Mark Leiren-Young & TJ Dawe in a jail cell on the Firehall Arts Centre stage for the opening night of You Should Have Stayed Home: A G20 Romp).
Mark Leiren-Young, TJ Dawe and other prisoners in a jail cell on the Firehall Arts Centre stage for the opening night of You Should Have Stayed Home: A G20 Romp.

When the Vancouver Sun’s entertainment editor asked if I was interested in becoming the paper’s new theatre critic I didn’t hesitate for a second before answering. “Hell no.”

Back when I was a baby, I worked as the theatre critic for The Georgia Straight and CBC TV and it did wonders for my career as a playwright… in Alberta.

The Sun’s editor, Margaret Langrick, was an old friend and she’d asked me a few times whether I was game to fill in as a reviewer. I’d passed. But now the paper’s longtime critic, Peter Birnie, was taking a buyout.

Maggie’s pitch: She wanted me to help her make the case that theatre in Vancouver was worth covering in an age when daily newspapers everywhere are axing their theatre sections. I wouldn’t have to stick around for long. I’d get to write a lot of profiles – and I love interviewing people and sharing their stories. If I ran into a show I didn’t feel comfortable covering because, say, the actor’s next gig was starring in, or directing, a one-man show I’d just written (thank you Ryan Beil, Zachary Stevenson & TJ Dawe) I could hand the story to another writer. Best of all, I could help spread the word locally and nationally about Vancouver’s thriving theatre scene.

When I meet people who are still moaning that the death of the Playhouse is an indication of the health of the city’s cultural landscape all I can think of is… wow they must not get out much… because the Arts Club, Bard on the Beach, the Cultch, the Firehall and more amazing indie companies than I can list are programming seasons that would stand up anywhere in Canada.

Of course I saw shows that weren’t my cup of chai, opening nights where tech glitches sent something sideways and productions that didn’t fire on all cylinders. But I saw very few shows that didn’t make me think… this was worth two hours of my time.

And I didn’t see that coming.

A few years ago I vowed I’d never attend another production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’ve seen too many and loathed most of them. Not only did I love the recent Bard on the Beach production, but I was so concerned that my reviews for their 25th anniversary season had all been raves that I brought a friend – a former actor – to the last show as an additional critical eye. Instead of telling me I’d lost my edge, she almost led the opening night standing ovation for Cymbeline.

I caught Ensemble Theatre’s production of The Farnsworth Invention for fun. I took my friend Bob who isn’t a theatre guy. When I told him afterwards that I wasn’t reviewing it, he got angry with me. “It’s a fantastic show,” Bob said. “You have to tell people about it.”

He was right. So I did.

But there were too many nights that I felt the same way Bob had – and there was no budget or space for an extra theatre story. Instead of writing a feature, or a review, the best I could do was toss out a mention on my blog, Facebook or Twitter.

Because The Sun had switched from a full time critic to a freelancer, I spent my first few months on the job explaining to publicists why I couldn’t cover everything Peter had. No, I was not available to deal with this gig – or their queries – every day. And yes, I agreed their show or story was important, but there was no budget for me cover it.

The first two conversations eventually died down. The third never did. For every story I wrote for The Sun, I ended up in at least a half dozen conversations with publicists, artistic directors and actors about the stories I couldn’t write.

I should have blown these off, but I know how hard it is to put on a show. And how hard it is to sell it. And how indie productions, co-ops and Fringe babies are often the culmination of years of blood, sweat, dreams and passion.

I once spent a season doing publicity for the New Play Centre, trying to convince Peter Birnie to review our shows. My new book – Free Magic Secrets Revealed – is all about producing a disastrous play back when I was a teenager. It has a chapter about me trying to convince Vancouver’s critics to cover the show, so I won’t lose my shirt.

Even when I couldn’t review shows for The Sun, I’d try to see them. I wanted to keep on top of who was doing what and I needed to weigh in on work that was new and innovative as a member of the Jessie critic’s jury.

As budgets and pages at The Sun got tighter I kept running into months where eight stories became seven… or six… or five. And I knew… I couldn’t justify the time it takes to stay on top of this beat for a half dozen stories a month. And I’d originally said I wasn’t going to stick around for long – and that was back in the summer of 2012.

And I kept thinking… it’s time to quit…

Then I’d keep thinking… If I stick around another month I can interview Stephen Schwartz and ask him what it was like working with Doug Henning.

I can write a story about one of the people who helped launched my theatre career – Donna Spencer – and how she’s acting again.

My last assignment as the Sun’s theatre guy – a preview of The Arts Club’s Twisted Christmas Carol.

I love that I’m signing off with a story about a show that was sparked by local treasure, David C. Jones – who dedicates so much of his time to promoting – and improving – the city’s theatre scene.

There was always a theatre story I was excited to write, a show I was psyched to see, a production I wanted to let the world know about.

And there always will be.

And I always will write at least a few of these stories.

Somewhere.

It has been a treat attending so many fantastic shows, profiling so many talented artists and writing for the newspaper I grew up dreaming of writing for.

Thanks to the theatre community – for all the great shows.

Thanks to the passionate publicists who hounded me about everything in town.

Thanks to the Sun – and my editors Margaret Langrick and Francois Marchand – for giving me the chance to cover one of the best beats in the city.

And now… I’ve got my own scripts to write…

I’m working on a commission from the Arts Club about a group of real life heroes I’ve been aching to write about for years… a documentary about Moby Doll, the killer whale that changed the world (follow us here and @mobydollmovie)… and a screenplay for the next feature film I’m set to direct – the story of a friend whose life was saved when he discovered theatre, like so many of our lives are.

And to anyone out there who loves theatre – when you see a great show please spread the word. I’d hate to miss it.

Mahalo,

Mark

The Stars on top of the tree at A Twisted Christmas Carol
The Stars on top of the tree at A Twisted Christmas Carol

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