"We want to turn on the east end at night," says Crow's Chris Abraham at the company's new Streetcar Crowsnest.
THE WEDDING PARTY by Kristen Thomson, directed by Chris Abraham, with Thomson, Jason Cadieux, Virgilia Griffith, Trish Lindström, Moya O'Connell and Tom Rooney. Presented by Crow's Theatre at the Streetcar Crowsnest (345 Carlaw). Previews from Thursday (January 12), opens January 19 and runs to February 11, Monday-Saturday 8 pm (January 13 and 18 at 7:30 pm), mat Saturday 2 pm. $20-$40. See listing and crowstheatre.com.
Will the opening of Streetcar Crowsnest, the new permanent home of Crow's Theatre, change the theatre game east of the DVP and convince west-enders to make the trip across town?
The new multi-million-dollar facility is the product of a six-year partnership between Crow's and condo developer Streetcar. Occupying the ground floor of the 12-storey Carlaw residential tower at Dundas and Carlaw, Streetcar Crowsnest boasts a 220-seat main space, a 90-seat studio theatre and (coming soon) a 65-seat Brasserie-style restaurant.
"We want to turn on the east end at night," says Chris Abraham, who's been Crow's artistic director since 2007 and has been working toward this goal since 2010.
After moving to the east end and starting a family, Abraham decided to transition Crow's from a touring company into something with a permanent base close to home.
"We really wanted something visible to the east-end community rather than something out of the way, so we met with our city councillor, Paula Fletcher. We let her know we were in the planning stages of looking for a permanent place for Crow's, and asked her to think about opportunities and partnerships for us. Within a week she found one, and it turned into this."
That was six years ago, and after seemingly endless negotiations, planning, fundraising and construction, the theatre complex is finally ready to open with Abraham directing Kristen Thomson's new play, The Wedding Party, which depicts a matrimonial meltdown between two mismatched families, but also advertises another wing of Crow's business plan - offering the space as a boutique wedding venue.
For other independent companies that have set up shop in the east end in recent years, the wave of gentrification Crow's is riding has been a mixed blessing. The influx of new potential seat-fillers is also raising rents. But successful storefront outfits Coal Mine and Red Sandcastle are optimistic, and expect the Crow's effect to amplify and consolidate their recent scene-building efforts.
"Ever since I founded my place six years ago, Crow's has been trying to get that theatre going," says Rosemary Doyle, artistic director of Red Sandcastle Theatre, a quirky and welcoming 50-seater just south of Crow's at Queen and Logan that's known for putting up Eric Woolfe's horror puppet shows and for Doyle's commitment to "making seeing a show as easy as going out for dinner."
"Crow's is doing this big, beautiful space with all the latest equipment, so they had to spend all this time fundraising, and working to make it happen. Six years ago, I was like, 'I don't care if it's perfect - I don't want to wait. I'm starting something now.' Chris's approach is much more sustainable because the condos can't kick him out. My way is more anarchistic, and because of all the development, my rent got raised this year - by a lot - and I had to suck it up."
Also on the east-end map is Coal Mine, a 90-seat indie theatre established in 2014 by Diana Bentley and Ted Dykstra. It's on its third home on the Danforth in as many years (they've secured a three-year lease on their current space near Coxwell), and has built a loyal audience of local subscribers thanks to strong curation and intimate, powerful performances.
"When we lost the first space, going to the west end was never a consideration," says Steve Lucas, Coal Mine's resident designer, who's been with Bentley and Dykstra from the beginning. "Ted and Diana are east-enders and really wanted to do something in their own neighbourhood because there's so little over here. Now Crow's is changing all that."
The indies don't see Crow's corporate- and city-funded juggernaut as a threat, but rather as a strong ally. "The more the merrier," says Lucas. "The theatre community really is a community, and a rising tide lifts all boats."
"Crow's will be a flagship," says Doyle. "Something gorgeous and lovely that will open the eyes of people here who might go to a Mirvish or Canadian Stage show but not something else. I hope I'll get a trickle-down of people who love what they see at Crow's and then decide to check out Red Sandcastle, too."
While Doyle resists the notion that there isn't already quality nightlife in the east, she offers an interesting explanation for the recent theatre boom.
"For starters, there's no money in theatre; it's a vocation, not an occupation. And young people, who tend to live in the west end, have more time to do things for lower wages. They don't have families or mortgages; they can do something creative just because it's cool.
"The east end has traditionally been more working people and families, people who aren't willing to stay up till 3 am painting a set for no money. What we're seeing now is that people in the east end may not be willing to do theatre, but they are willing to see it."
When it comes to attracting west-enders to Crow's and other east-end stages, Abraham says it might be tough at first, but he's playing the long game.
"If you make an event, they will come. I'm sure there will be challenges - it's always hard to get people out to the theatre. Will it be harder to get people to Dundas and Carlaw? Yeah, maybe a little bit, but we're here for the long term, we've made an investment in this part of the city and we believe there's an audience here."
"We want to be a gateway for the rest of the city to discover our neighbourhood, but we're also really focused on making something great for the people who live here."