When I started TWISI almost four years ago, I became quickly swept up in what I perceived to be a resurgence and flourishing of the independent theatre in Toronto. Artists all across the scene were suddenly taking charge of their theatrical destinies and making incredible and inspiring things happen.
Toronto’s Cabaret tradition was suddenly thrust back into the spotlight, much to the delight of hundreds of people who clamoured to sing and to experience Jenni Burke and Michael Barber’s joyful and impressive weekly show Curtains Down, which brought a vivacious new vibe to Church Street. I went to my first Acting UpStage event at the Diesel Playhouse, a performance venue I loved in the heart of the Queen West district. Across Bloor Street, Gary Rideout Jr. would open Comedy Bar as a place to centralize the immense talent of Toronto’s sketch, stand up and Improv masters. Not long after, The Bread and Circus opened its doors, offering a cozy multifunctional space for independent theatre productions, music, an ideal Fringe venue (well, except for the lack of AC), and Cabaret shows (which at one point were cropping up like weeds thanks to the fostering and incubation of talent that existed each week at Curtains Down). The Bread and Circus became one of the homes of another exciting new theatre company, The National Theatre of the World, whose Carnegie Hall Show filled every Wednesday with music and laughter, drinks and debauchery that spilled into the lobby (and often into the street in Kensington Market) well into the night.
In hindsight, it seems so appropriate that TWISI should have emerged and grown up alongside this surge of activity, optimism and enterprise in Toronto’s independent theatre scene. I could feel the enthusiasm percolating every single day and I felt that we were all standing on the edge of something incredible that was going to eventually revolutionize and revitalize the Canadian theatre.
How could it not? The momentum that people like Jenni Burke and Gary Rideout Jr. and Michael Rubenfeld at SummerWorks created in these last four years has been extraordinary. Jeigh Madjus, one of the earliest regulars at Curtains Down, is now a Dora Nominated musical theatre force to be reckoned with, embarking on a yearlong American tour of La Cage Aux Folles. I have witnessed dozens of young musical theatre performers who literally went from being unknown, first-time singers, introducing themselves to Jenni Burke to emerging as the bright, young stars of countless musicals in theatres around Ontario and across the country. I have seen them devise their own Cabaret shows and, in some cases, their own Fringe shows, and in some cases, go out on a huge limb and to do extraordinary and unexpected feats of imagination and artistry. (I am thinking here of Eric Craig, who I first saw in 2007 in a reading of Edges, produced by (then relatively unknown) Sara Farb and Gabi Epstein, who recently performed in The Godot Cycle at the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival.
Sara Farb and Gabi Epstein were the first young producers that I encountered in Toronto, people who were taking their careers into their own hands and making their own work in a city whose large musical theatre machine was not conducive to offering many parts for young Canadian performers. They inspired countless others who would follow in their footsteps. Mitchell Marcus, the bright, young producer of Acting Up Stage was proving vividly every year that quality musical theatre productions could be created by our own community here in Toronto and his fresh perspective has been instrumental in empowering Canadian performers, inspiring others and leading directly to the flourishing careers of a great many of our city’s promising young stars.
A lot has changed since 2007. Toronto’s musical monoliths are making a concretive effort to immerse themselves back into the theatre community of this city. They are hiring more local performers, lending their support and resources to a number of indigenous theatre ventures and I think that they are even doing more interesting work of a higher calibre than they did four years ago. The Comedy Bar has grown and flourished into an institution of laughter that I don’t ever want to imagine Toronto without and it is churning out comedians and shows that are filled with ingenuity: a cornucopia of talent seven days a week. The National Theatre of the World has matured into one of Toronto’s most exciting and beloved theatre companies and has helped to merge the Comedy and Theatre and Musical Theatre communities in the city, as well as bring together a multitude of multifaceted performers to enrich the experience of Toronto’s artists and audiences even further. People like Sharron Matthews and Thom Allison, who were big, well known stars four years ago, have skyrocketed to superpower status, seemingly taking over the world, proving to fellow artists and audiences alike that the possibilities in a career in the theatre in Canada are endless.
Yet, at the same time, the last four years has also seen a lot of what at first seemed so promising come to an abrupt end. Curtains Down became a casualty of the precariousness of its home at Statler’s Piano Bar. It weathered one changeover of ownership in the venue but then went on hiatus, finding refuge at the Pantages Hotel and seeking to re-establish itself in the Monday nights of the musical theatre community. Sadly, the show went on hiatus again in February indefinitely. Soon Statler’s would re-open, prompting many to anticipate that Curtains Down would be reinstated to its former glory. Instead, a new duo, Donavan LeNebat and Jennifer Walls created their own Curtains Down inspired show, entitled SINGular Sensation Mondays which ran steadily throughout the Spring. Unfortunately this show, “due to circumstances beyond LeNebat and Walls’ control,” is now also experiencing an indefinite hiatus as well.
I knew the Bread and Circus Theatre was in trouble months ago when I heard that it had lost its liquor license, and sure enough, this fantastic little venue that housed so much great theatre for the past three years, is going the way of the Diesel Playhouse before it, and closing its doors for good. This sends one of The National Theatre of the World’s shows, and their only show that has kept a strict and constant schedule for an impressive three years, The Carnegie Hall Show, homeless out into the streets. It is worrying what this means for this beloved show, but I am optimistic that the National Theatre of the World has established themselves firmly and impressively enough as successful, inventive, co-operative, enthusiastic and viable, a company that producers can rely on to bring in the crowds and keep them eagerly coming back each week for more. I’m hopeful another venue will snatch them up and quick so they can get on with doing what they do best: entertaining the masses.
