The Cultch is an arts community center showcasing artists and their work in a historic church building. In this episode, Douglas Nelson presents Heather Redfern, the Executive Director at The Cultch. The Cultch is a presenting organization that doesn’t produce its own work. Instead, it presents the work produced by other companies. Follow the story of organization as the number of seats they had in the theater couldn’t support the organizational growth. Suddenly COVID hit, and they quickly had to adjust. While canceling plans for next year was a painful exercise, it was also necessary to make space for new things. Want to know what happened next? Tune in!
Listen to the podcast here:
The Cultch With Heather Redfern
Our very special guest on the show is Heather Redfern. She’s the Executive Director of The Cultch and we’re thrilled to have her on the show.
Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Heather, we start these conversations with our guests giving the opportunity to share the great work of their organizations. I’m excited to know the work of The Cultch.
The Cultch has been around for many years. We’re at the corner of Venables and Victoria drive in a residential neighborhood in East Van. We have been there operating as an arts community center if you like. In 2013 we expanded. We took over and renovated space on Commercial Drive, which is a couple of blocks from The Cultch called the York Theatre. We run the York Theatre, which has 350 seats and the Historic Theater, which is our original venue, has 200 seats. We also have a studio space called the C-Lab, which has about 70 seats. What we do there is we program the contemporary performing arts as well as we use our lobby as a little bit of a gallery as well.
A lot of people don’t know about The Cultch because it is a presenting organization, which means that we don’t produce the work that we present, whether it’s dance, theater, music, or circus produced by other companies. We present them as part of a season of work. That is our main focus. The venues are also used and rented out to community groups. We do provide spaces for artists who are developing new work and community programs such as our youth programs. We do a whole bunch of things that go beyond and put on shows.
I like that concept of an arts community center. As you expanded in 2013 to take over and renovate the York Theatre, what was it like before you made the decision to do that? That was a fairly significant fundraising campaign. A big change in your organization. As an executive director, were you feeling like, “This is obvious? We should do this.” Did you have some nerves about that?
It was terrifying. We were trying to save the building from being demolished. We had a very short timeline to pull together the plan for what we would do with the facility if we were able to obtain it and renovate it. I was writing a business plan for a venue and going, “What does this mean?” It became very clear to me that the York was going to be a great asset for The Cultch because the number of seats that we had in the theater couldn’t support the organizational growth that was happening. We needed the opportunity to have more seats and programming to all of that to make the business case for the financial case for the organization to move forward into the future.
It was terrifying but it was a very important step for The Cultch. At the time that we had to make the decisions about the York, we were also doing a major renovation on the existing facility, and that facility had envisioned another venue as part of the renovation. We had not been able to raise the money to come up with that second venue. The York took the place of that in that greater scheme.
We can’t raise money to build one so let’s take over this theater down the road a bit.
It was a magical thing that happened. A lot came together, including a great newly elected City Council that wanted to do this. A city manager at the time who was willing to go through the process of making it happen was incredibly engaged financially and a real push from the community. All of those things came together to make the project possible.
You mentioned together. That’s one of the things that I think of The Cultch and what you produce and what you put on there is that you bring the community together. I am curious to get your perspective on what together has meant over the pandemic. It was always the bright red lights that went on for everybody in March 2020 and then through the spring. You’ve done a remarkable job of transforming the organization from being just based in place in East Vancouver to being something well beyond that. I would like you to share some of what you’ve done and what you’re thinking behind that with our readers.
[bctt tweet=”Those who work in the arts are great problem solvers. ” via=”no”]
We were devastated when we had to close our venues and cancel our shows. As we all got deeper into it because we all thought it was going to last for six weeks, when we began to realize that was not the case, we also then had to cancel all of our plans for the following year. We spent a month trashing everything we had planned. While that was a painful exercise, it was also incredibly necessary because what it did was allow us to build a new thing and it created space for the new thing. Through the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy, we were able to retain our staff for the most part. We lost a few people and positions.
