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Franco Boni, Artistic Director of the Theatre Center and Managing Director Roxanne Duncan photographed at the group's new facilities. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Franco Boni, Artistic Director of the Theatre Center and Managing Director Roxanne Duncan photographed at the group's new facilities. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

A new development in downtown Toronto - and this one's for artists Add to ...

“Don’t worry, we’re not building another condo.”

While The Theatre Centre’s new home on Queen Street West was undergoing its $6.2-million makeover, a tongue-in-cheek sign with that slogan hung on the fence that kept passersby away from the construction site.

But you won’t hear anything else remotely negative about the residential towers that now dominate this neighbourhood from general and artistic director Franco Boni these days. Wearing a hard hat as he gives a tour of his new “live arts hub and incubator”, Mr. Boni makes it clear that that condos – this time at least – are his company’s friends, rather than enemies.

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“Density is good for theatre,” he says, looking out the windows of what will soon be the Theatre Centre’s “experimental café” at a new art park in the making for residents of the condos that have sprung up in this wedge of land west of Dovercourt now known as the Queen West Triangle – and, hopefully, a new audience for his brand of boundary-pushing live performance.

Gentrification hasn’t always been on the Theatre Centre’s side. Since it was founded 35 years ago, the theatre company has been chased from one leaky and rat-ridden space to around the city – from the Danforth to the Annex to King Street West and, finally, to Queen St West, where it first set up digs in the former Royal Canadian Legion hall (that was, more recently, the sex club Wicked), and then for the past decade in the Great Hall at the corner of Queen and Dovercourt.

This constant flight from rising rents has meant that the Theatre Centre has never had as much name recognition with Toronto audiences as other mid-sized theatre companies in town. “For so long, there hasn’t been a building we could smack a sign on,” says managing director Roxanne Duncan, over the sound of a circular saw as she led a tour through the building in final preparations for its grand opening this past week.

Adds Mr. Boni: “It has had this very nebulous identity.”

Founded in 1979, The Theatre Centre was at first a co-operative of five theatre groups, all of which soon enough moved on to their own digs (Buddies in Bad Times), branched off on their own (Necessary Angel) or shuffled off their mortal coil (Autumn Leaf Theatre).

The umbrella called The Theatre Centre remained, however, and while different partners have taken shelter underneath it over the decades, the one constant has been the organization’s fostering of experimental work through a research and development arm established in 1984.

Well-known theatre artists, from The Drawer Boy playwright Michael Healey to Stratford Festival director Jennifer Tarver, have been associated with the hitherto centre-less centre, but so have a passel of creators, composers and choreographers working on performances you wouldn’t normally classify as “theatre.”

Sea Sick, the first show that opened the new Queen Street West building this week (running through the weekend), is a perfect example of the kind of “live art” the Theatre Centre now “incubates” – a solo performance by science journalist Alanna Mitchell based on her book about the frightening dead zones growing in the world’s oceans.

The Theatre Centre’s new home with its name on it is a opportunity to sell a new audience on the merits of such work. Once locals are lured in by the coffee shop on the main floor – to be run by food innovators I&J Ideation – they will be a hop, skip and jump away from the BMO Incubator for Live Arts, a small, 60-seat space for the development of the more innovative performance pieces.

Climb a flight of stairs and walk through a lobby, built where the former Carnegie Library’s stacks once were, and past the “green roof”, and you”ll find a larger, flexible theatre with 21-foot ceilings in what used to be the reading room.

It’s a beautiful space full of natural light (which can be blocked out, of course, when necessary) that will also function as a rehearsal hall. No more rodents, as in The Theatre Centre’s most recent residence at Queen and Dovercourt in the Great Hall. Gone too are the sound problems that plagued previous homes. “You could almost land a Lear jet in here and you wouldn’t hear it downstairs,” says Ms. Duncan.

It was Section 37 – the part of Ontario’s Planning Act that allows municipalities to ask for developers’ for money for public projects in exchange for zoning concessions – that provided the first $1-million seed to transform this underused public building that dates back to 1909, after much agitating from Mr. Boni and the local business and residents organization Active 18.

But local condo developers have since gone well beyond that in supporting the Theatre Centre which – when Mr. Boni took over the reins a decade ago – looked like it about to be pushed out of the booming area by them.

Urbancorp, developers of the nearby Edge on Triangle Park condo/apartment complex, and Streetcar Developments, who are behind two projects at Queen and Gladstone, are both listed as major supporters of the Theatre Centre’s capital campaign.

David Mandell, a vice-president of Urbancorp, even sits on the Theatre Centre’s board of directors. He argues that developers have no reason not to be supportive of artistic organizations and help them stay in the area. “It’s extremely valuable to us because the area is sold to purchasers based on a lifestyle,” he says – that is to say, people want to buy and live here because of the culture.

Mr. Boni agree that it’s a symbiotic relationship and he’s excited to lure the area’s new residents into his new building; after 35 years of moving, his theatre finally has a centre.

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