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The Globe and Mail

Cambridge raises cultural profile with Diamond Schmitt-designed theatre

Tour new 500-seat theatre building that has been crafted to offer the city much more than just performance space

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Nestled into an incline overlooking the Grand River in Cambridge, Ont., the Dunfield Theatre opened in March. Diamond Schmitt Architects gave the $14-million building a simple exterior of limestone and two types of metal panels – white defines the public areas, charcoal grey covers a fly-tower that rises nine metres above the lower roof line.

Tom Arban

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At the front of the building, a glass wall allows patrons to look out to the Grand River and passersby to look in from the public plaza to the 13-metre-high lobby. Dunfield Retirement Residence of Cambridge paid $1-million for 25 years for naming rights.

Tom Arban

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The soaring lobby. Built with capital funds from the city, provincial and federal governments, Dunfield Theatre is owned by the City of Cambridge and has been leased for 50 years to Drayton Entertainment, a not-for-profit enterprise that offers family-oriented professional theatre at six other venues across southern Ontario. Drayton has almost reached its $4.5-million capital campaign for this project and renovations at its other theatres.

Tom Arban

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Clad in beech wood and split-face grey concrete block, the 500-seat theatre was designed with audience comfort in mind. Seats are 22-inches wide – one inch wider than normal with an extra 1.5 inches between rows.

Tom Arban

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“Theatre companies are saying, yes, we want great acoustics and sightlines but we want to talk about the entire experience for the audience,” says Gary McCluskie, a principal at Diamond Schmitt, who worked closely with Drayton in the year-long design phase.

Tom Arban

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Diamond Schmitt’s challenge was to combine production, administration, performance, rehearsal – and even housing for up to 33 cast members – in a tight budget. The wardrobe department got a large, airy second-floor space with north-facing windows and direct access to a loading dock.

Tom Arban

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With the new building, Drayton was able to centralize its pre-production work in Cambridge. Several shows, including Mary Poppins, are re-staged at other Drayton theatres during the season.

Tom Arban

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Second-floor administration offices. One floor above, the theatre offers accommodation for visiting cast members. Dorms are organized in pods of four to six bedrooms, with kitchen and laundry facilities, washrooms and common areas.

Tom Arban

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“I have never worked anywhere where the housing is connected to the building,” says New York-based performer Mark Ledbetter, who plays the role of Bert in Mary Poppins, the inaugural show of the first season.

Drayton Entertainment

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Jayme Armstrong, left, Avery Kadish, Jayden Greig and Mark Ledbetter in Mary Poppins. The production – and the building – won praise as “winners” in a review by the Waterloo Region Record in March.

Drayton Entertainment

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When the theatre is dark, it will be rented out for other uses. Off the 78-seat balcony, for example, a reception area juts out above the theatre entrance and doubles as a space for meetings. “From the city’s perspective, it is a wonderful way to provide this sort of artistic display to the community at no operating cost,” says Cambridge city solicitor Steve Matheson, who negotiated the agreement with Drayton. Given limited tax revenue sources for municipalities, he predicts increased use of public-private projects in future.

Tom Arban

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