Edmonton is slowly emerging from a series of anni horribles when it comes to its theatrical performance spaces. A drastic shrinkage in the number of rentable venues in town – either conventional or, shall we say, on the fashionably rough-around-the-edges end of the spectrum – has been throwing a curve at the music and visual arts communities as well as at those of us who work in theatre.
Around the beginning of the decade, the old Alberta Cycle building on 118th Avenue opened its dilapidated doors and briefly augmented the number of arts performance and exhibition spaces in the city. Then, late in 2012, plans to give the space a spiffy makeover were put on hold when some serious “unresolvable structural problems” were discovered. The building was quickly slated for demolition.
That same fall the Citadel streamlined its programming by dropping the series it hosted in its small, black box space, the Rice Theatre. It’s still used for cabarets, musicals, and the odd theatrical production. But as a seasonal home for plays that could be considered a little further off the beaten track than those presented in the much larger Maclab and Shoctor theatres, the Rice appears to have been effectively retired – at least for the foreseeable future.
In 2014 more dominoes fell. In June, the Avenue Theatre, a popular music hall that had also attracted theatrical production, shut down. Weeks later, a raise in rents forced Azimuth out of the Living Room Playhouse. That summer, damage to the Heritage Amphitheatre forced the Freewill Shakespeare Festival to axe one show from its season and move its remaining production indoors to the much smaller Myer Horowitz Theatre. While the move was temporary and Freewill would return home to Hawrelak Park the next year, there was no avoiding a tough summer at the box-office in 2014. Late that year, Catalyst Theatre announced it would be moving to the Citadel, leaving the fate of its space on Gateway (renamed the C103), an extremely popular venue for indie producers, in serious limbo.
Things went from bad to worse in 2015. One fine, sunny, January morning, our community woke to learn that overnight, the Roxy Theatre on 124th Street had burnt to the ground. The event left Edmonton’s second largest company, Theatre Network, homeless in mid-season. That spring seemed like the worst possible time for the Varscona Theatre, another indie producer favourite, to close down for renovations, but that revamp had been in the planning for years.
In the end, the Varscona Group put off reconstruction for a few months, allowing Network to finish its season where Shadow and Die Nasty had originally planned to finish theirs: in the newly re-opened (not a moment too soon!) Backstage Theatre at the Arts Barns. That generous gesture was testament that when push comes to shove, at the end of the day our theatre community sticks together like a family (on this point I should also mention that the Edmonton Public School Board also came to the rescue, making the East Glen High School Theatre available for Network’s February show, the Old Trout’s Famous Puppet Death Scenes; and the UofA Drama Department hosted a reading of Cheerleader, the stranded Roxy Performance Series show that would have opened that January).
It’s witness, too, to our community’s strength and depth that this space crunch does not seem to have discouraged independent producers in town. In 2015, many scrambled to book the cracks left in the calendar after the city’s established companies had crammed themselves, like so many creatures on Noah’s Ark, into every nook available in the Arts Barns. Others, doubtless, were left out in the cold, postponing plans, or booking less used spaces or production windows.
But the city’s theatre universe is starting to expand again, if very slowly. The rebound began in the fall of 2015, when Network was kindly invited to make a semi-permanent home in the C103 space. Thanks to an overhaul that came with the move, that theatre is now more versatile than it has ever been. The shuffle also relieved some of the pressure on the Arts Barns. As a result, the Backstage Theatre is becoming an increasingly popular venue for independent productions.
And this past summer the Varscona re-opened. If you haven’t been in the new space, all I can say is go see a show there. The upgrade is impressive, the transformation fabulous. It makes one optimistic that the obvious care and oversight behind that particular metamorphosis can be equalled or surpassed when the Roxy is finally resurrected on 124th Street.
On the north side of the river, Grant MacEwan University’s Theatre Department has a wonderful space of their own to look forward to in the new Centre for Arts and Culture. That building, already turning heads at 110th Street on 104th Avenue, will open in the Fall of 2017. The move to that location will leave MacEwan’s West Campus Centre for the Arts and Communications, off Stony Plain road, empty. Making things interesting, the City is currently considering plans to repurpose that building for occupancy by non-profit organizations including, presumably, independent theatre companies interested in making use either of the John L. Haar Theatre or, more realistically, the smaller, more fillable black box studio currently also housed in that complex.
