On April 30, 1909, the Carnegie Library at Queen and Lisgar opened its doors for the first time, giving the Toronto Public Library a permanent home after two decades of renting a space on Ossington Avenue. This week, over one hundred years later, the Carnegie Library is ready to open its doors once again to give another very different cultural institution the security of a facility to call its own.
The Theatre Centre, one of Toronto’s most esteemed theatre companies, known for co-producing and developing innovative and multidisciplinary work, has been renting spaces since its inception in 1979. Through its history, the Theatre Centre has moved through about 10 different locations, entering and exiting a neighbourhood or building as the process of gentrification dictates. But finally, this Wednesday morning, after a long year of planning and a $6.2-million renovation, the Theatre Centre’s artistic director, Franco Boni, will unveil the Carnegie Library as its new headquarters for cultural and artistic development and performance.
Though it was hard to tell when Torontoist took a look at the new space early this week—as construction crews were still hard at work renovating, painting, restoring, and building—the revamped Carnegie is about to become one of the most exciting infrastructure additions to the Toronto theatre industry in some time. It will boast a brand-new 200 to 220-seat venue (in what used to be the library’s reading room, complete with the original coffered ceiling and wainscoting), a large lobby, an incubator performance space with sprung floors, a green roof, and a terrace. Most importantly, the entire building has a sense of flexibility: the lobby can be used as a third performance space or to host an installation piece, and the hallways are spacious enough to act as a gallery. Boni and the Theatre Centre’s design was inspired by the concept of “Playgrounding,” developed by the Battersea Arts Centre in London, which encourages audiences, artists, and staff to interact with a theatre the way kids do with, well, a playground.
But according to Boni, the heart of the building is something that doesn’t typically have anything to do with performance art at all.
“I really wanted a café,” he told Torontoist. “And I didn’t want it to be called a lobby either. I wanted a meeting place where the public, and artist, could just hang out. Somewhere where you’re not waiting to go someplace else.”
The brand-new café is the only addition to the library, and serves as the main entrance to the building. It’s not only an accessible alternative to the grandiose front steps (which will be used only for certain ceremonial events), but Boni says it will also help create a purpose for the theatre during the day, when audiences are not simply gathering to see a show, and open the space up to the public. In line with Boni’s description of the Theatre Centre building as for “public use, with cultural purpose,” the new café will also be an experimental playground where the café’s managers, i & j ideations, will experiment constantly with the menu and even the layout of the space. When the weather warms up, the café will even turn into a theatre of its own, as the glass walls slide open, revealing a full view of a park in the former location of 48 Abell, which will be outfitted as yet another potential performance space.
But starting this Wednesday, the main theatre will open Sea Sick, directed by Boni and artistic director in residence, Ravi Jain, and written by and starring Canadian journalist Alanna Mitchell—it’s a theatrical adaptation of her novel of the same name, which documents the ecological issues of the ocean.
As Sea Sick prepares to open and the year-long renovations come to an end, Boni is understandably exhausted. At the same time, though, he’s clearly excited by the prospect of a 25-year lease, leaving behind a history of month-to-month leases and venue jumping, and beginning a new era for the Theatre Centre—especially now that there are many smaller indie theatres emerging in storefronts across Toronto, like Videofag in Kensington Market and the Storefront Theatre on Bloor West.
“I feel that when someone writes the history of Toronto theatre at this point, it’s really exciting all the storefront theatres that are popping up across the city. And a part of that surge is that they don’t feel represented by the existing companies in the city, or they want to make their own rules,” says Boni. “To me, that’s really exciting, because that’s how the Theatre Centre started. It feels like a next wave.”
This post originally stated that the Theatre Centre’s new location at 1115 Queen Street West is located in Parkdale—in fact, Parkdale does not officially begin until west of Dufferin Street.