The artistic director talks about his company's soon-to-be-built Leslieville home.
When Crow’s Theatre Artistic Director Chris Abraham announced that the 30-year-old company would be opening a permanent venue at Dundas Street East and Carlaw Avenue in 2015, the Toronto theatre community breathed a collective sigh of relief and let loose a collective “ooh” of anticipation. People have complained for years about the physical state of Toronto’s independent theatres—an issue which came to a head last year when the Factory’s board of directors dismissed Ken Gass over a renovation dispute. Meanwhile, there’s been a significant amount of debate about the existence and accessibility of space where emerging artists can create and show work, coinciding with a recent mini-boom of new, DIY art spaces. What better time to hear about Crow’s new 200-seater, coming soon to the ground floor of a Leslieville condo tower?
We spoke with Abraham about the decision to open a new venue, and what he thinks it will mean for Toronto’s developing performing-arts ecology.
Torontoist: What made you and Managing Director Monica Esteves decide Crow’s Theatre needed a home?
Chris Abraham: When Monica first joined the company, I approached her about the notion that I wanted to radically change what I was doing at Crow’s. I felt like, with the energy that I had and the ambition and drive that I knew Monica had, I wanted to do something really different with the company. I wanted to take the resources that we have and think “wow, companies like ours still have those resources.” And then, thinking about larger, more systemic challenges that are facing theatre in general—the stagnation and decline of funding, the rumoured declining and aging audiences—we looked at what our opportunities were and where we stood to do something different to address those and other challenges.
The choice to open a venue in Leslieville, far off the beaten path so far as Toronto’s professional theatres are concerned, is bold. Why Dundas and Carlaw?
Both Monica and I live in the East End. I moved there ten years ago. And it was obvious to me immediately the psychic barrier that exists between the East End and the rest of the city. And the absence of cultural institutions. For people like myself who moved here with their families, there was an opportunity to be part of a kind of community that was—much like the West End in days gone by—in the process of identifying what kind of neighbourhood it wanted to become. And while I think we’re well into that at this point, we have not seen in the East End any kind of significant cultural infrastructure develop. There’s an audience here. And we looked at other strategies that had been tried and met with varying degrees of success in other parts of the city. We wanted to do something different. We wanted to try making a commitment to a specific part of the city, while not shutting the doors on the rest of the theatregoers in town. But, because we live here, we felt that we could really throw down the gauntlet and say “we wanna be here and launch a long-term conversation with you about what we do.”
And what about theatregoers used to the West End? Do you think people will be prepared to go to the other side of the Don to see a show?
I think that audiences that love theatre tend to go where there’s excellent theatre. There are potentially some obstacles there, but the East End is also a destination now. And that’s just going to get easier as the next ten years unfold.
You commented on the recent Praxis blog entry about Videofag and the somewhat contentious “crisis of space” many young artists are currently responding to. What do you think? Is there a crisis?
It’s important for emerging artists to practice regularly. And to do so on their own terms and to define the terms of their own expression. But my hope is that that doesn’t create ghettoes or circles of Hell, and that there’s mobility between those venues which have different audiences and different kinds of conversations that are going on. That’s one of the things that I miss about the city. I feel like the conversation about what it is that we do has become more homogenized and more singular, which wasn’t my experience coming up.
There’s been a rash of emerging artists opening up spaces like Videofag in recent months: storefront venues and rehearsal spaces. Is there a connection between this impulse and what Crow’s is doing?
Ours is certainly on a larger scale, but I think that the whole DIY thing is involved in what we’re doing. I mean, I would argue that the DIY impulse that’s at work is what Soulpepper did. Which is taking your destiny as an artist and as a culture-maker into your own hands and deciding that you’re going to create something that is more lasting than a production. And taking the challenging work of deciding for yourself what kind of an institution you want to have and what audience you want to cultivate around your venue. It’s not surprising to me that people are thinking more along these lines, because the funding landscape is changing. The audience landscape is changing…If you can’t find or can’t create access for yourself within the existing institutions, then I think you should make your own, and I think that’s really the way the world goes round.
If Crow’s is taking its destiny into its own hands, what is that destiny? What’s the plan for programming the new venue?
We’re gonna continue to do what we do. We will continue to curate, to commission, to develop and produce two to three new shows a year, some of which I will direct and develop. And it will be new Canadian work. We will also become presenters and curators, so we will showcase work of other artists who will we choose to present. Another important pillar in what we are going to do is create space and support for community-based work that will be part of the kind of outreach and education stuff that we do, but that will also be trying to create space for non-professionals to exercise their creative muscles onstage beside the work of professionals. And that’s very important to us. We won’t really have a theatre season, we won’t sell a season subscription, but we will have a full season of activities that will stretch from fall and winter into spring. And I would expect to see more varied programming other than theatre, including different kinds of performance, dance, comedy, and what we do in all three venues. We have our main theatre, a small studio space, and a cabaret. And we’ll expect all those places to be busy.
In a perfect world, what do you see in Crow’s future?
I’m hoping that we have one of the most exciting, engaged, and risk-taking audiences in the city. That artists are clamoring to come work at our theatre because they feel like there is an appetite for risk and challenge in the audience that comes to see us. I think that would be our greatest success. That our theatre is very well-attended, and attended by a whole mix of people who all have this special quality where you feel like when you perform there, that’s the place you wanna be. What else would be a measure of our success? That our best work—our work that feels like it has something to offer people outside of Toronto—is lasting, continues to tour, continues to do festivals. That we have an existence outside of the city, but are rooted in the neighbourhood that we’re in. And ten years from now, I’m hoping that our success will have inspired other like-minded artists to think about their capacities and to take a big jump.
This interview has been edited and condensed.