Firehall Arts Centre Celebrates 40 Years: A Q&A with Artistic and Executive Producer Donna Spencer

A Downtown Eastside institution, The Firehall Arts Centre is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Located in a heritage fire station built in 1906, The Firehall has been amplifying diverse and marginalized voices in the arts since 1982. The organization was even recognized with a Lieutenant Governor’s Arts and Music award earlier this year.

The landmark 2022-2023 season began back in September with Usha Gupta Dance Entourage’s Khoj — A Contemporary Kathak Dance Extravaganza and continued with The Unbroadcast from Red Cedar Theatre in October.

Currently, The Firehall is presenting Manami Hara’s Courage Now. Presented in association with Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre, Hara’s newest work is the story of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese consul who helped thousands of Polish and Lithuanian Jews escape the Nazis in 1940.

We had the chance to chat with artistic and executive producer Donna Spencer about the Firehall’s mission, the importance of diverse voices in the arts, and what audiences can expect from this season’s performances.

Firehall Arts Centre – Image courtesy of Firehall Arts Centre.

Vancouver Guardian: How does this year’s programming reflect the Firehall’s history and mission?

Donna Spencer: For our 40th anniversary season, we are bringing back two favourites – White Noise, a comedy about reconciliation, and Fado – The Saddest Music in the World – as well as premiering a new work, Courage Now, and then mixing all of that together with theatre presentations including Yellow Objects from rice and beans theatre and The Our Ghosts Collective with Our Ghosts.

And along with that we have many other smaller projects in the works. All of these productions are reflective of The Firehall’s mission and our history of encouraging diverse voices in the theatre. What sets this season apart from the past few seasons is that we are going into this 40th anniversary season with the same passion that we held when we first started our work years ago. This feeling is fed by a sense of accomplishment but, also, by the realization that we are undertaking a full season of work (finally!) after having been open and then suddenly closed in March 2020 and then having to take small steps back to being fully open for capacity performances. And, perhaps more importantly, it is a season that brings many artists we have worked with before back to The Firehall, while introducing our audiences to new faces.

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VG: Why are organizations like yours, who champion new and marginalized performers, important to Vancouver’s arts landscape?

DS: The Firehall has always been a leader in bringing diverse actors, dancers, choreographers, and designers to the stage. Why is this important? Our city, and our country, has been built on the experiences and contributions of diverse voices and on the traditional territory of Indigenous people. The arts should reflect who and where we are, and it is our job as artists to ensure that happens.

VG: How does the Firehall’s location in the Downtown Eastside impact the centre’s identity and programming?

DS: I think The Firehall’s location has made us very aware of the rich history of the neighbourhood as the place that Vancouver started. People from all over the world settled in this area where Indigenous
people have gathered for years. This has impacted how we choose our work and how we respond to those who live in the neighbourhood. It has also helped us learn to have respect and compassion for those less fortunate.

 

Firehall Arts Centre - Artistic and executive producer Donna Spencer with Lieutenant Governor’s Arts and Music award.
Firehall Arts Centre – Artistic and executive producer Donna Spencer with Lieutenant Governor’s Arts and Music award. Image courtesy of Firehall Arts Centre.

VG: The Firehall’s next performance is Manami Hara’s Courage Now. Can you tell us a little bit about the development of this production and the Firehall’s involvement in the project?

DS: Jane Heyman, a friend for years, brought the work to me many years ago. She had been working with Manami Hara on the development of the piece and thought there was a great story to be told. As members of her family had been saved from the Nazis by the actions of Chiune Sugihara, the story held special meaning for her. And so, we got involved and are now producing the world premiere of the work.

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VG: What do you hope audiences take away from Courage Now?

DS: As the title suggests, having courage now to take action to help someone who has less or help the world become a safer, better place is something that we should not shy away from. We all need heroes to encourage us to be better people. Chiune Sugihara and his wife, Yukiko, chose to do that – they moved forward with courage at a time when it meant disobeying the rules of their government and giving up a comfortable life. I hope audiences will take these thoughts away with them and find little ways that they too can show courage in their own lives.

 

Courage Now runs November 19 – December 4. Tickets are available online at firehallartscentre.ca.