A Casual Conversation with Howard Jang: Executive Director of Arts Club

By Jacquie Lanthier

The Arts Club is now in the midst of its 45th show season—a true testament to the success of its productions and its firm grounding as a beloved local theatre company. Howard Jang, the Executive Director of the Arts Club, was generous enough to sit down with me on a cloudy Monday to tell me about the local stage scene and about how he accidentally fell into the thriving Vancouver theatre industry nine years ago.

Photo Courtesy of the Arts Club Website

Jang comes from a very musical family, receiving his music degree from UBC on the double bass. His two older siblings also have their music degrees, although they were “not quite The Partridge Family,” he says with a laugh.

After obtaining his degree here in Vancouver, Jang moved to the lively streets of New York City where he took a job with an orchestra while working on his master’s degree. He was young and excited—in his 20s—playing in the type of career many musicians dream of.

Even though Jang enjoyed his time with the orchestra, he feels in hindsight that he “got the job too young in [his] career”. He made the decision to try something new, working as a producer for a lucrative chamber ensemble called St. Luke’s, and “started to really enjoy that part of the business.”

While Jang was away working in New York, the Vancouver Symphony, an orchestra Jang played with while completing his music degree, fell upon hard times and went bankrupt in ’87. They formed a new management group in the late 80s, inviting Jang to come back to work as their new manager.

Jang moved back to Vancouver in ’89, working for the Vancouver Symphony for four years before finding himself in a role as the Executive Director for Ballet BC. He said that although he knew very little about the ballet industry, he thought “why not?” as he set himself up for another new challenge.

After a four year career with Ballet BC, it was time for Jang to move again—this time to Winnipeg. After the loss of the Winnipeg Jets as a national hockey league team in ’95, Jang explained that the city really embraced the arts as something to distinguish itself and recommends a move to Winnipeg for anyone “wanting to work in the arts”.

Jang remembers the date—January 26 of 2000—three years after moving to Winnipeg, when he got the call to come back to Vancouver. “I remember the date because it was 30 or 40 below and I got a call from the Arts Club… Their Executive Director had just resigned after getting them through the opening of the Stanley Theatre, so they asked if I would be interested in coming back to Vancouver and taking this on. I don’t know theatre. I had never worked in theatre before, but it was minus 30 (laughs) and I was about to go out that night.”

Since Jang joined the Arts Club back in 2000, it has grown from a three million dollar organization to an 11 million dollar organization today. At the Arts Club, Jang works in what he describes as a “dual CEO model” with the Arts Club’s Artistic Managing Director: Bill Millerd. The dual CEO model, which he says is “sometimes called a two-headed monster”, means he and Millerd “both have to be on the right track and know strategically where [they] want to be. He’s responsible for the artistic side, and I’m responsible for the business side, but we can’t make a major decision without each other. It’s pretty interesting. It’s very dynamic.”

Now that Jang is a major player in the theatre industry, I was curious to see if he had a favourite play.

Jang: “A play that we did in one of my first years by Timothy Findley called Elizabeth Rex. Elizabeth Rex is a fictitious story of the Queen meeting Shakespeare one night. It’s beautifully written and it was beautifully produced. To this day it remains my most favourite production… It really took you away and made you think about the “what if” scenario. I was always intrigued by those kinds of things…”

I asked what people could gain from attending a play that they couldn’t get by simply watching TV or going to the movies.

Jang: “There’s something about the immediacy of a live art form. There is something about actually hearing the breath and the way an actor or a group of actors can relate to an audience. Whether it’s a comedy or a drama, there’s an energy that builds if they can really engage an audience, which is what they work to do. The joy of being in the room when that happens is really quite extraordinary.”

As for ticket pricing and special discounts, like “student rush” tickets offered for $20 if purchased on the day of a production, the Arts Club tries to remain accessible to all budgets. Jang explains that you don’t have to be a senior or a student to have access to tickets at lower prices. The Arts Club has something for everyone, meaning that you can opt to pay more for better seats, or pay a bit less while still being able to enjoy one of the many productions they put on, regardless of your age or financial situation.

Many people who are successful in their life’s pursuits have had a mentor who has helped them somewhere along the way, and Jang is no exception. A local mentor Jang took inspiration from was David Y. H. Lui.

Jang: “David is a Chinese man who is similar to me in terms of history in Vancouver and that kind of thing… Richard’s on Richards used to be the David Y.H. Lui Theatre and David… brought in dance shows and brought in musical shows. He was responsible for a lot of the vibrancy of Vancouver back in the 70s. I met David in the 80s and got to know him in the 90s…Whenever I see him I always introduce him as my mentor. He is a person who I always admired in terms of what he has done for Vancouver and what he has done for the arts here.”

Like Lui, Jang is also a great contributor to the local arts scene. He makes it clear that the future of the Arts Club as a Vancouver theatre-lovers staple is on solid footing. In speaking with Jang, it becomes apparent that he provides a concrete foundation for the organization to grow from, or to at least makes up an important half of the “two-headed monster” running the show from behind the curtains.

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