When Vern Thiessen joined Workshop West Playwright’s Theatre in 2014, he was looking forward to shaping the next chapter of the company’s story. He wasn’t, however, prepared for the challenges he was about to encounter. Although Workshop West was one of the city’s most storied theatre companies – it had developed new Canadian playwrights for more than three decades – it was in need of some work.
Shortly after joining the company as Artistic Director, he and Executive Director Marian Brant (who had also recently joined the company) realized the dire straits the company had entered. Faced with a growing deficit, low morale, and an outdated facility, Brant and Thiessen were desperate for help. Through word of mouth, they learned about SEF.
And at once, there was hope.
“The whole company needed to be overhauled and we needed financial stability to get through that,” says Thiessen. “This theatre company would not be here right not if it wasn’t for that loan.”
After securing financing from SEF, the organization took an unconventional step to ensure their long-term viability. Instead of cutting back on spending and programming, they increased their operating budget and expanded their reach. This helped to raise the company’s profile and garner support from additional funders and donors.
“If we hadn’t had money in the bank, I don’t know how we would’ve survived. That funding allowed us to do what we felt is the most important thing for the company: to look outward and engage the community,” says Thiessen.
One of the programs developed in the years after the loan was #writesofpassage, an educational series delivered in partnership with the Citadel Theatre. Each year, the program gives approximately 900 local junior high and high school students the chance to write an original play and have it workshopped by professional playwrights and actors.
Workshop West has since paid off its loan in full and continues to act as a launch pad for local artists and playwrights. The last few years have also brought new opportunity for the company with chances to tour across Canada and Europe for the first time in its nearly 40-year history.
Entrepreneurs, and in particular social entrepreneurs are usually moving pretty fast.