets.
Millerd called himself artistic director. “I had to have a title,” he said, “but it was a very informal relationship. I had no formal contract until the early 2000s.”
In his first season, the company had a $150,000 budget and an audience of 29,000. The corresponding numbers for last season were $16 million and 255,000. Under his stewardship the Arts Club has become a major local employer, with over 320 permanent staff plus an annual hire of more than 500 actors, designers, directors, musicians, composers and playwrights. With the demise of the Playhouse a few years ago, the Arts Club has become the primary venue for live performing arts in the region.
In addition to overseeing the construction of two Granville Island theatres — the Granville Island Stage in 1979 and the Revue Stage in 1983 — Millerd helped save the old Stanley Theatre and shepherded its reopening in 1998 as the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage. He helped broker the deal with the city that led to the opening in 2015 of the BMO Theatre Centre in Olympic Village, the Arts Club’s current third venue.
Millerd has also fostered the expansion of Arts Club programming to include the fast-growing suburban communities around Vancouver. Its three annual touring productions now reach Burnaby, Surrey, North and West Vancouver, Coquitlam, Chilliwack and as far afield as Mission and Vancouver Island.
And his plans for life after the Arts Club? “I’ll be moving on to the next phase,” he said.