Theatre is finding its way back to audiences in earnest this month in Toronto. Now the only problem is, will audiences be able to find their way to the right theatre?
No Change in the Weather, a Newfoundland show that will be the first fully-staged musical in Toronto since 2020, opens on November 19 at what’s now called the CAA Theatre, for instance.
That’s been the name of the 700-seat venue on Yonge St., just a little south of Bloor, since 2018 when its owner, Mirvish Productions, formed a new partnership with the Canadian Automobile Association.
You may know the theatre better by its old name, the Panasonic Theatre, which was built in 2005 on the site of another theatre that was called The New Yorker.
Now, the first thing to know about the CAA Theatre is that its name is pronounced See Eh Eh Theatre. It’s not pronounced “the catheter” though some local wags have taken to calling it that.
The second thing to know about Mirvish’s CAA Theatre is that it is not the same as the CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre, which is the brand-new name of another theatre one and a half kilometres farther south on Yonge St. run by Mirvish Productions.
Until September, this 2,200-seat venue was simply known as the Ed Mirvish Theatre – though it was the Canon Theatre until 2011 and, further back, was the Pantages. (You’ll find the Canadian premiere of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child there starting in May.)
Now, if commercial producer David Mirvish wants to put a few extra initials before his late father’s name on a sign and potentially confuse some customers, that’s entirely his business. And no doubt he decided it was good for business to cement a partnership that gives him special access to a whopping 56 million CAA and AAA members across North America.
Why a couple not-for-profit theatre companies in Toronto have recently changed the names of their venues to ones similar to other venues is harder to understand.
Back in 2019, Canadian Stage, one of the city’s two biggest not-for-profits, renamed the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs where it produces and presents most of its work the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre.
This was because the Baillies, local theatre-loving philanthropists, gave $1-million to a campaign to help eliminate a pesky accumulated deficit that dates back to when the company was known as CanStage.
The problem with this is that if you input Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre into your Google Maps app even now (as I did while writing this column), it will send you to the nearby Young Centre for the Performing Arts.
That’s because the mainspace in the Young Centre – home to Soulpepper, Toronto’s other biggest not-for-profit theatre company – is also named the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre after the same donors.
(Just to be clear, no, the Young Centre is not on Yonge as many folks initially imagine; it’s in the Distillery District and named after philanthropist David Young.)
As a theatregoer, I’d, of course, like to thank the Baillies for helping keep the live arts alive. But, at the same time: Isn’t there a beloved friend or family dog or something they could have named one of these theatres after?
The two Baillie Theatres are only 600 metres away from each other according to my app, so it’s not that hard to reroute to the right one if a mistake is made by an innocent, first-time theatregoer who doesn’t know enough about this city’s shallow pool of donors to understand why there might be two venues with the exact same name an eight-minute walk apart.
But a bigger problem is if you arrive at Meridian Hall to see a show – and you’re actually meant to be at Meridian Arts Centre.
Those two live performance venues are 14 kilometres apart.
Back in 2019, TO Live – the city agency that runs a number of venues around Toronto – sold naming rights to those two buildings to a credit union called Meridian as part of a $30.75-million, 15-year “strategic partnership”.
Making the performing arts more accessible to the uninitiated was obviously not part of the strategy.
Meridian Hall was previously the Sony Centre (and before that the Hummingbird Centre, and originally the O’Keefe Centre), while the Meridian Arts Centre was previously the Toronto Centre for the Arts (and before that the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts, and originally the North York Performing Arts Centre).
I find this confusing renaming particularly egregious because these are buildings owned by the people of Toronto. And what Meridian paid to get its name on two buildings is really a pittance compared to more than $5.6-million or so taxpayers pay to subsidize TO Live’s various venues every single year.
Now, there are certainly theatres with similar names elsewhere in Canada, but usually they are at least in different cities. There’s a Carousel theatre in St Catharines, Ont., (founded in 1972) and another Carousel Theatre in Vancouver (founded in 1974), for instance; both are theatres for young people and neither has blinked and changed their name for 48 years.
If you talk about the Grand Theatre, meanwhile, you need to clarify whether you’re talking about the one in Kingston or the one in London. (That’s the London in Ontario, of course, not the one in England.)
But for some reason the same-name, same-city issue is pretty unique to Toronto, perhaps because it is an amnesiac place that loves the idea of “city building” more than it loves what’s already been built here.
It’s not an Ontario thing: The Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival have never sold naming rights to their theatres. The Tom Patterson Theatre in Stratford is named after the journalist who helped found the theatre company; the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre at the Shaw Festival is named after an important former artistic director.
Likewise, in New York, you can take a walk around Broadway district and stumble across theatres named after great American theatre artists like Eugene O’Neill, August Wilson and Ethel Barrymore. (There are even a couple named after critics – the Brooks Atkinson and the Walter Kerr.)
In Toronto, theatre artists only get alleys: The ones named after playwrights Sky Gilbert and Linda Griffiths are tucked next to or behind theatres, while David French’s is near to where he used to live.
“What’s in a name?” some other playwright wrote – and he may have had a point not to make too big a deal about one. And yet, I’ve biked down the aforementioned alleys and, let me tell you, it smells a lot sweeter inside Meridian Hall and both Baillies.
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