Stan Douglas says that Vancouver’s contempt for artists gives him more room to move

Stan Douglas, Helen Lawrence, Arts Club Theatre, Vancouver

Stan Douglas conceived Helen Lawrence and is directing the project

Stan Douglas and Chris Haddock, the big brains behind Helen Lawrence, which opens next Wednesday, March 19, have some surprising things to say about why they choose to make art in Vancouver. These comments didn’t fit into my preview interview with the pair, which will appear in this Wednesday’s Straight, so here they are. 

A photoconceptualist, Douglas is an international art star. Haddock is a sought-after TV writer and producer. These two guys could live anywhere they want.

When I asked Douglas why he stays in Vancouver, he said, “Good question.” Then he explained, “I can live here without the professional pressure of being an artist, without the bother of having to worry about my career. So it’s just about the work, it’s not about that concern. If I were living in New York City, I’d be kind of neurotic the entire time, because that’s always there. But here, I just get down to work.”

Why is there so much room in Vancouver? “In a way, it’s because of the contempt that a lot of Vancouverites have had for visual art in general. They just don’t care about it. In a funny way, the wealthy don’t know how to be rich in Vancouver: they don’t know how to sponsor and create a culture. The support for museums could be much more substantial than it is. But it’s not. So you’re on your own. And that’s why artists here are so interesting: they really have to be interested in doing it because, locally, until very recently, there has not been that much of a response.”

Lately, he says, visual art has garnered more attention. “Look at the VAG and the line-ups for their Fuse events. More commercial galleries are sustainable in the city as well. Public art is being produced on a more regular basis in Vancouver. So there is more visibility. I think it [the earlier contempt] was a hangover from the old English tradition, where visual art was not really a serious endeavour. Theatre would be, literature would be, but visual art was kind of trivial: you know, it was landscape painting, still lifes, that kind of thing.”

Chris Haddock, Helen Lawrence, Arts Club Theatre

Chris Haddock wrote the script for Helen Lawrence

Haddock agrees that Vancouver provides more room: “It’s much easier for me to work here. When you’re working in Los Angeles, everybody can just walk down to the set, and they can be much more demanding of your time.” In other words, it’s like living on top of the store.

Haddock says that there are also other advantages to staying in his home town: “If I write about specific things in Vancouver, I know more about them and I feel way more comfortable getting into the layers of it, as opposed to saying, ‘This is a quick impression.’ And the more specific you are, the more universal it becomes.”

According to the veteran artist, the lack of that specificity has been problematic in Canadian film and TV. “There was this horrible long period when everybody at Telefilm and all of the other sponsoring agencies were encouraging people to do something that was universally appealing, and it would be about nothing. You know, every show out of Toronto sort of took place Toronto, but it could have been in New York. The producers wouldn’t say, ‘It’s Toronto for God’s sake.’ So it wasn’t Toronto. How could it have been Toronto with a 24-hour SWAT team? I offends me when you’ve got some a show that’s hyperviolent and it’s set in Toronto. Because that doesn’t happen in Toronto. Canada is extremely different.”

Haddock refers to the blending of Canadian and US culture as “smearing”: “That’s part of the whole integration and media is the number one integrator.”

Although he’s happy to be based in Vancouver, Haddock’s star, like Douglas’s, is shining brightly enough that he can venture into other centres. ” For me, it helps that Vancouver is very close to Los Angeles. It’s a short working trip. I was just down there yesterday, for a day, just to try to raise some money, and that sort of trip is easy to do. But, if you’re there all the time, it’s the same thing: you’re a gamer. You are in it. And, at least for me, I get less time making the art and making the shows and writing the stuff than I do here.”

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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