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'A labour of love': City Stage New West closes doors after 18 years

What legacy will one small theatre company leave? We talk to its artistic director to find out.

“Hopefully this will be the start of something.”

Those were Renee Bucciarelli’s words back in March of 2008, as she spoke to the New Westminster Record about the fledgling City Stage New West theatre company. She was directing and producing its first production, a staged reading of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral at Holy Trinity Cathedral, and she was excited about putting her American professional theatre background to work in her new hometown.

More than 15 years later, Bucciarelli is getting ready to leave New Westminster — and the theatre company she has nurtured for all those years is folding.

But the “something” she started with that production a decade-and-a-half ago? It will leave a legacy in ways both tangible and intangible.

The tangible includes financial donations to from City Stage to local theatre companies that Bucciarelli says have enriched her own life and that of the community: the Massey Theatre Society, Royal City Musical Theatre — “one of my daughters and I are RCMT fanatics,” she says — and the Vagabond Players. 

It also includes the legacy project Stump City Stories, an original musical based on the history of New Westminster, which City Stage commissioned in 2009 for the city’s 150th anniversary celebrations.

The intangible? It’s impossible to quantify how many ways City Stage has reached people and changed lives over its years of operation.  

But Bucciarelli is a firm believer in the power of theatre.

“People to be reminded what it means to be human, and to me, that’s what theatre does,” she says.

“How to be human with each other; it has always come down to that for me — how to get on with it, and how to resolve conflict. That’s been what it’s all about. …

“It’s an art form that’s ephemeral, but it allows you to make something out of nothing. And what you make are these memories, and you make changes in yourself if you’re really open to them, because that’s what good theatre does.”

Diversity at the forefront of City Stage efforts

The drive to produce that “good theatre” has been at the heart of Bucciarelli’s work with City Stage New West.

The group originally formed in 2005 as The Friends of Raymond, with a mission to keep the Raymond Burr Performing Arts Society and the once-upon-a-time Burr Theatre in downtown New West afloat.

The theatre closed, but the group incorporated as a society with the purpose of producing professional theatre in New Westminster. It changed its name to City Stage New West and started to raise money and awareness, with a series of community-building theatre events at the former Orange Room restaurant uptown.

It was 2008 when Bucciarelli joined the board, under the leadership of president Pansy Jang. The two led the way as City Stage New West launched a new mission: “to produce professional theatre that entertains, educates and enlightens while strengthening respect for Canadian diversity.”

“What I’m most proud of, personally, is bringing our mission of diversity to the forefront of most everything we did,” Bucciarelli says.

The past few years have seen a reckoning in the Metro Vancouver theatre scene over the lack of diversity and equity both onstage and behind the scenes, but that same level of awareness wasn’t there 15 years ago when City Stage New West began.

Bucciarelli, though, always had diversity in mind.

Stump City Stories: Colonial history and beyond

Diversity was central to her mission even when commissioning the Stump City Stories musical. Though it was based largely on the city’s colonial history, it also touched on the stories of some historically underrepresented communities: New Westminster’s Yi Fao district, once the largest Chinese community in British Columbia, and the Qayqayt First Nation.

“It was never enough, but it was a beginning,” Bucciarelli says.

She points out that, in 2009, when City Stage commissioned composer George Ryan to create the musical, people were just beginning to talk about those hidden parts of history — and, as a consequence, the stories of the city’s diverse communities were harder to find than they are now.

But their research into Yi Fao paid off in a moment that will always remain in her memory.

It was 2010, and City Stage New West had received funds to stage a youth-oriented version of Stump City Stories — featuring music and theatre students from New Westminster Secondary School in the chorus, with a performance in front of a packed student audience.

Just a few days earlier, New Westminster had become the first municipality in Canada to formally apologize to the Chinese community for historic discrimination.

Enter Jeremy Lowe, a Canadian actor of Chinese descent. He took to the stage as Chung Koh, performing a ballad in honour of his father — an impassioned musical promise that one day they would dig up his bones and bring them back to China.

