As if she didn’t have enough going on running the Massey and Anvil theatres, Jessica Schneider has a new role to fill – president of the board of the British Columbia Alliance for Arts and Culture.
But considering her background in the arts and advocacy, it’s a perfect fit.
“It feels like I have something to offer there, with the level of advocacy I engage in locally here, that most companies and theatres take for granted,” Schneider said of the work she does at the Massey.
Schneider has been executive director of the Massey since 2006, when things were looking quite dire for the theatre, which had just been closed.
“The executive director had left and then there was a gap of about seven or eight months where they didn’t have anybody, and then the board finally felt they were equipped to rehire and get everything cranking up again,” she said, describing staff storing everything and then hauling it all out again when the theatre was reopened.
However, in 2008, the theatre was slated for demolition, and Schneider had to do a lot of advocating on its behalf.
“Pretty quickly after that, the next threat came. The idea that the venue would be lost and all the users with it, that’s where I really dug in and kind of attached myself,” she said.
The theatre is now being renovated as neighbouring New Westminster Secondary School is being rebuilt.
Schneider pointed out the theatre’s storied history, and its connection to the community.
“There’s a legacy of people who’ve been associated with it for 70 years. It has this kind of community role that most theatres don’t,” she said. “I found it really refreshing.”
Prior to working at the Massey, Schneider was a dancer and dance teacher who eventually ended up working at the Firehall Arts Centre.
“So I found my way to the Firehall theatre because it’s a major dance venue,” she said. “And I started recognizing the challenges that arts organizations and artists face in Canada and B.C. I found myself drawn to trying to support those artists rather than trying to be one.”
The connection to the surrounding community was a big part of the draw of that position, as well, Schneider said.
“It’s a fantastic community to have relationships in,” she said. “It gives me a great vantage point.”
Schneider has a long family history of involvement in the arts as well, including her grandmother. Gwen Pharis Ringwood was a well-known playwright.
“My grandmother was an absolute wonder in Canadian theatre. She got the Governor General award when she was 28 years old in the ’30s,” Schneider said.
Both or her parents were also involved in the theatre, and met at theatre school at the University of British Columbia.
“It’s completely natural and comfortable for me to be in theatre and in the facilities as well as with all the various colourful characters that we encounter,” Schneider said. “Because that’s my normal, that’s how I grew up.
“It was a fantastic childhood in many ways, and it helped me lean into this grounded approach I have, which is to take people’s dreams and aspirations and ground them in a place, and in a reality,” she added.
Schneider uses that ability to stay grounded in her many roles supporting theatre and the arts.
“To me, theatre is a spiritual thing,” she explained. “It’s where people get together and share feelings and thought and spirit. So it’s really important for us to have a place to do that.”