Over the past two months, Doyle has made friends with her neighbours: customers at Ed’s Real Scoop watched her progress over ice cream cones, and employees of Value Village handy with a paintbrush even chipped in themselves.
Sandcastles are commonplace in the east end of Toronto, where they pop up and disappear with the tides along the Beach. Performance venues, however, are not as easy to come by. But a brand new space, the Red Sandcastle Theatre, is officially raising its curtain tonight in Leslieville, and it seems to have materialized along Queen Street East just as quickly as its shoreline namesakes. But its new owner and artistic director, Rosemary Doyle, hopes it will be a little more permanent.
“I’ve been saving for 20 years. This is something I’ve always wanted,” says Doyle, who was sitting in Sophie Mon Petit Cafe on the corner of Queen Street East and Logan Avenue when she first saw that the former paint-your-own-pottery studio was available for rent. “I knew I had to pounce when the opportunity arose. So I did.”
Out of two decades of looking at venues, this was one of the few that met all her criteria: open sightlines, available parking spots (at the neighbouring Value Village), and, most importantly, affordable rent. At 40, and after a recent split from her long-term partner, the timing seemed right, and as a longtime Leslieville resident, she knew the neighbourhood and local businesses. Still, it took a good ol’-fashioned near-death experience a few days later, as she spun out into a ditch on her way to Kingston, to push her to make the move.
“I kept thinking ‘If I die, what good is saving all that money?’ So here it is. Why not leap at it?” she says. “The next day I called [the landlord] and said ‘I’ve got the whole year—I’ve got the money for the whole year.’ And he held me to it when I got back [...] He asked if I wanted it, I said yes, then we went to the TD on the corner and I gave him all my money. Like, ‘Here’s all my money!’”
Now, one might assume that Doyle bumped her head a little harder than she thought when her car went tail-end into that ditch. A small business is always risky, especially an arts business, and according to trends, especially an arts business in the east. Since Bad Dog Theatre moved from its location at Broadview and Danforth earlier this year and the Danforth Music Hall shut down, the only places to catch a live show are a handful of bands in shoebox-sized bars, the over-the-big-top the Zero Gravity Circus, and The Opera House. By far the majority of Toronto’s theatres, from Tarragon to the Off-Bathurst Theatre District to basically all of the Fringe venues are set firmly to the west of Yonge. Once a theatre-goer passes Soulpepper in the Distillery District, choices for live theatre drop drastically. While Doyle’s “the more the merrier” approach to arts spaces in Toronto is definitely a step in the right direction, we’ve yet to see if a new venue will draw large enough audiences to this side of the Don to make a profit. The good thing is, though, that Doyle doesn’t really care about any of that.
Rosemary Doyle in her Red (looks green here) Sandcastle.
Having already paid the year’s rent, “Now I don’t have this burden of the rent every month. I have this place of fertility, to see if I can make it grow, and to see if it will bear fruit within the year,” she says. “That’s why I called it Red Sandcastle. Because R.E.D. are my initials, and sandcastle means that if after a year it goes away, it was still a beautiful thing.”
Since taking ownership on May 6, Doyle has been busy drywalling, setting up a lighting grid, building a dressing room, and painting the 400-square-foot room in bright yellow, green, and silver, and under the witness of the customers of Ed’s Real Scoop, the process has become a community project of sorts. Not one to be bashful, Doyle has no qualms in calling out for help, literally, and her pleas from within 922 Queen Street East have so far been answered by next-door neighbours, Value Village employees, and random kindly passersby who help with drywall, painting, and unloading furniture. One such aide turned out to be an artist himself, whose work then became Red Sandcastle’s first art show earlier this month.
Kicking off its theatrical programming tonight is Nearly Lear, a kid-friendly version of King Lear that has played the Sydney Opera House, Off-Broadway, and toured England and Scotland. But Doyle isn’t pigeonholing Red Sandcastle’s use. So far, it’s booked for summer camps, a birthday party, improv nights, and rehearsals for Fringe and Summerworks shows, with plans to start a play-reading group for new mothers and even weekly neighbourhood movie nights.
“I really want it to be this little creative hub that everyone can share in. Everyone can share in the fruits of my mid-life crisis,” she laughs, before correcting herself. “No, it’s not a crisis—it’s an opportunity.”
Sitting on an old couch inside the Red Sandcastle, paint stains her shoes and her nails, but when she’s asked how many hours she’s put into the renovations so far she gives a simple “Oh, who minds?” For her, the Red Sandcastle Theatre isn’t a job; it’s more of a “stay-bbatical,” a chance to fulfill a dream and add a little life to the neighbourhood outside of the weekend brunch rush.
“The great thing about sandcastles is that they can be built somewhere else,” she says, referring to the possibility that the east end can only support one kind of sandcastle. Doyle might be okay if the traces of Red Sandcastle eventually disappear, but, for the sake of Leslievillians, here’s hoping the neighbourhood can provide a more stable ground.
Photos by Carly Maga/Torontoist.