If you challenge a cultured friend outside of the country to name one important person, place or thing in Canadian theatre, you will more than likely get one of two answers (that isn’t Come From Away). Robert Lepage, the globe-trotting, innovative director based in Quebec City; or Ontario’s Stratford Festival, the number one destination for lovers of classics in North America.
As it happens, these two almost opposing theatrical brands both had the exact same idea in the years leading up to the pandemic – to build new intimate venues that seat around 600, tailor-made for their work.
Indeed, Le Diamant and the Tom Patterson Theatre – budgeted at $62-million and $72-million, respectively – were originally set to open within the same eight-month span in Quebec City and Stratford, Ont. They didn’t, of course.
Le Diamant, which is both a presentation house curated by Lepage and a home for his peripatetic theatre company Ex Machina, held its first opening night as scheduled at the end of August, 2019. It launched with a new version of the seven-hour epic that Lepage launched Ex Machina with in 1994, Les sept branches de la rivière Ota (The Seven Streams of the River Ota) – but has had to weather four government shutdowns since then.
The Tom Patterson Theatre, meanwhile, had its official opening pushed back owing to the pandemic and sat sad and glittering like the belle of the cancelled ball until May, 2022, when Richard III, starring Colm Feore, finally took the stage. That too was Stratford Festival returning to the very first play it ever produced – in a tent, in 1953 – to launch a new era.
I finally got a chance to sit in the seats of both these theatres this summer, spending close to nine hours at the Tom Patterson, which will complete its first full season at the end of October; and just over seven hours at Le Diamant, which rebooted this September for what it hopes will be its first full season of programming with a return of Seven Streams.
While I reviewed the plays, I didn’t review the theatres themselves. They’ve both won architectural awards and have state-of-the-art technology – but what are they like for an audience?
The spaces could not be more different to experience a live show in – and yet each is an example of design enmeshed with artistic purpose that should be studied by any person, place or thing thinking of building a new theatre in this country littered with too many budget compromises and white elephants.
Act 1: Outside looking in
The theatre-going experience, as scholars of spectatorship will tell you, really begins as soon as you set your eyes on your venue.
In Quebec City, the act of finding Le Diamant – which was collaboratively designed by Marie-Chantal Croft of Coarchitecture, Annie Lebel of In Situ Atelier d’Architecture and Jacques Plante – is a journey of discovery itself (like so many of Lepage’s plays with their Tintin-esque trips abroad).
The theatre is located in Place D’Youville, a public square, intermittently pedestrianized in the summer and home to an outdoor skating rink in the winter, just outside the old city walls that is transforming into the capital’s answer to Montreal’s Quartier des Spectacles.
Approaching on foot up along the fabled rue Saint-Jean (cue the Gilles Vigneault tune), you first notice Palais Montcalm, a former market that for 90 years has been a classical concert hall, then the Théâtre Capitole, a big Beaux Arts-style theatre for more popular concerts and comedy.
Le Diamant is hidden behind the conserved façade of an 1879 building that was, for 60 years, a YMCA; its entrance is sandwiched between the restaurant BŌ Cuisine d’Asie that occupies its main floor and the Théâtre Capitole.
The way in is signalled by a circular transparent glass sculpture by artist Claudie Gagnon mounted in the spot where the neon sign of a movie theatre called the Cinema du Paris once hung. This is a diamond you have to dig for.
By contrast, the Tom Patterson Theatre – designed by Siamak Hariri, founding partner with Hariri Pontarini Architects – sits on its own on a parcel of land across an intermittently pedestrianized street from the part of the Avon River that widens into what is grandly called Lake Victoria. It is itself a sculpture of glass, with its undulating windowed outer walls. You not only see it right away on approach, you see into it – and there’s something about this that makes you pick up your step and stride toward it with pride and purpose. Fittingly for a company dedicated to the idea of “classics,” this is a place of rediscovery.
It’s hard to really understand Le Diamant, on the other hand, until you are walking away from it after a show and the sun is down; only then do you really notice the glowing roof of glass above that gives it its name, a 21st century halo over the historic square.
Act 2: The lobbies
Le Diamant is interested in remembering and reinterpreting the past (a theme of Lepage’s plays, too – like his autobiographic hit 887). A mural in the main floor lobby is an homage by veteran street artist Zïlon to a punk and new wave bar called Shoeclack Déchainé that was on site during the 1980s. The floors in one lobby show where the rooms of the YMCA once were – and the wood framing of an old wall and a pair of old columns found during the demolition of the old structure have been erected anew, as found sculptures.
There’s an open, airy, first-apartment aesthetic to the space that is, believe it or not, Lepage’s first real venue in his home town. Translucent, moveable plastic chairs, not enough for everyone to take a seat, dot one lobby; at Seven Streams, there was a dinner break and Lepage lovers of all ages were perching like students in the window wells or on the floor to eat their preordered poké bowls.
