by Yasmine Shemesh
VANCOUVER – For any avid theatre-goer in Vancouver, the name Bill Millerd is a respected one. It’s a name that has lovingly conducted the artistic direction of the Arts Club Theatre Company for 46 years. A name that, in tenure, has left a legacy characterized by diverse programming, a prosperous expansion, and nurtured artists. Millerd announced his forthcoming retirement last February and, as a pillar of Canada’s largest not-for-profit urban theatre company, his departure truly defines the end of an era.
“It felt time for another generation to take over the Arts Club,” Millerd says. What Millerd has contributed to the Arts Club, and the development of Vancouver’s theatre community at large, has been monumental. He began working at the company, then operating out of an old gospel hall on Seymour Street, in 1969. It was a temporary gig, at first – something Millerd did during the off season of his job as Stage Manager at the Vancouver Playhouse – but the Arts Club needed someone to select and direct their plays, so Millerd happily took the task as his own. He became Artistic Director in 1972, his first production being the Frank Gilroy drama Only Game in Town.
“It was a flop,” Millerd laughs. “I didn’t know whether they’d invite me back, but they did. The next one I directed was called What the Butler Saw, by Joe Orton, and it was a success. So they allowed me to stay on.”
Over the next four decades, Millerd’s vision became a trusted touchstone that would shape the Arts Club into a mainstay institution known for both quality and scope.
“I don’t think I ever was particularly set on doing theatre one way,” he contemplates. “We did all sorts of different productions that had big casts or small casts. We did classics, like the School for Scandal. We did new plays – one was called Creeps, by David Freeman. I think my choices were always eclectic, always varied, always plays and musicals that I liked and I assumed that if I liked them, somebody else would as well.”
There is one uniting factor, however: heart.
“I don’t think it’s up to me to put on plays that are going to teach people something,” Millerd says. “If they do, that’s great. If people feel they come away moved or changed or definitely affected by something, that means a great deal to me. My favourite kind of play is a play that not only gives you something to think about, but also touches you or moves you, and that often has to do with the actors in it.”
Growing up in West Vancouver, Millerd always had an interest in the arts. He was a member of his high school’s drama club and also performed in the West Vancouver Boys and Girls Band. Mostly, Millerd credits his time at the National Theatre School in Montreal for really exposing him to the possibilities of theatre. He was enrolled during Expo ’67.
“It really opened me to what theatre can do, what live theatre can do, how you don’t need to always do it realistically,” he says. “There’s so many different theatre forms and I think that once I got to know the acting community in Vancouver – because I didn’t really know much about it until I started working as a stage manager – then I also started choosing plays with those actors in mind, knowing how wonderful they’d be in the particular part.”
Supporting the acting community has been a meaningful component of Millerd’s legacy. Artists like Morris Panych were mentored under his wing. A significant moment for Millerd in that regard was when the Arts Club presented the Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds in the early 1970s.
“I loved doing that play, partly because the lead actress, Doris Chillcott, was so brilliant in the role and it really, to me, epitomized the plays that I was just describing, that are entertaining and yet moving at the same time. Those are the kind of plays that I remember, particularly connected to the performers.”
Under Millerd’s guidance, the Arts Club has grown from a 150-seat space on Seymour to three fully operational stages: the Granville Island Stage, acquired in 1979; the iconic 650-seat Stanley Theatre, added in 1998; and the GoldCorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre, which opened in late 2015. Millerd ensured the GoldCorp’s first season went smoothly before officially putting his retirement in motion and, true to form, has made sure his beloved company is left in capable hands upon his departure: Ashlie Corcoran will be taking over as Artistic Director at the end of the month and, after he directs the musical Once (opening June 14), Millerd plans to stay on until mid-June to train a producer.
As Millerd takes his final bow and the curtains close, a new stage is revealed for his next act.
“I’ll be doing some travelling, I’m sure,” he says of his plans. “Ask me in a year and I’ll probably have a better idea. People have come up to me and said congratulations, and a lot of them are retired themselves and I ask, ‘What is it like?’ And they say, ‘Well, the first six months are really difficult, because you just stop work, so you don’t go in everyday. And you start a new routine and then eventually you settle into it.’ I look forward to that journey.”
The tribute To Bill, With Love celebrates Bill Millerd’s career on March 4 at the Stanley Theatre.