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building design

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

When husband-and-wife actors Mark Ledbetter and Jen Taylor arrived in February from New York to start rehearsals for Mary Poppins at a new professional theatre here, their living quarters were two floors above the stage.

"I have never worked anywhere where the housing is connected to the building," says Mr. Ledbetter, who has performed on Broadway and on national tours in 20 cities across North America. "We just walked downstairs to go to rehearsals and at breaks we would go upstairs to our apartment and have some food."

Doing double-duty is one of the signature features of the 500-seat theatre that, under one roof, houses administration offices, production, performance space and, unusually, short-stay residences for actors. Opened in March, the project is also an example of a different kind of arts partnership between the public and private sector.

Financed with infrastructure funds from the city, provincial and federal governments, Dunfield Theatre is owned by the City of Cambridge and 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. Cambridge-based Dunfield Retirement Residence paid $1-million for 25 years for naming rights to the theatre.

Despite complaints from some Cambridge taxpayers about the city borrowing $6-million for the project, Drayton secured matching federal and provincial infrastructure dollars for the $14-million theatre that overlooks the Grand River in old Galt (one of three towns that became Cambridge in 1973).

"The benefit to the community is the arts aspect of attracting people to live here," says Cambridge Mayor Doug Craig. "If you are a Richard Florida [urban theorist] fan, you buy in to all aspects of it."

The big win for Drayton is the consolidation of scattered operations that once stored props in a farmer's barn. "The wish list for us was to become a hub of cultural activity so we could combine production, administration and performance," says Alex Mustakas, founder, chief executive and artistic director of Drayton Entertainment.

To those who question the economics of adding more live theatre inventory in southern Ontario – six of Drayton's seven venues are within 75 kilometres of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival – Mr. Mustakas is unperturbed. He notes that his theatre, the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival in Niagara-the-Lake have different mandates and price points.

Since its founding in 1991, Drayton has pursued a strategy built on turning what Mr. Mustakas calls the "very inefficient business" of live theatre into "a model of sustainability." For example, pre-production work is centralized in Cambridge, with some shows like Mary Poppins re-staged at another Drayton theatre later in the season.

"It gives us the ability to transfer shows to other markets, amortize pre-production, administration and box office [services] and to give a bigger bang for the buck to our sponsors," Mr. Mustaskas says.

For the tight-budget theatre project, the big challenge was to combine production (wardrobe and set-building), administration, housing and performances in a compact space of 4,900 square metres (53,000 square feet).

In-house accommodation for up to 33 actors, notes Mr. Mustakas, "was always in the back of our minds but it required a conscious decision to spend another $850,000."

Deciding where to place the pieces took time.

"We thought the initial design stage would be four months," recalls Gary McCluskie, a principal with Toronto-based Diamond Schmitt Architects whose firm also designed Cambridge's new city hall. In the summer of 2010, dissatisfied with the first schematic drawings for the theatre, the firm and its client hit the pause button.

"We know a lot, but we have to think differently about fitting all these pieces together," Mr. McCluskie says of the decision to re-imagine a project whose design phase ultimately took almost a year.

The building site, on an east-west axis and nestled into an incline, helped guide some decisions. As rehearsal rooms do not need natural light, they were located on the ground floor at the rear of the building. The wardrobe department got a large, airy second-floor space with natural light from north-facing windows and a wide door on one wall that opens directly to a loading dock. Similarly, a ground-floor loading dock connects across a wide corridor to the stage.

In a feature that echoes Diamond Schmitt's design of Toronto's opera house, the front of the box-shaped Dunfield Theatre is made of glass, enabling patrons to look out to the river and passersby to look in to the airy, 13-metre-high lobby. The exterior of the theatre is made of limestone and two types of metal panels – one in white to define the public areas at the base of the building and another in charcoal grey to cover a fly-tower (which enables Mary Poppins to make her final exit from the stage) rising nine metres above the lower roof line.

But the residential component proved a head-scratcher, given the need for natural light and stair connections to rehearsal rooms and the stage.

Finally, the simplest idea proved the most workable – placing the dorms around the U-shaped perimeter of the third level, above second-floor administration offices. Organized in pods of four to six bedrooms, the dorm-style arrangement includes kitchen and laundry facilities, washrooms and a common area with television and Wi-Fi access.

Space was also an issue in the 500-seat theatre, clad in beech wood and split-face grey concrete block. With Drayton's interest in audience comfort, the 22-inch seats are one inch wider than normal with an extra 1.5 inches between rows. "Theatre companies are saying, yes, we want great acoustics and sightlines but we want to talk about the entire experience for the audience," Mr. McCluskie says.

The city took the lead in selection of the site (with an advisory committee that included Drayton) and provided the usual municipal approvals, but Drayton and its architect worked closely on design decisions for the building.

Both architect and client praise the high degree of collaboration – Diamond Schmitt did not bring in acoustic consultants because of Drayton's expertise – but they had one important disagreement. Mr. McCluskie lobbied (in the end, successfully) for a public plaza in front of the theatre. Mr. Mustakas wanted it for disabled parking. Though some of his fears materialized – snow removal costs and skateboarders – Mr. Mustakas now says he sees the merits of the architect's advice. In the future, the plaza may be used for summer exhibits.

Meanwhile, with almost sold-out performances of Mary Poppins before its run ended in late April, local restaurants reported an uptick in business tied to the show, according to city officials.

In August, Mr. Ledbetter and his wife return to Canada to reprise their roles in Mary Poppins at Drayton's Grand Bend theatre. This time, living in the theatre is not an option.

Public-private benefits

Unlike other municipalities with publicly owned arts facilities, Cambridge pays no operating subsidy for its new theatre under a long-term lease to Drayton Entertainment.

The public-private arrangement is the beauty – and for some the controversy – of the city's relationship with Drayton, which got its start 23 years ago in a 1902 opera house in the southwestern Ontario town of Drayton.

The city is responsible for capital repairs, but Drayton pays for all taxes, fees and permits as well as interior upkeep of a building that is rented for local use during the 26 weeks when the theatre is dark.

"If there are cultural leaders with a clear vision of who they are… and who are willing and anxious to enter into mutually beneficial partnerships with other organizations and municipalities, you can accomplish things that otherwise would seem really improbable," says Rick Haldenby, the dean of the architecture school at the University of Waterloo school, and one of several civic leaders who took part in early discussions in support of a new theatre.

The City of Cambridge had long aspired to raise its cultural profile to attract potential employers. In 2006, after short-lived effort to bring professional theatre to the city, business leaders and city officials made overtures to Drayton.

Ken Wright, a local business owner who invested personally in efforts to bring professional theatre – and tourists – to Cambridge a decade ago says he is encouraged by the initial positive response to the Dunfield Theatre since its opening in March.

"It's going to deliver everything that our original hope for downtown Cambridge was," he predicts.