I don’t want to sound like I am placing blame on anyone for the demise of these ventures and these venues. I think we all owe everyone who has given Toronto something new, something we relished in (if only for a short while), a place to play and a source of empowerment our gratitude. Yet, what I would like to focus on here is addressing the question of why so many of these independent ventures seem to run out of steam before they are able to reach stable sustainability and, more importantly, what we can do to improve on our ability as artists, producers and theatrical entrepreneurs to surmount these challenges. I see a lot of venue hopping happening, I see a lot of change-over in ownership, but what I don’t see is a lot of conversation about how the new owners of places like Statler’s, or the new venues that crop up, are going to make changes to avoid the same problems that plagued their predecessors. So often we, the concerned artists and public, are not made entirely aware of what the issues were that doomed our favourite venues and if we are not made aware of the obstacles that obviously so many owners of performance spaces are facing how can we ever hope to build a sturdier future here? What made the Bread and Circus, a venue that was often at capacity, that had steady bookings and loyal patrons, close, while a place like The Comedy Bar continues to flourish? Is it that the co-owner of the Comedy Bar building, Gary Rideout Jr., is a performer and so his vested interest in keeping the business open for the comedy community that he is such an integral part of ensures its success? Can more artists follow in Rideout’s footsteps and secure their own venues? I always find myself looking to the Varscona Theatre in Edmonton, as my source of venue inspiration. It is a cooperatively run theatre space which houses five professional resident companies. Surely a space like this would be beneficial for Toronto to give some security to companies like The National Theatre of the World, who could perhaps share with a show like Curtains Down. It could certainly be a Fringe and/or SummerWorks venue and could also be the space to house the type of shows that played at the B&C and The Diesel Playhouse.
The bottom line is that Toronto needs these small venues to nurture the companies creating new work not just during the summer but all the year through. These venues are stepping stones to a place like Theatre Passe Muraille, which, as we know is a stepping stone to Factory, Tarragon and Canadian Stage, theatres from whence our plays and our artists reach success across the country and around the world. Toronto needs space for its Cabaret scene to continue to grow, it needs space for something like The Carnegie Hall Show, which is so unique to our city, to the four performers who have created it, and that needs and deserves to be protected. Toronto’s musical theatre community needs a place like Curtains Down, where people can go and sing to gain confidence, to gain exposure, to promote their shows, to test Cabaret material, to test audition material, to cut their teeth, to socialize and schmooze and build friendships and partnerships and network and contacts in a business where all these things are essential. I watched in amazement for two years as I saw the direct impact that Curtains Down had on revitalizing Toronto’s own musical theatre community and sending inspired young performers into their futures filled with hope, optimism and strength. These artists knew that they could accomplish their goals and, most importantly, that if the institutions in the city were too American-centric to give them a chance, that they had bright and exciting alternatives, whether that be a company like Angelwalk or Acting UpStage, or producing their own Cabaret or working with one of the many exorbitantly talented Toronto-based musical theatre composers on a reading, or producing a musical of their own. We need this momentum to continue. It has brought us Theatre 20, it has brought us Jersey Boys it has brought us Sharron Matthews Superstar and a whole generation of musical theatre performers who rallied together and believed in one another, in themselves and in the theatre of this country. We all have a responsibility to make sure that this bright light does not get snuffed out.
TWISI has not been immune to any of this precariousness either. I have been on “indefinite hiatus” here in Halifax since March, likely for many of the same reasons that venues are closing and producers are scrambling to keep their weekly shows afloat. It’s not easy. Sharron Matthews has been a beacon of light for the last year with her wildly popular and critically acclaimed shows in Scotland and New York, but at the end of the day, if Sharron Matthews is not getting grants from the Canada Council and instead reliant on fundraising efforts, given that she is one of the biggest stars of the Canadian musical theatre (and has been for over a decade) and is nearly single handedly responsible for the Cabaret Renaissance in this city, the rest of us are, quite frankly, screwed.
Yet, in the past few days I, like most people in this country, have been spending a lot of my time thinking about Jack Layton and reflecting on his life. I recently was reminded how small the NDP’s presence in Parliament used to be, and not too long ago. I was reminded of how many people told Jack that Canadians would never elect the NDP in any substantial way. How they would never be able to make gains in Quebec… and that they would NEVER have an MP in Alberta. I was reminded how when Canadians seemed to be telling Jack the same thing, when they were voting Liberal and Conservative six ways from Sunday, when he kept looking like he was getting beaten and losing the fight… he always got up swinging. He always said YES, I CAN. YES I WILL. YOU JUST WATCH ME. He never seemed to wallow in defeat. Look at all he accomplished out of that.
I don’t want to wallow in the closure of the Bread and Circus, I don’t want to wallow in the hiatus of SINGular Sensation or Curtains Down… or indeed, in TWISI and I hope that you won’t either. I hope that we can start to investigate alternatives to venue hopping. This is certainly something that I intend to cover in more depth and hopefully with more research and insight, upon my return to Toronto (which will be soon).
My beloved Toronto theatre community, we are still on the brink of something extraordinary. I am still exorbitantly proud of all of you and all that we have accomplished in the last four years and I am still determined and hopeful and optimistic that TWISI will very soon rise up, like a phoenix, to be the Canadian Theatre resource that you all deserve. I am working very hard and I am filled with unbridled enthusiasm, passion and excitement for the future for all of us together.
I can’t wait to see what happens next. Let’s all make some magic.
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