Spread over several floors, Le Diamant’s front-of-house is representative of Lepage’s own personality and interests. A Japanese theme dominates, with giant statues of Raijin and Fujin, gods of wind and fire whose likenesses protect cultural sites in Japan, near the entrance. (This summer, theatregoers and passersby alike could visit the terrace bar and sip cocktails named after these deities.)
More eccentrically, the ushers and bar staff at Le Diamant wear noragi, a kind of Japanese jacket traditionally sported by farmers, and the impending start of shows and ends of intermissions are signalled by a gong.
Lepage’s love affair with Japan (see: Seven Streams, the dance piece Eonnagatta, the film Nô) is far from unreciprocated: Kabuchan International, a Japanese company that, among other things, imports maple syrup from Quebec, donated $1-million to the construction of Le Diamant.
The Tom Patterson Theatre, by contrast, is in a clear conversation not with faraway lands, but with the land on which it sits – through its natural materials, architectural responses to the river and a wall that includes artwork by Lee Harper, an artist and Indigenous health promoter.
While there are some seats and tables near the bars and concessions, every intermission I spent there, the audience was on the move, pulled toward the windows to gaze out into the night, if not right out onto the patio.
At Stratford openings, as a critic, I usually like a little privacy and found it at the end of one of the winding paths through the adjoining meadow-like gardens, on a little bench in a hidden spot where the white noise of crickets helps you tune out the buzz of intermission and jot down a few thoughts. If Le Diamant is the cool city house, the Tom Patterson is the contemplative country house.
Act 3: Inside the auditorium
The visual quirkiness of Le Diamant disappears, however, as soon as you enter its dark, black auditorium: There are the ghostly outlines of arches or boxes of a Georgian Theatre on the walls either side of you, but your attention is really only drawn straight forward to the stage.
This is a magic box in which anything might appear – an ideal space to see one of Lepage’s own shows, designed to surprise you with what shows up on stage unexpectedly, with what rabbit he next pulls out of his hat.
Le Diamant’s auditorium is built for touring shows (the standardized “plateau européen,” wherein stage size and seating area are equal) and to accommodate other forms of live performance Lepage has a particular interest in: The front rows pull back to create a space for an orchestra for opera, another configuration allows for wrestling matches (yes, wrestling), and there’s all the height and rigging equipment you’d ever need for an indoor circus above the stage.
By contrast, the Tom Patterson auditorium is where you encounter Stratford’s distinct artistic personality, from the unusual descending journey to the seats, to the tight-seal acoustics designed for spoken, unamplified speech, to the U-shape of the seating area backed by warm, wooden sound reflectors that make you feel as if you’re an elected representative of some European parliament. (It’s the most democratic theatre of this size I’ve ever sat in – an intriguing paradox as it is also elitist, in the sense that it is the second-smallest of Stratford’s four theatres.)
Most of all, of course, there’s the stage itself – the “elongated thrust,” pretty much unique to Stratford, a hybrid of traverse stage and a thrust that was happened upon through experimenting with different setups in the multipurpose building called the Tom Patterson that used to occupy the same site and was once a curling rink.
The Stratford Festival has always had a community purpose beyond an artistic mission. Patterson, the late journalist who founded it, wanted to bring theatregoers to his beloved town as an economic pivot in the wake of the decline of the railway industry there. The company has toured but, ultimately, it exists to be a destination.
Though, it’s worth noting, the intimate theatre and tourist attraction that is the new Tom Patterson is also Stratford’s first auditorium with advanced infrastructure to support filming, including a special AV room for remote viewing, that will allow its work to be accessible and seen from anywhere in the world.
For Lepage, who can work anywhere in the world, saddling himself with running a theatre space in Quebec City is not as paradoxical as it first may seem; he is, not unreasonably, settling down as he approaches 65 this year. He now seems eager to bring his favourite live performances from around the world home, as well as being able to have world premiere of his own work at home for the first time. Le Diamant may be a place of pilgrimage for those drawn by his own particular talents, but the auditorium’s flexibility means it will be able to house other visions in the future after he is gone; he is, after all, an individual, not an institution.
These two buildings are great examples, the best in the country, of theatres that, from the moment you set eyes on them, help achieve the artistic goals of those who run them. You’d expect that would be the case with most theatres, but, in fact, in Canada, it is rare.
Too many of the country’s big theatres are oversized and outdated, built for an earlier era of reduced entertainment options and a common middlebrow culture, or as road houses for American touring shows, or as the projects primarily of cultural bureaucrats and so-called city builders.
Meanwhile, too many of the smaller ones, housing the country’s many vibrant, mid-sized companies, are renovated factories or mansions with a couple hundred seats that have strong artistic ideas and not much money to market and little allure as spaces themselves.
The dual accomplishments of Le Diamant and the Tom Patterson Theatre are worth celebrating side by side even if they opened year apart in the end. They help fill in a different type of missing middle in this country – theatres big enough for large-scale work, but small enough to accommodate artistically ambitious and risk-taking work by our own artists.