How the city is trying to save Toronto's historic experimental theatre companies

Historic experimental companies like Factory Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille are feeling the squeeze as the condo boom continues west of Toronto's downtown. Now, city staff are being asked to come up with a plan to save them.

'I do think that the cultural life of Toronto is at stake,' says Theatre Passe Muraille artistic director

In the past year, pioneering theatre company Theatre Passe Muraille lost its administrative office, its rehearsal space and its carpentry shop. The buildings they were in will soon become condos. (supplied)

As more and more cultural institutions are squeezed out by the condo boom, city council passed a motion this week asking staff to come up with creative ways to save independent live theatre companies west of Toronto's downtown.

In the past year, Theatre Passe Muraille lost its administrative office, its rehearsal space and its carpentry shop when the buildings that housed them at King and Bathurst streets were sold for condominium developments.

"I do think that the cultural life of Toronto is at stake," said Marjorie Chan, Passe Muraille's artistic director.

"I think you're looking at the very nature of downtown shifting if it becomes unaffordable for artists and arts institutions."

Coun. Joe Cressy, who represents Ward 10, Spadina-Fort York, moved the motion Wednesday, saying that in addition to Theatre Passe Muraille, Factory Theatre and other companies are also under threat. Both companies are located near Bathurst and Queen streets.

"Not unlike art galleries or live music venues, there are certain factors creating real challenges for the viability of independent theatre," said Cressy.

He says action is needed as start-up theatres and rehearsal rooms close due to high commercial rents and a lack of supports for emerging artists and performance spaces.

Coun. Joe Cressy says theatres that operate in heritage buildings may be saddled with significant capital repairs costs. He says that, along with a lack of commercial rent control, is putting some of downtown independent theatres at risk. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Founded in 1968, Theatre Passe Muraille is located in a heritage building owned by the City of Toronto.

Cressy says there are pros and cons to that arrangement as such buildings are also in need of significant capital repairs.

"A historic building may be a great environment for live theatre, but also come with extensive rehabilitation and construction costs. And so there are capital challenges in funding for independent theatres."

Sally Han, the manager of cultural partnerships with the city's  Economic Development and Culture department, says the building is included in the city's capital budget for state of good repair projects.

She says funding could be found to help make the theatres more accessible, for example, "helping them to determine how to reach [Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act] compliance that could leverage greater capital investment in these buildings."

The city has asked staff to come up with a plan to save alternative and experimental theatres, such as Factory Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille, both located near Bathurst and Queen streets.

Han says city staff could also look for "opportunities for sector-wide initiatives, such as shared facilities, which could help with operational efficiencies."

Chan says she hopes staff will look at city-owned facilities that are underused which they could use for rehearsal space or a carpentry shop.

"I think we do need to think more creatively and think what's possible ... Space is at a premium in the city, but there's probably still city-owned spaces that maybe are not." 

Marjorie Chan, artistic director at Theatre Passe Muraille, says the cultural life of Toronto downtown shifting as it becomes unaffordable for not only artists, but also for galleries, live music venues and theatres. (supplied)

The review will be an ensemble effort involving the entire independent live theatre sector, including  the Canadian Actors Equity Association; the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees; and the Toronto Arts Council, which is funded by the City of Toronto.

Han points out that both Theatre Passe Muraille and Factory Theatre are exempt from paying property tax under provincial legislation.

Chan says she is encouraged that the city is putting the arts on the agenda.

"I appreciate any advocacy and any conversation that's happening around cultural spaces."


Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC National News

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with three decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for the National Network based in Toronto. His stories are on CBC Radio's World Report, World This Hour, World at Six and The World This Weekend as well as CBC TV's The National and CBC News Online. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.


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