“Madness makes for exciting times,” says Benjamin Blais, artistic director of the Storefront Theatre.
Two days ago, Storefront released a statement saying the doors of 955 Bloor Street West—its flagship location—will close later this month, ending the 2016–2017 season halfway through the year.
Since the news broke, Blais has been fielding calls from friends and collaborators who all want to offer their sympathies and express their sadness. But, Blais says, laughing, he’s had to remind them that it isn’t as bad as it seems. “This is not a time for us to be upset or dejected. This happens to theatre companies all the time. This is an opportunity for evolution.”
On December 26, Claire Burns, Storefront’s managing director, received an email from their landlord that said they had to be out by January 31. At an emergency meeting two days later, Burns, Blais, the rest of the Storefront team, and the theatre’s board members questioned whether the eviction should be taken as a sign to close up shop permanently. The answer was unanimous: no.
Blais says the Bloorcourt space, an old beer store, was never meant to be Storefront’s forever home. “The first show we did there, we had no intention of staying,” he says. This was back in January 2013, during a freezing cold winter. They were putting up Wait Until Dark, and Blais recalls one of the actors, Claire Armstrong, commenting on how cold it was backstage. “I said, ‘What do you want me to do? I’ll bring you a space heater. But you should bring extra blankets.’ So the actors strung up blankets, creating a little fort backstage to keep the heat in.”
“When we started it was a pop-up, nobody was sure it was going to be there very long,” adds Burns. But Storefront Theatre had quickly filled an apparent need in the community, and the company stuck around.
Over the years, though, their relationship with their landlord has been shaky. He didn’t want to sell the building to them and wasn’t interested in negotiating a multi-year lease. After a flood in the spring of 2014, they relied on a verbal month-to-month agreement.
Burns admits that this wasn’t a good way to run a business. “A bunch of haphazard actors started this place. Nobody had any experience talking to landlords, with municipal zoning and licencing, in leases or legal agreements,” she explains. “I’ve been learning this on the ground for the past three and a half years.”
The team had known for a while that their days at 955 Bloor West were numbered. Back in November, they had decided to look for a new location, hoping to move over the summer after their spring season closed.
“We really want to provide facilities we can feel proud of. Not to say derelict-chic isn’t cool, but we were sick of having one bathroom, and things were falling apart,” says Blais. The eviction just expedited the situation.
Rather than getting stressed about it, Blais is choosing to look at it differently: “We’re growing out of our old leather jacket.”
The eviction is a dramatic cap on this chapter of Storefront’s life, which saw many pivotal moments. Their fall 2013 production of After Miss Julie came close to selling out and was attended by several reviewers from Toronto’s big publications; Blais credits that production with putting Storefront on the map. “After that show,” Blais explains, “we started seeing a lot more strangers come to the theatre, wondering, ‘What is this space?’”
And then there was the winter 2014 production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It was a cross-generational cast of four, with two respected, older actors, real-life couple Booth Savage and Janet-Laine Green, and two younger ones, Blais and frequent collaborator Claire Armstrong. The older actors shared stories of performances they’d done in the States, which Blais loved hearing. “And they thought it was cool to be in this kind of space!” he said, referring to the small performance space, with its ramshackle air of adaptability. “Artists who I looked up to and admired wanted to come to our level and play with us.” To him, that was a signifier of how far they’d come.
According to Blais, those two productions stand out as signposts of Storefront’s growth. But the list is incomplete without mentioning the infamous flood of 2014.
It was the dead of winter, and Storefront had just opened a production of Shrew. Blais got a call one day from one of the actors, who told him there was a leak in the basement. By the time he got to the venue, water was cascading in. It destroyed everything: files, posters, props, costumes.
At the time, Blais thought, “This is the end.” But friends and supporters rallied together to raise money for repairs, and they put on their rubber boots and gloves to help clean up. That was the beginning of #IndieUnite, and it’s when Blais realized how important the space was to so many people. Storefront had created a community.
That community has only gotten stronger. In the past few days, with the news of Storefront closing, the company has seen donations roll in, and many people around the city have reached out, wanting to help them find a space.
But it’s when you take a closer look at the relationships the company has with its artists that the strength of the community is the most clear. Storefront had six shows slated for this winter and spring, but all contracts had to be dissolved with the eviction. Naturally, the artists are disappointed and sad, but, according to Blais, everyone has been understanding. “They know we believe in their work,” he says. “We want to put the shows up and give them life.”
Though the company doesn’t have enough answers yet to make any real promises, Blais maintains they’re still committed to the artists. “People recognize that attitude,” he says. “They don’t feel abandoned. They feel like they’re part of the movement, and we’re standing together as a community.”
Blais believes it’s important that Storefront continues to produce as they’re looking for a space. “Part of the magic of theatre is being complicit with what you’re watching, to be part of the change, to be able to say, ‘I was there when.’ To me, life is art, and here we are living this Slings and Arrows experience without the commercial breaks.”
In an ideal world, the company would be able to help all six productions find new spaces, but for now there’s just the one confirmed for late March/early April: Tough Jews, which Blais is directing. It’s a historical drama set in Kensington Market, and they’re looking to find the right satellite location in that neighbourhood. Some of the remaining plays may be self-produced, others may decide to stick with Storefront and open their fall season, in their new home.
But that’s a long way off. Right now, the search for that perfect home is on. Burns has been thinking about what it means to create a community space, now that 955 Bloor West is shutting its doors. Top of the list of requirements is a space where people can come and mingle, drink and party. “People want a good hang spot,” she says.
Several companies have approached Storefront to see if they’re interested in taking over the first floor of condos, but that’s not something the team wants. They may be leaving derelict-chic behind, but it’s a priority for them to find an old building with unique architecture, something that already exists. “There seems to be this pattern in Toronto where we destroy and build something new. We don’t believe in that,” Burns says. “We believe in storefronts.”