“You could hear a pin drop,” Bucciarelli recalls. “And then they stood up on their feet and screamed and jumped, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I said, ‘Oh my God.’ This is why people like me do this, because sometimes, art is so incredibly meaningful in ways you didn’t expect it to be. It had just given voice to something that was very real and very much on the minds of young people.”

A decade later, the musical saw the light of day again, when archival footage was revived for online showing during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. The performance included a panel discussion with a focus on underrepresented and previously untold stories — including a representative from the gurdwara in Queensborough.

“Some really interesting things kind of came to light, which I guess is where we are, as humans here in our area — we’re starting to talk about things that have kind of been put under the rug for quite some time,” Bucciarelli says.

Thought-provoking theatre: #metoo and beyond

Though Stump City Stories remains City Stage’s standout legacy project for Bucciarelli, it’s far from the only production that will live in her memory.

There was another local history project in 2011 — Burning Up the Infield: the 1974 Frasers. Bucciarelli teamed up with author Rod Drown to write the play based on the then-newly-published book by Drown and Ken McIntosh about the city’s semi-professional baseball team, the Frasers, and the misadventures that nearly burned down Queen’s Park Stadium.

There were productions of King Lear and Queen Lear in 2012, bringing together senior theatre professionals with emerging artists.

There were performances at New Westminster’s historic Galbraith Manor, including Freud’s Last Session, by Mark St. German, in 2014, and an evening of George Bernard Shaw shorts in 2017.

None of those were productions of the big, crowd-pleasing sort — and that was a deliberate decision.

“They’re more provocative. That was our mission. We wanted to fit a different niche,” Bucciarelli says. “We tried to look for something thought-provoking. When I say ‘provocative,’ sometimes people take the word the wrong way, but I mean thought-provoking.”

City Stage used its productions to start conversations about timely subjects — such as the #metoo era, which played out front and centre in a free staged reading series at the Anvil Centre in 2019. That Sips ’n’ Scripts series featured once-banned comedies addressing themes of women’s sexual and financial agency — Aristophanes’ Lysistrata; Sex, by Mae West; and Shameless, Sharp & Shocking, an adaptation by Bucciarelli based on Shaw’s own defence of his censored play, Mrs. Warren’s Profession.

A second Sips ’n’ Scripts reading series was planned for 2020 to take aim at the growing culture of fake news. It would have featured Jean Giradoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot and H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds — but COVID-19 intervened.

'The final nail in the coffin': COVID ushers in a new era

Thus began the company’s final chapter.

“COVID really kind of put the final nail in the coffin,” Bucciarelli says.

She admits she never quite realized her original dream with City Stage New West. She had hoped it would evolve into becoming a fully professional company that could pay her to serve as its producing artistic director.  It never achieved that level of financial stability; although Bucciarelli was able to take paid stints as director and actor in some productions over the years, she never took a paycheque for her 15 years at the helm.

She’s always had a second, and sometimes third, job to keep her going along the way.

Add in all the challenges emerging from the pandemic, as theatre companies across North America struggle with getting audiences back into theatres, and it was a recipe for burnout.

A family decision to move to Montreal, where one of her daughters lives, brought Bucciarelli’s time with City Stage to an end — and, ultimately, led to the decision to close the company.

“Sometimes things just come to a natural ending,” Bucciarelli says.

She has nothing but praise for the people she’s worked with over those years, and in particular for her stalwart collaborator Jang — City Stage co-founder and its longtime president, director and treasurer.

“I can’t sing her praises highly enough,” Bucciarelli says warmly.

Bucciarelli’s years with City Stage have included work with a host of “absolutely wonderful” board members, volunteers and performers who’ve made it all tick over the past 15 years.

She leaves for Montreal with gratitude for everything City Stage New West brought into her life.

“Trying to connect to the community and find out about my community and celebrate the community helped me become a real, active part of the community,” she said. “All of this such was such a labour of love, and it’s true love.”

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
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