All the furious development downtown is promising more space for performing artists in the city’s centre, too. The Galleria proposal for a massive complex on the Stations Lands (north of the new Royal Alberta Museum) could include, among one of its four planned performance spaces, a 200-seat black box that may be affordable for indie producers. A little to the south, at 102A Avenue and 96th Street, Arts Habitat Edmonton is working to get the go-ahead on a mixed development that would include residences, studios, and offices for artists and arts organizations. Known as the Artists Quarters, it would house a 210-seat theatre intended as a new home-base for Mile Zero Dance and Rapid Fire Theatre.
And coming full circle, farther north, back up on 118th Avenue, Arts Habitat (again) has returned from the drawing board with a similar mixed-use proposal that would replace the old Alberta Cycle Building. The Arts Common includes plans for a 150-seat performance and event space that will be made available for rental to independent productions.
ArtsHab is now waiting for the provincial and federal governments to throw their financial weight behind both its proposals. If funding does come through in the next few months, those developments could open their doors to the public in 2018.
But these latter spaces – a new Roxy (which in an ideal world could make way for indie management of C103), the MacEwan West Campus black box, the small spaces in the Galleria and Artist Quarters – are all down-the-road eventualities, some further in the future than others, others still proposals that could change direction with the economic winds. While we wait and hope – and advocate – is there respite in the meantime for independent theatre producers looking for a place to put on a show? And what will replace the cozy little spaces like the Living Room Playhouse, or the offbeat ones like the Artery?
Do we follow the storefront theatre movement that, for the moment at least, has taken Toronto by storm? Do we explore more unconventional spaces that are off the beaten track? To be clear, I’m talking here about spaces in which an audience can still sit in comfort, and do so at a vantage point from which they can easily see and hear a show: places like the Metro Garneau Cinema, where the Frente Theatre Collective staged its remount of Leslea Kroll’s Swallow in June, or perhaps Freemasons Hall, which contains an old-school auditorium, a mid-sized lodge, and a large lodge (theatre no. 6 is still determined to mount a production of Measure for Measure in the latter). Last time I checked, the rent at Freemasons Hall was extremely reasonable and the management very accommodating. While the lodges contain no lighting grids and are only available during the summer months, these aren’t insurmountable challenges in an otherwise beguiling space that’s pregnant with theatrical potential.
Mostly, though, it strikes me that this time of space crunch could be viewed as an opportunity. I think its a chance to do more than discover new or revisit underused venues that keep an audience corralled on risers (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking it, but it seems like a good time to force ourselves to create more immersive, site-specific production.
Edmonton’s no babe in the woods when it comes to this form. To review a few examples from recent history only: Theatre Yes‘ National Elevator Project (among other site-specific shows they’ve produced), the work of the Found Festival, and of Thou Art Here Theatre. But even if the form’s been around for a while it’s fair to point out, as many people do, that there is something new in the potential to incorporate digital media and interactivity into it.
The genre does also seem to be riding a wave at the moment (Sleep No More, anyone?). Here in Canada, outside of Edmonton, Vancouver has been a hot-bed of site-specific production for years. In Toronto, Outside the March has recently made a name specializing in it. Perhaps it’s spiking because theatre spaces are at a premium everywhere or, perhaps, it’s because the new technology is challenging our understanding of space and, by extension, what can be considered, as Peter Brook would have called it, an empty space.
Either way, there’s wonderful potential in infusing non-traditional spaces with the magic of theatre. There are also practical and financial challenges to it. Audience capacity limits related to comfort, sight lines, and audibility have implications for box office returns. Immersion on the grand scale can also require a lot of technology, expertise, and human resources, meaning it isn’t always going to be cheap to produce.
I’m not meaning to push creators in our community onto something they might think is only the latest shiny bandwagon. Nor am I suggesting that theatre no. 6 is going to be some kind of leader in the field (though we are batting around a few concepts for projects in that vein). Neither am I meaning to imply that site-specific and immersive production is the future while conventional sit-and-watch theatre is finished. I don’t believe in either of those assertions.
We do need, as a community, to keep pressing the powers-that-be to address our current space shortage by continuing to make a strong case for theatre as an art form. But while we wait for those brand new theatre spaces to come, I throw the alt-space thought out there for anyone interested to consider. If they haven’t done so already, that is.