Artistic and Managing Producer Matthew Payne and Artistic Associates Hannah Mariko Bell and Logan Swain, Theatre SKAM Downtown Arts Hub

Downtown Arts Hub

Stealing the Show: Theatre SKAM

In many circumstances, the pandemic taught us that, contrary to what we’ve been led to believe for generations, the show doesn’t actually have to go on. It’s OK to put things on pause for the greater good, but for organizations that depend on in-person venues, no audience means no revenue, which can be fatal in an industry that rarely focuses on profit. A Community Recovery Grant from the Victoria Foundation provided a lifeline for Theatre SKAM, a local troupe with a mission of creating theatre that is innovative and entertaining and — above all — never boring.

Innovation in Action

What do you do when you can’t bring the audience to the show? Well, for the SKAM crew they figured out a way to bring the show to the audience via a portable stage on the back of a heavy-duty pickup truck.

Purchased with funds from the Department of Canadian Heritage and private donor Robert Milne — the reason for the truck to be named ‘Bob’ —the SKAM troupe acquired a Ford F350 in 2013 and converted it into a mobile stage. The format was simple: 10 people were ushered into the 10-seat theatre (six theatre seats and four stools) to watch a 10–15 minute show presented by a pair of actors, backdropped by a red velvet curtain. It was a popular venue for farmers markets and local events like Rifflandia — pretty much anywhere with a festival atmosphere and an audience. 

“About a month into the pandemic,” explained Matthew Payne, co-founder and artistic and managing producer of Theatre SKAM, “we noticed local businesses and some of our sponsors, like Phillips brewery, switching to home delivery, so we looked into what we could offer. We knew the micro-theatre wasn’t up to COVID-19 protocols, so we took it apart, and with the help of S.B. Scenic Arts, another of our sponsors, we built a four-post canopy on the back of the truck, with plexiglass between the seats to isolate the masked actors, then started delivering theatre to people’s homes: 15-minute shows, for free, performed for an audience of one or a single family at a time.” 

The innovation that had to happen in 2020 was parlayed in 2021 into systems and ways of working to ensure SKAM had the capacity to keep moving forward. “We’re still doing Home Delivery again in 2022  because operational funders, like the Victoria Foundation, and regular project funders stepped up to keep the show on the road,” said Matthew.

 

Artistic and Managing Producer Matthew Payne and Artistic Associates Hannah Mariko Bell and Logan Swain

Succession Planning at SKAM

Matthew Payne has been part of SKAM (he’s the M in SKAM) since its inception in 1995. He took over as artistic producer in 2007, with a mandate of moving the company from seasonal to year-round operations. In 2021 he announced his plans to step down, allowing the new members of the cohort to take over the artistic leadership of the company.

“We’re going to support the careers of these four artists and find funding to support training for them to understand what it takes to run a theatre company.” — Matthew Payne, artistic and managing producer of Theatre SKAM

“Things really took off for us in the summer of 2019,” shared Matthew. “We expanded our summer work cohort with a dozen Canada Summer Jobs positions and a co-op position, and I was working with some of these young producers, and I went, ‘Oh my gosh, these are the people to run the company in the future.’ I had to plant the seed with them, asking, ‘Would this be something that’s of interest to you?’” And with the seed fully planted, Matthew has made his plans to exit — stage right — by 2025.

Downtown Arts Hub

One of the non-performance projects the SKAM team is working on is the development of an arts hub in downtown Victoria. The new space, owned by Park Retirement Living, is planned to be around 5,000 square feet across two floors of a property on Broughton Street. 

“This SKAM-led project will be a hub of activity,” shared Matthew, “with a shared space for multiple users. The space will have offices, hot desks, phones, kitchens, washrooms, and a fully accessible ground floor, including a fully accessible office and washroom. There are plans for an additional washroom and another kitchen space downstairs with an eating area for artists. Large meeting rooms will allow artists to prepare their work for showings, complete with storage for required equipment. We’ll even have bike storage, shelves, and cubbies for kids coming in for classes. For funding, we’ve partnered with Victoria Foundation fund holder Andrew Beckerman, who has agreed to match donations to a capital campaign for our new space, up to $12,500.”

Watching the Theatre SKAM team bloom from a ragtag group of performers — who once used tomato soup cans for pot lights — as they evolve to a full-fledged production company offering theatrical classes to the next generation while developing a space for theatre to shine in Downtown Victoria is a good indicator that arts and culture will continue to thrive in Victoria.