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Mitchell Marcus is leaving the theatre company he founded to plan cultural programming at the new Downsview airport development.Dahlia Katz/Handout

As an artistic director and chief executive officer at Musical Stage Company, Mitchell Marcus has helped musical theatre soar to new heights in Toronto over the past 18 years.

But now he’s flying away from the not-for-profit theatre company he founded in order to help infuse a whole new area of the city with cultural life.

On Thursday, Northcrest Developments is announcing that Marcus will lead the “artistic and cultural activation” of the 150 hectares of airport and hangar lands known as the Downsview Airport Lands it plans to develop over the next 30 years.

The new job centres on programming and planning activity for and around a 2.1-kilometre runway that is being transformed into a pedestrian boulevard. The aim is for it to be a cultural destination at the heart of new neighbourhoods being built.

Marcus imagines the runway as a vibrant area on par with Ontario Place or Harbourfront Centre, but the uniqueness of the long empty landing strip allows for commissioning events and installations that couldn’t take place anywhere else. “The runway is going to go from a really exciting temporary hub to a long-term major community and city asset across those 30 years,” he says.

Could old airport hangars in the area eventually be transformed into permanent theatres or concert venues as well? Marcus says he wants to avoid top-down planning for the site (perhaps best known culturally for hosting the SARSstock concert in 2003) or any attempt to recreate the downtown performing arts scene north of the 401.

“Obviously, it’s very early days and step one of the project is to really work with the local community to determine what the needs are and what is possible.”

Marcus imagines initial small projects happening on or around the runaway in 2023, and a major ribbon-cutting event some time in 2024.

At Musical Stage Company, where he currently holds the title of CEO, Marcus leaves behind what has become the country’s most important not-for-profit theatre company devoted to musical theatre.

It now has a $2.8-million annual budget – with annual attendance in the 30,000 range – and is equally devoted to staging top-notch productions of challenging pre-existing musicals and to cultivating new homegrown shows and voices.

The way Marcus, who turns 40 later this year, describes it, the Toronto in which he founded what was originally called Acting Up Stage Company back in 2004 was one where jukebox musicals such as Mamma Mia! and We Will Rock You dominated.

Marcus knew there was more to the art form, and he dedicated himself to that niche of musicals too small for Mirvish Productions but also ignored by bigger not-for-profit companies that mainly programmed well-known titles to boost bottom lines and relegated risk-taking to new plays.

Acting Up launched in 2005 with tick, tick … BOOM!, the cult Jonathan Larson musical that predated Rent (and is now an Oscar-nominated movie). It went on to introduce audiences to similarly modest musicals by unappreciated composers and lyricists.

Eventually it grew into Musical Stage Company and started producing or co-producing major ambitious shows such as Fun Home at the CAA Theatre or Caroline, or Change at the Winter Garden Theatre.

As importantly, the company started to support Canadian musical theatre, putting resources into developing not just individual shows but talent. It’s while discussing this aspect of the job he’s leaving behind that Marcus becomes emotional.

A high point for him was being in the room for rehearsals for composer/lyricist Britta Johnson’s Life After in 2017. The resources put behind that world premiere by Musical Stage Company in conjunction with Canadian Stage and Yonge Street Theatricals made it a milestone in local musical theatre.

“I just sat there and thought this is what it felt like to be in the room with Stephen Sondheim in 1968, two years before he’s going to win the Tony for Company,” Marcus says. Life After, about teenage grief, has since gone on to be produced at the Old Globe in San Diego and will next be produced at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in June.

“For me, that’s the culmination of everything. That was the dream.”

Though his new job only came up recently, Marcus has been succession planning for the past few years. Ray Hogg took over as deputy artistic director in 2020, and was promoted to artistic director in 2021 in conjunction with Marcus assuming the role of CEO.

Now, Marcus says, the leaders, staff, artists and donors are all there for him to depart without worries. He’s comfortable the company has long stopped being viewed as “some kid’s personal pet project,” and evolved into a sustainable not-for-profit institution.

I thought Marcus might eventually turn into Canada’s next big commercial theatre producer, but he says he’s excited about the artistic and cultural possibilities of the Downsview site, which borders a number of neighbourhoods, including North York where he grew up. “The reason I’m in this in the first place is I’m deeply committed to moments where people gather together and have their hearts cracked open,” he says.

The next place Marcus hopes those moments happen is a runaway north of the 401 – and knowing his skills at building something from nothing, it doesn’t seem like a flight of fancy.

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