Bread & Circus made room in its tent for all sorts of shows: theatre, music, comedy, burlesque, and more. The three-year-old Kensington Market venue threw its final closing night party last weekend. We went to find out why—and to find out what the space meant to people who produced shows there.
The front bar’s bustling, and in the theatre (still dressed for Daughter of the Dust, the last booked run), they’re clustered around the upright piano, as The Carnegie Hall Show‘s Waylen Miki plays show tunes. It’s an eclectic crowd, with people active in the theatre, comedy, and music scenes; fitting, as Bread & Circus has been a space for all those, and more.
“We had so many amazing nights and acts each week, on a nightly basis,” reminisces music producer and painter Asher Ettinger, a co-owner of the space—until September 1 of this year. “All these people here, the relationships we have, are all rooted in a mutual love of art and performance.”
When Ettinger says there were acts nightly, he isn’t exaggerating; for much of Bread & Circus‘ existence on Augusta, there had to be a show in the back room, or the bar couldn’t open. “There was a previous Bread & Circus on Baldwin Street,” explains co-owner Jackie English, a triple-threat performer with roots in many of the various scenes the venue showcased. She’d helped with booking shows at the smaller Baldwin space, which became the Rearview Mirror (now, under new management, Detour Bar), and was recruited to manage the Augusta location. But the relocation didn’t include a new liquor license application; instead, Bread & Circus served alcohol under a special events license, tied to the old location—a serious issue when the Baldwin venue changed hands, and English, Ettinger, and Kiran Sachdev became the remaining proprietors of the Augusta space.
Bread & Circus opened in a flurry of construction as the space, once the Adrift skateboard shop, was transformed into a full-featured theatre and lobby bar. English recalls how they and a crew of volunteers, frustrated at the slow pace of contracted construction, threw themselves into “painting, tiling, building, wiring” to get the space open in November 2008.
Among the volunteers was The National Theatre of the World‘s Matt Baram, whom English approached early on about a weekly residency. “I had a temperature of 103 the night Melissa D’Agostino’s first Lupe show opened here, and put out a call for help to assemble 100 chairs the day of the show. Matt and those guys came and did most of it… I don’t forget something like that. Also, I knew them to be extremely talented, and loved the idea of a weekly show of that calibre at Bread & Circus.”
Baram and Co.’s The Carnegie Hall Show not only became one of Bread & Circus’ early successes, it snagged the company their second Canadian Comedy Award for best improv troupe. “We played for less people than were onstage in the beginning,” chortles NTOTW’s Ron Pederson. “But so many of those early shows, me and Matt [Baram], Chris [Gibbs], and Jeff [Raimondo], our first musical accompanist, would be just crippled with laughter, cracking each other up.” Pederson can pinpoint a tipping point for the show’s success: “I went back to Edmonton to do Extinction Song, and Carnegie was playing to crowds of maybe two dozen people. When I came back, we were playing to full houses, and had these amazing guests”—people like Ron Sexsmith, Colin Mochrie, Allie Hughes, and Scott Thompson.
Pederson’s favourite guests weren’t necessarily the stars: “We had a guy who wanted to juggle fire, and at rehearsal, he was dropping stuff, and we were like, ‘Um, why don’t you do the swords instead?’ And then he dropped a sword in the show like, six times.” Pederson drops his voice to a stage whisper: “It was hilarious….”
“Phase one at Bread & Circus was construction; phase two was dealing with the licence issues: we couldn’t open our doors without an event booked,” says English. The silver lining to the requirement was that they ended up with an enormous amount of variety on their stage. “You could walk in one night and there’d be flamenco dancing, and the next night a comedy show, and later in the night, punk rock. It helped cement the identity of the space, for sure.”
“There were a half-dozen communities invested here,” explains Miki. “When people walk into Comedy Bar, for instance, they know what to expect. But here, people could be coming expecting music, or a dance hall—our show was always open, I felt, to any sort of audience that walked in off the street.”
“Our first New Year’s Eve, we had a burlesque theme, and the dancers cancelled the day before,” recalls English. “That night, my roommates and I, who were all musical theatre performers, took numbers we already knew, and just turned them into stripteases. The night went over like gangbusters—that night embodies the Circus for me.”
