Back to where it all began with Cultch founder Chris Wootten

Graview United Church

Grandview United Church in 1973, before becoming 'The Cultch'. Photo by Walter Edwin Frost.

The Cultch recently celebrated its 38th anniversary! On October 15th, 1973, we opened our doors for the first time. The Cultch’s Historic Theatre is often considered one of the most sacred performance venues in Vancouver. With incredible sight lines and a cozy, intimate vibe, seeing a performance in the Historic Theatre is a true delight. But those aren’t the only reasons why the Historic Theatre is such an incredible venue. It’s the ghosts of productions past that still haunt The Cultch walls – not to mention everything that happened in the building before The Cultch moved in – that infuse life into the performances and make this theatre something special.

We were lucky to catch up with Chris Wootten, The Cultch’s founding director, and discovered a bit more about the history of The Cultch and how it came to be the theatre we know and love today.

Founded in 1973, The Cultch as a long history of presenting the Vancouver community with exciting contemporary music, theatre and dance. Chris, can you talk a bit about your history and involvement with The Cultch?

I first saw The Cultch in 1970. While I’m from Vancouver, my wife and I had been living and working in New York. The old Grandview United Church was being used by the Inner City Services Project as an office/meeting space for activist groups like the Vancouver Free University, Vancouver Welfare Rights, Urban Design Services, etc. It was full of energy, and felt wonderful. It reminded me of spaces in New York, and I immediately thought it would also make a brilliant performance space.

Two years later, when I was a Project Officer at Opportunities for Youth, a co-worker, Darlene Marzari, (who would later become B.C. Minister of Culture) told me Inner City was folding and I should try to turn it into a theatre. I went to the United Church, and as it happens, the person in charge had taught my wife philosophy in high school. He gave me a one year option at no cost to see if I could put something together. I got matching grants from the City & Province totaling $25,000 and a $50,000 grant from the federal Local Initiatives Program, and we managed to open October 15, 1973. A few years later, we got the mayor, Art Phillips, to buy the property from the church, and we became a part of the City’s fabric.

What was the neighbourhood of Commercial Drive like when The Cultch opened, and why was it chosen as the location for a new performance venue?

Commercial Drive at Grandview, 1979.

The immediate 2 – 3 block neighbourhood, except for The Cultch, is virtually unchanged. The lane is worse, but it’s remarkable how stable the neighbourhood has been. Commercial Drive is a different story. Then, it was mostly Italian shops with a few restaurants. The Britannia Centre had just opened and it was the big new force in the neighbourhood.

I can’t say there was a lot of neighbourhood support for us initially. We were either tolerated or deemed something that might be good for their children. We worked very hard to fit in, and we had the support of key people like Michael Clague (then at the Britannia Centre) and Darlene Marzari. We employed Susan Mendelson, a UBC graduate in social work, to develop community programs, as well as House Manage.

We didn’t choose the neighbourhood, we chose the building, and we made it work as well as we could in the neighbourhood, while attracting an audience that was largely from the west side, particularly Kitsilano.

How do you think The Cultch’s East Vancouver location adds to the significance of the space?

In all honesty, the location was an obstacle when we began. We were not initially part of the community and our natural audience was across town. It meant we had to be particularly respectful to the Grandview Woodlands community. For our survival, we needed to be populist in our approach. We also needed to be very aggressive to attract audiences over from the west side. This gave us a special quality, which may have been the real key to our success. Within a year of opening, we were both fully booked year round, and selling out often.

What about The Cultch’s Historic Theatre do you feel is special or unique in comparison with other performance venues in Vancouver?

The balcony railing. The audience wrapping around the performers.

In 2009, The Cultch facilities underwent major renovations. How do you feel these changes impacted the audience’s experience at The Cultch?

The Cultch today!

The first thing I noticed was the quality of the air! Clean fresh air. And the sound. Silence. I think by and large it feels just as it did, except it’s much better. I only regret the loss of seating capacity. We used to break all the rules and squeeze in up to 406. On such occasions, no one was comfortable but everyone was excited to be there. The lobby bars of course are now wonderful. I particularly like that my office is now a bar.

The Cultch’s Historic Theatre is known as one of Vancouver’s most intimate performance spaces with Max Wyman quoted as saying it has the “look and feel of a miniature European Opera House.” What are some of your favourite aspects of the Historic Theatre?

Max Wyman described it as “a miniature European opera house” back in 1973, and we used that quote for years. That’s it, and that’s what I love about the space. I also love how flexible it is. It works for theatre, as well as chamber music or jazz. It’s the intimacy! Also, the space is chameleon- like. Every Christmas, we took out all the seats and risers and ran the Circle Craft Christmas Market. It became a bazaar. We also ran it cabaret style as a night club on a few occasions, with drinks at tables on the floor. It is also a rooted part of our history. It has been a public space since 1909 and it has been preserved.

I’m sure you’ve seen countless shows at The Cultch over the years. Are there any in particular that stand out for you?

It’s a cliché to say there are so many, but if I had to pick one, it would be Billy Bishop Goes To War. We had developed a reputation for bringing in hot shows from other parts of the country, like Richard Monette starring in Hosanna, and by the late 1970’s, we wanted to produce a show that we could send out. Through great good luck, we co-produced BBGTW with our resident company, Tamahnous Theatre, and ending up producing it not only across the country but also on Broadway, in the West End and at leading international festivals. The Vancouver East Cultural Centre outselling the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Edinburgh Festival! Who would have thought?

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