Ask any actor, playwright or director what the hardest part of making independent theatre is, and a unanimous cry will come back: Finding a place to do it!
Artist-friendly performance space has been on the decline for the past several years in Toronto. Due to insatiable condo developers and skyrocketing rents, beloved indie spaces like Artword Theatre, the Poor Alex and Equity Showcase Theatre have all disappeared, taking with them affordable rehearsal and performance space for independent theatre artists.
“There is a definite need for performance space in this city, even tiny spaces,” says Jackie English, an actor and dancer. So she decided to take matters into her own hands. She runs Bread and Circus, an artist-friendly bar/theatre in Kensington Market, which is a go-to venue for indie theatre and music types.
The converted skateboard shop has become a hub of the independent arts scene since it opened last November under the collective management of English, along with Kiran Sachdev and Asher Ettinger (both musicians), who moved Bread and Circus from a smaller space around the corner.
English is not alone: Small, artist-run spaces have been popping up wherever a few square feet can be found.
On Ossington Avenue, a street so happening the city slapped down a bylaw preventing further development, the Lower Ossington Theatre is quietly becoming a major destination for every independent theatre artist in town.
Just north of Queen St. W., the LOT offers an increasingly rare luxury: Rehearsal space that is both affordable and large.
“We got onto the street when it was still all sketchy karaoke bars,” says David Galpern, the artistic director of the Classical Theatre Project, a company that produces classic plays for high school audiences. His company has made the LOT its home base for the past two years.
“In 2006, before it was the LOT, we were rehearsing in the building,” says Galpern.
“We arrived to find a padlock on the door, so we sought out the landlord and worked out a deal – that was the beginning of the LOT.”
“Affordable theatre spaces are few and far between in this city,” says Chris Stanton, the artistic director of acclaimed independent company Unspun Theatre, whose new theatre company, The Room, is debuting its first work at the LOT at Toronto’s Fringe Festival next week.
“It’s fantastic that the people at the LOT are willing to maintain such a space — it’s become increasingly rare in the last five years.”
With the ever-growing Fringe Festival beginning next week, performance space in Toronto is at a premium, and these independent spaces will all be well-used. Bread and Circus hosts no less than four theatre companies in the festival’s “Bring Your Own Venue” program (English herself will be performing in one: The Fringe-y titled My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wedding). The LOT has two BYOV shows this year, and Hub 14, which has been a BYOV in past years, will serve as the warm-up space for the Fringe’s dance companies.
More and more artists are realizing that the best way to find space for rehearsals and performances is to create it themselves.
Expect to see more artist-run spaces pop up around Toronto, like the Toronto Free Gallery. The TFG has been an art gallery since 2004, but it was just recently that someone noticed that the gallery had a back room that could be converted into a theatre space. The space is undergoing renovation and it’s expected to be completed next fall.
• The Fringe Festival runs tomorrow through July 12.
• Visit www.fringetoronto.com for complete festival details, including showtimes and venues.