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Once upon a time in Toronto…

Theatre is a greater value than ever in Canada’s largest city.

09 March 2011
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Once upon a time, in a not-so-far-away land, American and British theatre lovers discovered that in Toronto, ON, they could buy a ticket to a Broadway-calibre show for 100 Canadian dollars, but it would only be $50 or £25 on their credit card statements back home. Fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber flocked to Toronto to see Donny Osmond as the definitive Joseph in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” while a few blocks away the magnificent puppetry of “The Lion King” was seen by nearly 3 million people.
           
While times have now changed for the credit-card statement (a $100 Canadian ticket will now cost $100 US or about £65), a ticket to Toronto theatre still provides exceptional value, as the performances and production quality of Toronto’s mega-shows are on par with New York’s Broadway and London’s West End.

Meantime, if you’re a true theatre fan like me, you know that much of the world’s finest theatre happens “off” Broadway and “off” West End. In Toronto, there’s no equivalent term but there isan equivalent experience—and this is where visitors to Canada are reminded they’re not in New York or London.

The lesser-known performance spaces of Canadian Stage Company, Buddies in Bad Times, VideoCabaret, Acting Upstage and many others deliver theatre experiences that send audience members away with powerful—often uniquely Canadian—memories. And that’s true value.

VideoCabaret is not your everyday term, even in the theatre world. But as I discovered in Toronto, it’s code for some of the most powerful and most marvellously creative theatre I have ever seen. In a nutshell, it works like this: book the back room of a nightclub, build a tiny black shadowbox (about 15 sq ft) as your stage, install pinpoint-perfect lighting, clothe and paint a mega-talented cast of about seven actors in hyperbolic style, and let them tell great Canadian tales through satirical language, facial expression and quick juxtaposition. On my recent Toronto theatre trip, VideoCabaret took me through Canada’s involvement in World War I in a jarring, emotional, funny and poignant play—that included characters from Sir Wilfred Laurier to German POWs to the Duchess of Cornwall—all told within the confines of the shadowbox stage. It is uniquely Toronto, and whatever tale these actors are telling, you need to experience it.

World’s Biggest Gay Theatre! Across town in the area known as Church Wellesley Village, theatregoers find the remarkable Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. In a country where gay “issues” have mostly ceased to exist (Canadian gays have been allowed serve in the military since the early 90s, and could legally marry and adopt children since the early 2000s), it may seem like the gay stories have all been told. Well, Buddies in Bad Times has been telling gay stories since 1979, and today still finds plenty of GLBTQ material to perform on its stage—the largest facility-based queer theatre company in the world. The company’s 2011 season, says Artistic Director Brendan Healy, “tackles experiences of citizenship, racialization, religiosity, marginalization and social repression…encompassing the full complexities of contemporary queer existence with humour, intelligence and ferocity.” Most recently was the remounting of “The Silicone Diaries,” which dramatizes a character’s male-to-female transition. Fascinating stuff.

Keeping it current. Perhaps best known of Toronto’s play producers is Canadian Stage, which has its own two gorgeous performance venues in the city centre, and mounts around 10-14 productions each year focusing on contemporary theatre. Some of it, such as the upcoming productions of “Saint Carmen of the Main”and “Project: Humanity's The Middle Place,” are decidedly Canadian with stories that take place in Canadian settings, while others take audience members to story settings around the planet and even into space. On my recent theatre trip I was lucky enough to see “The Anderson Project,” a magical one-man show by legendary Canadian actor Robert Lepage.
           
Double Feature. There’s one piece of theatre that rarely gets mentioned in theatre stories, and that is the décor and history of the theatre venues themselves. While Toronto has many world-class facilities, one stands out for its sheer historic significance—not to mention its pure visual interest regardless what’s playing on the stages: The Elgin & Winter Garden Theatres, which opened in 1913 (Irving Berlin performed) and 1914 respectively. The fact that I said stages in the plural is not necessarily remarkable for a theatre venue; many modern performing arts centres have multiple stages in one complex. What is unique about these two theatres is that they are stacked, literally, on top of each other. The Winter Garden sits seven storeys above the Elgin. They are the only surviving “double-decker” theatres still operating in the world. Tours are offered that take theatre and architecture lovers through the elegant, gilded Elgin before venturing way upstairs to the magical Winter Garden, a theatre like none I’ve everseen. Its walls are covered in delicate garden murals and the support columns are disguised as trees; the ceilings are covered in leaves and paper lanterns. While these theatres don’t have a resident company, they are in frequent use by professional and community theatres. Those lucky patrons who saw Donny Osmond in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” saw him at the Elgin. You can catch Christopher Plummer as “Barrymore”there from the end of January to the beginning of March this year.
           
While once upon a time Toronto’s theatre scene was about dollar value, today it’s definitely a scene in its own right. Whether watching mega-productions such as the recent pre-Broadway run of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” and the upcoming “The Secret Garden”(Feb. 8-March 19)or tiny-but-powerful shows mounted inside a black shadowbox stage, theatregoers will find that Toronto’s live performance scene is an exceptionally valuableexperience, with memories that live happily ever after.

Selected Toronto Theatres and/or Companies
Acting Up Stage Company: mostly musicals, some new works
Angelwalk Theatre: mostly musicals
BirdLand Theatre: plays and musicals
Buddies in Bad Times Theatre: world’s largest facility-based queer theatre company
Canadian Stage: mostly contemporary theatre
Crow’s Theatre: mostly plays questioning accepted truths about history
Dancap Productions: large-scale musicals
Factory Theatre Company: new Canadian plays
Hart House Theatre (University of Toronto): variety of productions
Little Red Theatre: children’s theatre
Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People: youth theatre
Mirvish Productions: large-scale musicals
Nightwood Theatre: mostly women’s theatre
Stage Centre Productions: classic theatre
Studio 180: mostly “socially relevant” theatre
Tarragon Theatre: new plays
VideoCabaret: satirical historic drama in blackbox stage

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