We were able to keep most of them through that program, either actively working at the theater or being paid to stay home. That was what that time was. Gradually brought people back as we needed them. That saved us. We had a great opportunity to sit down with the board, look at the hard reality, and go through every scenario. We made a conscious decision that we weren’t going to hibernate, that we were going to produce work, pivot to video and we were going to do this thing and see what happened. That’s what we did.
We were able to bring on a full-time video director and our technical staff who had a lot of hidden talents that we didn’t know about, which was fantastic in the video realm. They pulled together and created a phenomenal team of people. We talked to the artists. Some artists were not at all interested in exploring the video option, but some of them were. We were able to work with those artists and away we went. We now think of it as our fourth stage.
I can reflect on what my family was doing how excited we were to watch The Phantom of the Panto when it became available. We knew that was going to become available. That was a big, bright spot in our fall in 2020. The idea of coming together is something baked into the arts community, not just in Vancouver but in any arts community in Canada. Not that you were prepared for this or seeking this, but that sense of coming together to make it happen in spite of challenges, that’s not new for the arts community. Was there a reservoir of strength or is this different, but do we know how to get through this?
Ultimately, those of us who work in the arts are great problem solvers. It’s what we do all the time. We work with budgets and the limitations of a live venue. We work all the time with a set of variables that we then have to create within. It’s simplest and believe me, it wasn’t simple but at its simplest, it’s another set of variables that you have to work with to solve the problem. That problem-solving piece is the creativity piece.
That’s what we do. We are creative people. We make things and make them together. The community piece is ingrained in us because we can’t make performance alone as an individual. We have to work together to do that. We always have limitations around what is possible so we have to be creative within those limitations. To me, it is very natural fit with what it is we’re all about and what the work is for us.
Was there a moment when you realized it was going to be very different? You’re in a problem-solving mode where you felt like it clicked like, “Maybe this is going to work.” Was it a moment in time or was it a person?
There was a moment in time. I always tell this story by prefacing it with another story, which has almost daily staff gatherings over Zoom, as we were talking about our first foray into presenting streamed work, which was our TRANSFORM Cabaret Festival at the end of September in 2020. All of the departments, their marketing and the technical and everything. The team at that time was quite small. Our core team is about 14 to 15 people. We were working at that time with a core team of eight people. Our marketing director, Chelsea, said, “Who pushes the button? How does it start?”
We all realized that we hadn’t figured that bit out yet. My moment was the opening show of the TRANSFORM Cabaret Festival. We had set up a screen in the theater because we were doing live Zoom things with the audience. It’s an after-show Zoom gathering after the streaming of the show. We were in the theater, the folks who were working there on the live stream Zoom stuff.
There was a clock ticking down or at least it felt like there was. There was our music and our slide and everything. At 7:30, the show started and it was there. I was like, “We did it. It’s possible.” I honestly didn’t believe it was going to be there until I saw it. It’s the opening bash of the TRANSFORM Cabaret Festival of 2020.
There’s obviously a moment of excitement or even euphoria of conceiving of something and launching it that quickly and finding the go button and it goes. Was there ever a moment after that where you thought, “Now, what? What do we do next?”
We were working in 2 or 3-week chunks because everything kept changing around us. At that time, you were allowed to have up to 50 people in an audience. We were trying to decide whether or not that was something that we were going to explore. Eventually, we decided not to. We had to constantly make decisions all the time because the landscape was changing all the time. This thing we call planning was gone. That’s how we were moving and working in shorter chunks. You’re talking about The Phantom of the Panto.
The Panto, at one point, “Where are we going to have a 50 person audience? We’re not allowed to do that anymore. I guess we’re not. Can we have the artists in the theater?” Yes, but they need to be socially distanced. The next thing we were doing is Craigslist Cantata. The director, Amiel Gladstone, came in and said, “I know how we’re going to do this. Everybody has their room, camera, microphone and pod. We are going to live next to this thing and send it out.” The video was all live mixed for that show. Everybody was completely separated, all the distancing, everything.
It was like, “Let’s make this up.” We didn’t even know what this was until we knew what the situation was. The one thing that kept it going and on the rails, thank goodness, we were very lucky because the theaters were designated as our workplaces, which meant we were allowed to be there. In Ontario, the theaters were specifically banned to have anybody even who worked there in the theaters.
