2014 Hero: The Theatre Centre's New Home
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2014 Hero: The Theatre Centre’s New Home

Nominated for: inspiring cultural institutions to put more life into live performances.

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—the people, places, things, and ideas that have had the most positive and negative impacts on the city over the past 12 months. Cast your ballot until 5 p.m. on December 30. At noon on December 31, we’ll reveal your choices for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.

Theatre Centre (H)

Only two years ago, we inducted Factory Theatre’s board of directors into the 2012 Hall of Villainy for firing the institution’s founder Ken Gass after a dispute over the building’s sorely needed renovations. Gass had extensive plans, the board did not, and the first phase of the compromise was completed this year, resulting in what looks like a glorified streetcar shelter. In 2013, one of our heroes was Videofag, for pioneering the trend of reclaiming storefronts as performance spaces; that same year, David Mirvish was a villain for planning to demolish a theatre and the Honest Ed’s building. We love talking about cultural spaces—or our lack thereof. Because in the arts world, almost as important as the works themselves are the spaces they’re made in—and for a long time, we had only a few options: huge and formal, mid-size and borderline falling apart, or tiny and DIY-inspired.

And so enters the Theatre Centre, one of the city’s most venerated companies since its inception in 1979. Its new home inside the Carnegie Library on Queen Street West was a huge win for the company itself: it’s now able to stop worrying about soaring rents in gentrifying neighbourhoods and focus on the progressive work it’s known for (Alanna Mitchell’s Sea Sick and Jordan Tannahill’s Concord Floral, for example). But more than that, it’s changing the fundamental role of artistic spaces in general.

With Franco Boni, a talented theatre maker who successfully 180’ed into a talented building planner, at the helm, the $6.2-million renovation transformed an old library built in 1909 into a cultural space that isn’t meant to function as a traditional theatre. There are numerous gallery spaces in which to display visual art; there’s an incubator performance area for smaller-scale, more experimental work; there’s a reading room that reflects the building’s function; there’s a green roof that can be enjoyed in the summer. Perhaps most importantly, the main lobby features a café called BEVLAB, which experiments with chemistry and food. The company behind it, i & j ideations, also runs a high-school program that teaches students how to cook in their unused school kitchens. And thanks to Boni’s work with neighbourhood groups, the site has become a central part of the Queen West community, hosting everything from performance art basketball games to craft fairs.

The new Theatre Centre home challenges the idea that a theatre is off-limits unless you have a ticket—a very welcome shake-up supported by other spaces such as the new Artscape Youngplace, which opened in 2013 and possesses many of the same advantages and aspirations as the Theatre Centre. With a new home for Crow’s Theatre coming up in 2016, there’s a new wave of innovation and renovation taking over and remaking Toronto’s cultural spaces.