Uncertain future for local theatre

[attach]5371[/attach]Each time Merle Garbe mounts a theatre production at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, she struggles to break even.

Still, the founder and operator of Encore Entertainment, a not-for-profit theatre production company, has managed to rent space at the North York theatre since 1999 thanks in part to volunteers and rent subsidies. It’s not a perfect situation, Garbe said, but she makes do.

“It’s difficult because everyone in the city is competing for the same entertainment dollar, and it’s hard because I have to get X number of people in seats just to break even.”

Now, as the city ponders the prospect of selling off Toronto’s three city-operated theatres — including the Toronto Centre for the Arts — the future is uncertain for community theatre groups like Encore Entertainment.

Mayor Rob Ford announced the creation of a theatre taskforce in September for the purpose of assessing how the city manages its theatre assets, which also include the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts and the Sony Centre for Performing Arts. The three facilities have been consistently losing money for years.

In December, the taskforce released a report recommending the city issue a Request for Expressions of Interest to gauge support for the potential sale, long-term lease or management partnership of the theatres.

While it’s still unclear what this could mean for local theatre groups that rent space, taskforce chair Gary Crawford insists any change will not be to their detriment.

“If we are to spend any money in support, that’s where it should be,” said the Scarborough councillor.

While not-for-profits generally make use of the George Weston Recital Hall and the Studio Theatre, the Main Stage is consistently used by Dancap Productions, a commercial theatre company responsible for bringing high-profile shows like Jersey Boys to the theatre.

This complicates matters because all three venues within the facility are integrated in terms of building operations. It would be expensive and impractical to operate them separately, the taskforce report notes.

Adding further complexities for the Toronto Centre for the Arts is land ownership. The city is currently in a 99-year lease with the Ontario Power Generation, which owns the land the theatre sits on. If any discussion of divestment is to occur, the report notes, the city must first revisit its agreement with the utility and potentially renegotiate agreement terms.

Garbe said the current agreement would most certainly discourage potential buyers.

“I’m not sure who would want to come along and lay down a bunch of money to own a building when they don’t own the property,” she said.

Crawford, who also sits on the Toronto Centre for the Arts’ board, said the theatre’s location in the city’s north is also a huge consideration, as retention of local theatre is absolutely critical for that community.

Garbe echoed that sentiment, saying the theatre draws patrons from midtown Toronto, as well as parts of the GTA. For seniors, she said, the theatre is very accessible in terms of public transit and parking.

While she’s pleased the taskforce seems intent on protecting not-for-profit theatre, Garbe is unconvinced the city can completely sever ties with theatres without negatively affecting community theatre groups.

She said the city should be looking at other cost-cutting alternatives, including shared resources between the three theatres.

“I certainly think there’s possibilities for shared marketing which would cut down on costs,” she said.

Additionally, the city should be encouraging groups that receive arts grants to re-route the money back into the theatre facilities rather than renting at privately owned facilities, Garbe suggests.

“They should be paying that rent back into a city-owned theatre.”

In November, theatre mogul Aubrey Dan of Dancap Productions told the Town Crier he is keeping a close eye on the situation, and he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of [url=]claiming his own stake in a venue[/url].

Crawford wouldn’t comment on potential buyers, adding the taskforce’s role was not to look into or solicit potential proposals.