Everywhere you look in Toronto, new theatres are popping up like corner stores. In fact, many of them could easily be mistaken for corner stores.
The Grocery is the name of the latest to open, in 1,000 square feet of space that used to be an H&R Block on Queen Street East near Greenwood. It's run by actor and director Andrew Shaver, who recently moved his acclaimed indie theatre company SideMart Theatrical Grocery from Montreal to Toronto.
"There's just a wealth of creativity and talent in this city – and there aren't enough spaces to accommodate them," says Mr. Shaver, who's officially opening his doors this weekend with a "songplay" called Out of the Woods he wrote with Toronto songwriter Justin Rutledge.
Over the past year, many similarly sized low-to-no-budget theatre companies looking for affordable space have been setting up shop for themselves – mostly in places that used to be actual shops. In the east end, The Grocery follows Downstage, based in a former banquet hall under a Magic Oven on the Danforth. In the West End, there's VideoFag in a converted barbershop in Kensington Market; the Sterling Studio Theatre in a building that was a backdrop for a Drake video shot near the West Toronto Railpath; and The Storefront Theatre in what used to be a pharmacy in trendy Bloorcourt Village.
While the new spaces are all of humble size – none seats more than 100 – they are finding avid, largely local audiences, many of whom don't necessary identify as theatregoers, but are drawn in by the casual, fringe festival-style atmospheres (and cheap beer).
After Miss Julie, a Patrick Marber play in a raw production directed by David Ferry, was recently extended at The Storefront Theatre, while novelist Sheila Heti's oddball musical All Our Happy Days are Stupid was the hardest ticket to get in town when it ran at VideoFag in October and November. Likewise, John Patrick Shanley's play Savage in Limbo extended its run at Downstage in October.
"I would call it a movement, and it's really exciting to be a part of that," says Alex McCooeye, artistic co-ordinator of Downstage.
Many of Toronto's established mid-sized theatres were founded in similarly downscale circumstances in the 1970s. But what's happening in Toronto also takes its cues from the entrepreneurial storefront movement that has seen theatre colonize Chicago's neighbourhoods. In the case of The Storefront Theatre, it was directly inspired by a trip that Benjamin Blais – "general manager, artistic director, you can call me whatever" – took to Windy City to audition for the famed Steppenwolf Ensemble.
Artistically, these companies are divided between those doing ambitious, inter-arts work – such as VideoFag – and those who just want to put on local productions of audience pleasers and make work for the pool of actors not getting gigs at Soulpepper or Tarragon Theatre.
"It's important that we're focused on audiences – and not just on what we want to make," notes Mr. McCooeye. Likewise, Mr. Blais says the Storefront produces "theatre that people want to see." (He opened his theatre last January with Wait Till Dark, a 1966 suspense-thriller that was turned into a movie with Audrey Hepburn.)
While Toronto has a number of permanent theatre spaces under construction to deal with an obvious space crunch – the Theatre Centre is finally getting a permanent home on Queen Street West in the new year, while Crow's Theatre is set to open a space in Leslieville in 2015 – the new indie storefront theatres operate without any subsidies and aren't necessarily looking to become permanent. Indeed, they may be as ephemeral as the plays that go on in them – here today, gone tomorrow.
In the case of The Storefront Theatre, Mr. Blais knows its days are numbered – the owner wants to sell the building and is waiting for the next-door H&R Block's lease to expire. "I've got five years, maybe less," he says.
Mr. Shaver, meanwhile, has calculated exactly how much money he was willing to invest and lose on The Grocery – so far he's spent a few thousand dollars converting the space, while the rent is $2,400 a month – and is excited for the challenge.
"Coming to Toronto, living in the East End, it feels like living in Montreal in some ways – you're still off of the centre," he says. "I get inspired by that sort of uphill climb."
FIVE STOREFRONT THEATRES
Home to: SideMart Theatrical Grocery, Crow's Theatre's upcoming solo festival.
The Storefront Theatre
Neighbourhood: Bloorcourt Village
Home to: Red One Theatre, Kat Sandler's Theatre Brouhaha
Sterling Studio Theatre
Neighbourhood: Dundas West
Home to: Upcoming indie productions of plays by Harold Pinter, Bernard Shaw and Lanford Wilson
Neighbourhood: The Danforth
Home to: Drunk Theatre History night, Bob Kills Theatre
Neighbourhood: Kensington Village
Home to: Suburban Beast, Birdtown and Swanville
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