Sometimes, things are found in a fire rather than lost.
In 2007, Vern Thiessen left Edmonton – the city in which he had lived and worked for most of his career – for New York. The Governor-General's Literary Award-winning playwright had started to feel that Edmonton was holding him back: "There's a brutal honesty that I needed at the time – and if you work in a small community like Edmonton, they're not going to tell you the truth."
But when Thiessen returned from the world's most competitive theatre town last year to become artistic director at the Workshop West Playwrights' Theatre, he quickly found out – or rather rediscovered – that small has its own appeal.
"The fire happened in January and that really reminded me why Edmonton is special – and what's great about a close-knit theatre community," the playwright says over pizza at a favourite restaurant in the Theatre District in Old Strathcona. "I'm not saying it wouldn't happen anywhere else, but people care about each other here."
The fire that Thiessen is talking about is the one at the Roxy. On Jan. 13, the 220-seat theatre on 124th Street burned to the ground right in the middle of the 40th-anniversary season of Theatre Network, the company that owned and operated out of it.
Originally opened as a cinema in 1938, the Roxy had seen a great deal of the city's theatre history even before it was converted into a live-performance venue in 1989. As a young man, playwright Brad Fraser was an usher and sold concessions – and wrote much of international hit Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love while working there.
Ten months on from the fire, Bradley Moss, artistic director of Theatre Network, is still sad to have lost the building. "It was gorgeous, it was wood and it was warm – there wasn't a bad seat in the house," he recalls, showing paintings of the old building that he keeps in his new office.
"The picture-frame stage was kind of unique – and when [Siminovitch Prize-winning puppeteer] Ronnie Burkett played there with his marionettes, it was perfect."
In the immediate wake of the fire in January, however, Moss found himself weeping for happy reasons as well as sad ones when he got a call from Jeff Haslam, artistic director of Teatro La Quindicina, one of the occupants of the Varscona Theatre.
After years of planning, the Varscona, located in the heart of Old Strathcona, was scheduled to be demolished – and a 148-seat theatre space called The Backstage had been created in a former storage area of the ATB Financial Arts Barns across the street for its companies to perform in while a new $7.5-million building was under construction.
Incredibly, Haslam and the other tenants of the Varscona offered to delay the demolition of their old building so that Theatre Network could complete its season in the Backspace first.
"It made me cry," Moss recalls. "It took the co-ordination of construction companies, five different board member groups. … It was a real sense of a putting up a barn by a community."
The Backstage became Theatre Network's first temporary home – where it performed Colleen Murphy's Armstrong's War in the spring – and a second one quickly enough became available.
As it happened, Catalyst Theatre, the Edmonton company behind the off-Broadway musical Nevermore, was preparing to depart from its own space called the C103 – and become the first ever resident company at the Citadel Theatre.
The Citadel – the regional theatre that occupies a giant complex that includes several theatres and an indoor park in Edmonton's downtown – has been going through strategic changes over the past five years or so.
First, the Citadel converted its Rice Theatre black box into a cabaret space called the Club (the Rice's old seats are now in the Backstage). Then, Rapid Fire Improv moved into the Citadel's cinema in 2012. And now, Catalyst is preparing to become the resident company in the Citadel's Maclab theatre, using the space for up to 122 days a year for rehearsals and performances.
If that sounds like the Citadel is shrinking, executive director Penny Ritco says attendance is stable at around 135,000 people a year and revenue-wise it is probably at an all-time high, half of its $11-million annual budget coming from ticket sales.
But the regional theatre is no longer competing against smaller companies devoted to new and edgy work that did not exist when it was established 50 years ago; while it still puts money into developing new plays, they mostly premiere elsewhere now. (For example, The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble, developed at the Citadel, was programmed at Theatre Network.)
"[Artistic director] Bob [Baker] always tries to think about how plays and productions are relevant to an audience, but an institution has to be relevant too," Ritco says. "The physical structure has to have a relevance; it has to evolve."
With Catalyst out of C103, Theatre Network was offered the space by its landlord – and it has now renamed the small theatre the Roxy on Gateway, expecting to stay there for the next few years as it figures out how to rebuild on the site of the old Roxy. (A multimillion-dollar insurance policy will help kick-start an anticipated capital campaign.)
For Ritco, the fire at the Roxy was a tragedy that showed how collaborative Edmonton's theatre scene has become – and made it more so. "It's made our community a little more cohesive," she says. "I think our community has become more of a community."
Adds Thiessen, who has observed all this as a new resident of his old city: "What the fire did was, I think, it made us all realize that our companies don't exist in buildings – we're people; we're all people."