Bread & Circus also distinguished itself as a hotbed for Toronto Fringe Festival success. Five of the eight shows produced there in two years of Fringe participation were selected for the Best of The Fringe series, including Soup Can Theatre‘s Kurt Weill cabaret Love is a Poverty You Can Sell. “We’d workshopped LIAPYCS here a year before Fringe, so we’d really cut our production teeth in this space,” says Sarah Thorpe, SCT’s artistic director, and director of their recent full-scale production of Marat/Sade. “It was totally affordable, had an amazing atmosphere, that artist-inspired aesthetic—it had everything we wanted for an intimate cabaret show,” says Haigh.
Almost too intimate: “We fit 80 people in for our Fringe runs, plus an 11-piece band,” recounts Haigh. “In order to add a banjo player, I had to find a chair, cut off the legs, and bolt it to a corner of the stage—that was ‘the banjo chair’.” “It was a sight to see, coming here every night and knowing that huge lineup down the block was for our show,” says Thorpe. “All the Fringe shows did well here,” says Haigh, “because there wasn’t that hit-or-miss quality.” They suspect Bread & Circus’ overwhelming success at the Fringe led in part to the scaling back of site-specific shows at the Fringe this year.
Of course, Bread & Circus’ biggest Fringe success was My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding. The most successful Canadian musical since The Drowsy Chaperone, the autobiographical story of writer/composer/star David Hein’s two mom’s nuptials was picked up by Mirvish Productions, and eventually played off-Broadway. (Hein and his wife, co-star Irene Sankoff, continue to tour MMLJWW across North America.) “MMLJWW was like a dream come true for me as a performer,” says English, who juggled her Bread & Circus work with her MMLJWW role for the Panasonic Theatre run, “but also, as a venue owner.” Rosemary Doyle, who co-starred as Hein’s stepmom in MMLJWW, became a staunch supporter and producer at Bread & Circus. “Jackie and I had so much fun doing MMLJWW, we went on to collaborate on Sunday On The Rocks, and the first production of my first play, Carl, Suzanne, and The Taxman. It really represented what I think a theatre should be—by the people, for the people.”
“Phase three at Bread & Circus was what we called ‘Prohibition’,” sighs English. Rearview Mirror’s changing of hands in October 2010 left Bread & Circus without a license. Becoming fully licensed entailed months of new inspections from City of Toronto’s health, fire, and building departments. While they passed most easily, some entailed extensive work—like raising the stage by 3/4 of an inch to meet building code. Both English and Ettinger praise the City for their co-operation and patience, especially Councillor Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina), who intervened on their behalf to prioritize the venue’s inspections; but from November 2010–January 2011, the space could only sell juice and pop.
“It can be a bewildering experience to deal with so many levels of bureaucracies—the processes are quite specific and detailed,” says Ettinger. “That said, I was pleasantly surprised at how courteous and professional everyone was—we received much better service than I do from my telephone company.” They received their new licence on January 25, and full bar service resumed, but Bread & Circus had obviously taken financial and public awareness hits.
Business rebounded, and Bread & Circus looked to finally be on a solid footing—so English and Ettinger were dismayed to learn their three-year lease was not being renewed. “The previous tenants didn’t have their lease renewed either,” points out Ettinger, but it’s cold comfort to English. Her analogy: “It feels like we spent a long time building this castle in the sand, and just when we had all the elements right… this kid comes along and stomps on it.” But rather than dwelling on it, she’s already booking again (for a new cabaret space at the Lower Ossington Theatre), and busy again as a performer away from Bread & Circus, working with TVO and elsewhere (work that continued throughout Bread & Circus’ operation.)
The sandcastle analogy is interesting indeed, given Doyle’s recent opening of Red Sandcastle Theatre in Leslieville. “I’d always wanted to have a theatre, and meeting Jackie and seeing this place—what was possible—really inspired me.” Her studio is considerably smaller than Bread & Circus, but she has all sorts of plans for it. “My experiences here at Bread & Circus gave me the bravery to put my money where my mouth is.”
“In all seriousness,” admits NTOTW’s Pederson, “it’s going to be really difficult to find another venue like this.” The in-demand company is busy (they’ve just announced a residency at the Young Centre,) but they hope to re-launch The Carnegie Hall Show again soon—perhaps as a monthly.
There are no new tenants yet at 299 Augusta Avenue, and English says the property manager is actively soliciting (she’s happy to pass along inquiries if you email her). “There’s plenty of independent theatre companies in Toronto that desperately need a space to perform,” says Haigh, “and this one’s already set up for it. If we could get enough of them together, like an artist’s co-op—we have those for studio spaces, why not for a performance space?” It’s a long shot, but it’s dreams like his and Doyle’s that lead to amazing things—like a former skate shop hosting internationally known music and comedy stars, and producing off-Broadway success.