My mind is really a jumble of thoughts about the announcement of the closing of the Princess of Wales Theatre and it’s replacement by a triplet of jumbo-sized Frank Gehry condo towers. I will attempt to boil down a couple of the thoughts here, for your enjoyment.
First, let me say that I really couldn’t care what was replacing the theatre. The fact that it’s condos is largely irrelevant. Being an ardent defender of condos has become nearly as hip as being a detractor them and I’d rather not have anything to do with any of that. It could be a shopping mall, or an aquarium, or a Home Depot. The net affect on the Toronto theatre business would be the same. It’s one less theatre, not matter how you cut it.
Now, what about David Mirvish’s contention that the city has more theatre’s than it needs?
At this moment in the history of Toronto’s theatre industry, with the addition of several qualifications, he’s not necessarily wrong.
- He is correct that the city currently has more theatres of that size than it can fill. The failure of Dancap at the Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts in North York (and later when he moved his show to the Four Seasons Centre) helps demonstrate that Toronto is having a hard time filling large theatres with audiences for larger shows.
- However, when you get the right show, like War Horse or Rock of Ages, you don’t have a problem at all. So, is the problem that there are too many theatres, or that Mirvish isn’t as good at picking the shows anymore?
- Also, if there are more seats in the downtown area than companies to fill them, the blame for that has to rest in part with David Mirvish himself, who’s spent the last 15 years buying up or forcing out anyone who might compete with him.
With Mirvish’s acquisition of the Pantages (aka Canon Theatre, aka The Mirvish Theatre), he now owns every major theatre in the downtown area, with the exception of the Elgin and Wintergarden, which are owned by the Province of Ontario through the Ontario Heritage Trust. Two of those theatres, (the Pantages and the Panasonic) he won in a protracted legal battle with Aubrey Dan.
I’m certainly I’m not alone in contending that Dancap’s loss of those downtown theatres contributed to the ultimate demise of his company. And it follows that the demise of the only remaining major competition to the Mirvish bought-in theatre empire contributed to the alleged excess of theatre space which David bemoned in The Star’s piece on his proposed redevelopment.
But let’s go back to the original statement, that Toronto has an excess of theatre space.
Toronto does NOT have an excess of theatre space. Just because there are couple of big barns sitting empty does not in any way equate an overall excess of space. Toronto, for example, has a dearth of good medium-sized spaces, in the 200-500 seat range, which is arguably the best sized space for Toronto’s market. All you need to do is look at the Young Centre, where Soulpepper is using a 200 seat and 400 seat theatre very effectively to know that good pieces presented in the right sized space can equal success for an independent company. The only downside is that in Soulpepper’s case they’ve done it so well they use the spaces too thoroughly and there’s no room for anyone else.
For independent companies, that leaves Harbourfront and maybe the Berkeley. The former being well equipped and busy. The latter being less well equipped and expensive.
The absence of spaces in that range means that Toronto has a limited ability to promote good companies within its own community. A great production at Tarragon, for example, is likely to live and die in that space because there’s no where bigger for it to go, should it find critical and audience success. Toronto lacks a clear Off-Off > Off > Broadway path and that not only limits how far a good small company can go, but also ensure that our larger spaces will only ever be occupied by bought-in American theatre. We have the scrappy independent companies, we have the big barns, and there’s precious little in between.
So, if David Mirvish were announcing today that he was replacing the Princess of Wales with another Young Centre-style complex, that would be cause for excitement. As it stands, we’re simply left with less. Less of something we aren’t using so much at the moment, but less nonetheless.
Oh…and what’s so great about getting the latest in a long line of late-90’s Gehry deconstructivism? Why don’t we just build a drive-in theatre next door, if outdated trends are what really define the city?