That didn’t happen here and that saved us. That was fantastic. When you think about it, we behaved incredibly responsibly in those workplaces. We had COVID plans. We were super strict. We still are. We go over and above what’s mandated. As long as we were doing that and keeping everybody safe, it felt very doable.
[bctt tweet=”Leave time and space in your schedule for spontaneity and creativity. ” via=”no”]
You know you can do this now and you go from planning out seasons in effect 2 or 3 weeks improv sessions of what you can do. It starts to work. That sense of community stays with you that you have invested so much over so many years in building. As you look forward, what is it that you want to make sure you capture from this in-forced discipline of decision making and restrictions to guide how The Cultch goes forward?
It’s so easy for us to get caught up in planning and scheduling that leaving time and space in those schedules and planning for spontaneity, especially in a creative organization, is important. I guess I’m finding that and thinking in big, broad general terms rather than specifics as we are right in the middle of the transition. I don’t necessarily have the specifics going forward yet. We have a lot of work to do with our staff and audiences as they start coming back live to figure out how we move forward and exactly what that mix is.
This idea of giving people time to think and also being able to have resources so you can react to an opportunity in a shorter timeline because, normally, we’re planning 1.5 to 2 years in advance are all good things that we want to keep. It’s small, but mighty we’ve created an audience for the shows, especially the Panto outside of the Lower Mainland. I think that’s important and we want to keep doing some streaming, obviously not as much as we were because it was all streaming, but we do want to keep that going.
I also feel that it’s very important for people here who aren’t comfortable coming into a crowded theater who physically are not able to make it to the theater. For those who go, “Let’s watch the show tonight because we couldn’t get a babysitter at home. There’s a traffic jam. Who wants to go out in that?” That accessibility piece is another important piece we want to keep.
I know from speaking to members of your team that the audience for the Panto, in particular beyond the Lower Mainland, was a very pleasant surprise. What did you think when you saw who was paying to stream the show?
The most exciting part of it for me was people who are total Panto fans who lived in Nymo were sending us these fan mail going, “I thought I’d never get to see the Panto again. This is so great. I got to see the Panto.” The other thing was people who are Panto fans, who live in the city, are creating whole Zoom family parties with their brother-in-law in Winnipeg and their grandma in Toronto. They were getting together on Zoom before the show and then all watching the show together. It was so cool.
You don’t want to lose that amazing way that people build community in their families like that. The other piece of it was the Zoom after-parties, where we had the dance parties, we’d crank the tunes up, people would put their cameras on and we’d be dancing with their kids in their living rooms. That was the best part of the holidays for me in 2020 was doing those Zoom after parties. It was so much fun.
In our family, we had Calgary and Edmonton watching with us when we watched the Panto. It was amazing. We were looking forward to being back in the theater this 2021 for sure, what a wonderful opportunity.
Our artists are desperate for you because I can tell you one thing, all of us are feeling that, “Here we are in this big empty theater doing this show and it’s over, and they’re not there.” It’s so hard.
Particularly where you’ve got a show that relies somewhat on audience participation. Look behind you is probably a bit hard to translate through Zoom.
That has been psychologically difficult for everybody not having the feedback. We’re so used to whether it’s a little conversation in the bar after the show or whatever. It’s not just the applause piece of it, but we’re so used to that. The work is an opportunity to engage with people, each other, have that back and forth, feedback, and all of that stuff. We all miss that piece, not just the performers, all of us. Whatever our job is, we’ve missed it. We are desperate to have it back again.
I’d love it if you talked a little bit more about how you’ve thought as the leader of transitioning your organization, which is you described as the arts community center, very geographically anchored, and very much a part of the East Vancouver community as much as the East Van sign. It’s really iconically identified with it, being able to reach out a little more through the streaming, and seeing the importance you have beyond that community. Does it change the way you think about leading the organization knowing that you have these connections well beyond that geography that you’ve invested so much in?
