From ‘third-tier venue’ to cultural hub: A decade at the Cowichan Performing Arts Centre

Kirsten Schrader looks back on 12 years of lifting up arts and culture in the Cowichan region.
Kristen Schraeder stands in front of a purple backdrop holding a microphone to her mouth.
Kirsten Schrader, shown here at a Cowichan Valley Regional District Arts and Culture dialogue session in November 2013, managed the CVRD Arts and Culture Division and the Cowichan Performing Arts Centre for 12 years. Photo Courtesy of Cowichan Performing Arts Centre.

Kirsten Schrader stepped down last month after serving as manager of the Cowichan Performing Arts Centre and the Cowichan Valley Regional District Arts and Culture Division for over a decade. During her 12-year tenure, Schrader helped put the performing arts centre on the map. She booked popular touring artists and curated an eclectic mix of highly acclaimed performances, developed an innovative funding model that supports local arts groups and navigated the many challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It’s a difficult gig to give up, she says, with some elements of her vision still incomplete, but Schrader had known that eventually she would need to relocate to Calgary, at least for some time. Her husband Bryce Watson, who had been commuting between Cowichan Bay and Calgary for 12 years, runs a business there. After the performing arts centre reopened to full capacity post-pandemic and she secured funding for major theatre renovations, Schrader determined that it was as good a time as any to move on.

“It was hard to leave because it’s kind of like my baby,” she says in an interview with The Discourse. 

Lifting the performing arts centre out of “relative obscurity”

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The Cowichan Performing Arts Centre was “in disrepair” when Schrader was hired to manage the theatre in 2010, she says. With a very small staff and outmoded equipment, the theatre had fallen into “kind of a third-tier venue in relative obscurity, even though it had been around since 1978.” 

According to Schrader, the theatre was caught in a “vicious cycle” of not having enough funding to afford staff increases or updated equipment, which made it difficult to attract shows that could generate revenue.

“We were losing shows because we simply couldn’t provide [for] them technically,” Schrader says. “It just was endless, the amount of equipment that the theatre needed to even just get up to par with other theatres — like the Port Theatre, our biggest competition.”

Schrader, who had previously worked as arts coordinator for the City of Richmond, says she quickly learned the importance of gaining the support of the Cowichan Community Centre Commission. 

“They supported my vision and took a chance on me,” she recalls. 

She says that the theatre had not applied previously for any grants, but the commission supported her grant applications, almost all of which have been successful. The grants enabled Schrader to add technical and administrative staff, a proper loading dock, a new soundboard, a washroom near the stage area and signs on the building’s exterior, and to finish the theatre’s rigging system. 

Schrader named Presenter of the Year in 2018

Schrader says she worked hard to build relationships with promoters and let them know about the theatre’s upgrades.

“You couldn’t just sit in your office and wait for the phone to ring for a promoter to rent the theatre,” she says. “You really had to get out there in the community and build relationships.”

Cowichan Performing Arts Centre curates its own slate of shows to fill gaps that commercial renters don’t provide, Schrader explains. She says it’s a public-service job and it’s important to present a wide range of performances, including those that may not attract a large audience but offer a story that needs to be told or a social issue that needs to be discussed. 

“I really hope that people understand that that’s part of creating that vibrant community, of having a variety of performances and all of those opportunities, so you don’t have to drive to Victoria,” she says.

Kirsten Schrader holds a framed award
Kirsten Schrader received the BC Touring Council’s Presenter of the Year award in 2018. Photo Courtesy of Cowichan Performing Arts Centre.

For her efforts in curating these shows, Schrader was selected by her peers as BC Touring Council’s Presenter of the Year in 2018. The award recognizes a theatre manager or presenter for their community involvement, professionalism, commitment and contributions to the awareness and development of the arts.

“It felt good to be recognized by my colleagues,” she says. “It helped to show that there was something worth paying attention to that was happening in Cowichan.”

Schrader enjoyed meeting with artists and agents, seeing the shows she worked hard to book and, afterwards, getting messages of appreciation from patrons. She considers Cowichan Performing Arts Centre “to be a hub” for the local community to come together for meaningful experiences.

“It was really evident when that energy was in the room, you could just feel it and that’s the most satisfying part of the job,” she says. “Even if it’s not sold out, it doesn’t matter. The 250 or 300 people that are there, it changes them or it brings something into their lives that they can’t even quantify.” 

She cites two favourite examples of such experiences. 

After being “blown away” by the Ukrainian band DakhaBrakha at a conference in Seattle, she says she chased them down for years until she was able to schedule them in 2018, and again the following year to audiences that were larger than even Schrader anticipated. Stymied by COVID-19 the past two years to book them a third time, Schrader is pleased to bring DakhaBrakha back to the theatre next year on March 17. 

 “Their fee has doubled since the last time we brought them, but they are so worth it,” Schrader says.

For Pride month in 2018, Schrader booked the Queer Songbook Orchestra to perform at the theatre, but Schrader says ticket sales were very low. Instead of cancelling the performance, Schrader was able to partner with the Ladysmith Little Theatre to put the show on there, where it sold out. 

“We rescued a show that deserved to have a sold-out house with a positive energy, but could have easily been cancelled.” Schrader recalls. “It was the perfect venue because people sat at tables and sipped a drink while enjoying the show. That little theatre was packed.”