We have always presented international artists and artists from other parts of the country. I have been lucky enough while working at The Cultch to do a lot of traveling. I feel like I have a whole family of colleagues from all over the world. Honestly, to be able to share our work even with those people and to have them be part of our East Van community has been so fantastic. To me, we can’t take the East Van out of The Cultch, so let’s take the East Van to other places because it may not be everybody’s cup of tea, that’s okay. It certainly is something that I think is worth sharing with those that might be interested for sure.
That’s a great way of looking at it. It’s not about changing who you are. It’s about sharing who you are with other people.
Some of the conferences and things I used to travel to members of our staff can participate because they’re online and a lot more people have been able to see our work because it’s been online. It all feels good.
Here’s a little experiment. We’ll see if this works or not. If you could give yourself advice on February 15th, 2020, what advice would you give yourself for what was coming, knowing what you know now?
It’s okay to let go. It’s okay to go to the place of everything I know to be a certain way isn’t going to be and that’s okay.
That’s good life advice for all of us anytime. I’m sure you’ve kept in touch with other arts leaders across the country through this and how other theaters and companies are responding to this. Undoubtedly, there’s been some trauma and difficulties in the community. What have you observed in terms of leaders wanting that openness to do things differently? Is this going to be a new way for the arts community to operate in Canada?
There’s hope for that. A lot of the Discord in the world, certainly the discovery of the graves in the residential schools, the Black Lives Matter, all of us are highly aware of our responsibility as arts organizations and the advancement of climate change. All of these things are things that we need to address in our organizations. It isn’t just the COVID piece, but it’s also all of these other things. I know my colleagues around the world are very much looking at ways of changing how we’ve operated, and that’s a good thing. That’s okay.
COVID is the big, bold headline and some of those other issues are identified Black Lives Matter, truth and reconciliation. As the pandemic fades, what is the role of arts community to amplify those messages and those movements as well?
The arts community has a huge responsibility to do that. It doesn’t mean that it’s all doom and gloom or anything like that. Artists are incredibly creative. I think about some of the work that we’ve done like Kamloopa and Children of God. These are amazing pieces of work that are dealing with issues, but at the same time are engaging and entertaining and all of the other things that performance is. We have a huge responsibility because what you can do in a theater is you can present different ideas. You can challenge perceptions.
You do this in a safe space and in a space that’s non-threatening that isn’t going to have enormous ramifications if you like necessarily. It is our responsibility to take a leadership role in presenting new ways of thinking and being, support and honor artists and audiences from all walks of life and amplify the messages around climate change and adaptation because that’s stuff’s super real. The climate change piece is an important one in terms of the arts because it’s emotional. We are all grieving and we all need a place for that grieving to go.
Unfortunately, it’s been framed very much as a political and financial issue. It’s not. It’s an emotional issue, which is why it belongs in the arts and performance. That’s where we get to all sit together in a room and cry together or sit together in a room and laugh hard together. This idea of coming together and gathering around performance is incredibly important. We saw how quickly things can change and how reactive governments even could be when COVID happened. There’s no reason that can’t happen for other things as well. We have to help people emotionally deal with these things.
[bctt tweet=”The idea of coming together and gathering around a performance is crucial. ” via=”no”]
The question I was intending to wrap up with is what are you looking forward to but you’ve answered that beautifully right there. I know that you are going back, the Cultch is going back, to some of the in-person performances. If people are interested in learning more about that, how can they find out what’s going on?
The website TheCultch.com. We are selling tickets for the Panto this year for Alice in Wonderland, our first real live performance. We’re very excited. We are also going to be streaming eighteen performances for people who are not as comfortable coming to a live event or who want maybe see it again after they’ve seen it live or want to share it with their families across the country or in other countries. All those things are possible, which is fantastic. More options to see the Panto.
Heather, I want to thank you very much for the leadership you’ve demonstrated over the last couple of years in your organization. That is so important to so many of us here in the Lower Mainland, particularly in East Van, even those who live in North Van who identifies with that East Van vibe a little bit. Thank you so much for being on the show.
Thank you so much for having me.