A crowd sitting at tables in a dark room watches a performance on stage.
The Queer Songbook Orchestra’s sold-out performance in 2018 at the Ladysmith Little Theatre is one of the most memorable shows Schrader presented on behalf of the Cowichan Performing Arts Centre. Photo Courtesy of Cowichan Performing Arts Centre

The theatre navigates the pandemic

As The Discourse reported in December 2020, Cowichan Performing Arts Centre was ineligible for many COVID relief funds because it is a civic theatre. Although the theatre succeeded in getting some grants for equipment, Schrader says it was quite a challenge navigating the pandemic. 

With the theatre having to close its doors and ineligible for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, Schrader says it was “heartbreaking” to lay off most of her staff. It was also frustrating not to be able to support artists at a time when their voices were important to hear and their livelihoods were hard hit by the pandemic, she adds.  

Because of the funding issues for civic theatres, Schrader says many local non-profit theatres were able to reopen before the performing arts centre could because they had funds to pay artist fees and their staff were eligible for wage subsidies. But the theatre wasn’t fully dormant for too long. 

Cowichan Performing Arts Centre received a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to offer a live streaming series of arts and culture programming. Schrader says there were some amazing performances by local artists who were able to perform at the theatre for the first time and come away with a professional recording. 

She says it was a relief when the theatre was able to reopen and she could rehire most of her staff. There were, however, some new challenges like the implementation of vaccine passports, mandated by the province. 

Schrader says there were sometimes very long lines down the stairway as volunteers checked vaccine passports. “We got caught in the crossfire of all that tension between those who didn’t agree with the vaccine passport process and those who did,” Schrader says. 

Looking back, Schrader says of the COVID-19 experience, “I wish we could have done more, but we did what we could.”

Introduced successful funding model for the arts

In addition to managing the Cowichan Performing Arts Centre, Schrader was hired also to be manager of the new Cowichan Valley Regional District Arts and Culture Division. She says it was the brainchild of Ron Austin, former general manager of what was then called the Parks Recreation and Culture Department (now called Community Services), who saw a need to develop arts and culture throughout the Cowichan Valley.

The tricky part, she says, was that initially there weren’t funds designated for Schrader to work on anything beyond the theatre. So, she drew upon her most recent work experience to devise a solution.

Schrader had served on a grant committee in Richmond that handled arts grants collected through municipal taxes. But there wasn’t a municipality in the Cowichan Valley doing that, she says. 

“There was nothing set up for the arts at all. There were no taxes being collected. There were no grants,” she recalls. “And I thought ‘this has to change, groups are barely surviving or they’re closing their doors due to volunteer burnout. They can’t afford to keep any paid staff.’”

Schrader proposed a regional tax that would provide arts and culture grants to local non-profit arts organizations. She got the three existing arts councils in the region on board and had a mandate to start two other arts councils. 

Schrader, who says she learned early on that her position was more political than any of her previous jobs in the arts, supported the arts councils in lobbying their mayors and area directors. It took a couple years of lobbying efforts, but the Cowichan Valley Regional District board adopted the tax in December 2015 and began awarding grants in 2016.

The seats at the Cowichan Performing Arts Centre as seen from stage left.
The seats at the Cowichan Performing Arts Centre, original to 1978, are scheduled to be replaced next year thanks to a federal COVID restart grant. Photo Courtesy of Cowichan Performing Arts Centre.

Major renovations slated for Cowichan Performing Arts Centre

Schrader is sad to leave her position, but is confident that Patrick LeBlanc, formerly the theatre facilitator, will do a good job as acting manager until a permanent replacement is hired.

Major renovations to the theatre are slated for next summer, made possible through a federal COVID restart grant. The renovations are exciting, Shrader says, but she is disappointed that she won’t be around to see them all the way through. The projects include replacing the theatre’s seats, installing a sign on the building that is visible from the highway, making the washrooms more wheelchair-accessible and adding stalls and renovating and reconfiguring the lobby and concessions area.

She is also looking forward to following the success of the recently opened Cowichan Performing Arts Centre media studio, featuring a green screen, lights, video cameras, and equipment for sound recording and editing, video recording and editing and podcasting. It’s available for rent to the public at subsidized rates and Schrader says she expects it to be popular with schools, arts councils, community groups and individuals. She adds that while the theatre has recorded albums before, the new studio makes it possible for the performing arts centre to produce an entire album in-house. 

Overall, she says she is pleased at how the theatre has evolved over the years, going from an “afterthought” for most local politicians when she started, to something that everyone seems very proud of.

But Schrader says she wishes she could have done more in her role with the Arts and Culture Division. She has put in a budget request for the Cowichan Valley Regional District to hire a consultant in 2023 to create a regional cultural plan and gauge public interest in things such as a public art gallery and annual festivals produced by the regional district.

“It’s very difficult to move something like arts and culture forward without recommendations from an outside consultant,” she explains. 

Schrader says she has also advocated to the Cowichan Valley Regional District that the roles of arts and culture manager and Cowichan Performing Arts Centre manager should be separate positions. 

“There’s so much work to do to support arts and culture in the region,” Schrader says. “It really should be its own full-time position, and not just one day a week kind of trying to manage it off the side of your desk.”

Schrader, who is currently weighing her job options in Calgary, says she and her husband will be there for a few years before eventually returning to Cowichan. And she says she would definitely consider working again on behalf of arts and culture in the region if opportunities are available upon her return. 

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