The Princess of Wales is a very nice theatre. The idea of knocking it down barely twenty years after it was built seems utterly bonkers. The Princess of Wales is an absolutely enormous theatre. The idea that it should ever work as a performance space in a city the size of Toronto is utterly bonkers.
There’s been something of an explosion of blog posts and newspaper articles in the wake of David Mirvish’s announcement that he’s going to demolish the Princess of Wales Theatre and the surrounding buildings to make room for three new condo towers and a range of cultural venues, including a museum to house his vast collection of abstract art and a new campus for OCAD. Much of the criticism has focused on the condo development part of the plan, which strikes me as both biased and unfair. A significant new museum, and one free to the public to boot, is an extremely welcome development — the sort of thing that might be celebrated in other cities. More space for OCAD is also a very nice thing. And I don’t object to the idea of new condo towers per se, especially if they promise to diverge visually from the boredom that reigns just south of King Street in Concord Land.
But what about the Princess of Wales? Mirvish argues that there is excess capacity in Toronto’s commercial theatre world, and that he “is only putting shows onstage at his four theatres about 50 to 60 per cent of the time” (as Kelly Nestruck reports). One may justly ask why he would have bought two new theatres, one large (the Panasonic), the other enormous (the Ed Mirvish/Canon/Pantages), just a few years ago if he didn’t in fact have any use for them, but that question may be beside the point. It’s certainly questionable whether anyone could have programmed for those spaces on a regular basis. Filling 6,500 seats (the capacity of Mirvish’s four theatres) on a nightly basis year round is tough to do without the kind of tourism that cities like London or New York generate. And filling them with just four different shows strikes me as almost impossible. But the issue is more complicated than that.
Simply put, Toronto doesn’t have too many theatres; we have too many seats concentrated in too few theatres.
Here’s a quick list of the city’s major performance spaces suitable for theatre (not counting, say, the Four Seasons Centre):
The Sony Centre probably shouldn’t be on that list at all. And at first glance, our range of theatres may not appear all that unbalanced: five or six behemoths, three large spaces, five mid sized places, and five small theatres. The problem, and a number of commentators have pointed this out, is the scarcity of suitable mid-sized performance venues in the 400-500-seat range. Even counting the Young Centre, four of those I’ve listed are either unavailable or not commonly used for professional adult productions; the single exception is the Harbourfront Centre. There is nowhere to go for shows that do well at the Tarragon or the Berkeley — shows that will probably struggle to fill the Royal Alex, but might do just fine in a space two or three times the size of their original venue.
I know comparisons are odious, and I know — I’ve said it before — that Toronto isn’t London, but for what it’s worth, consider this.
London theatres have a vastly larger seating capacity than ours, obviously (for a complete list, see here). But very few theatres in the West End or elsewhere are the size of our monsters. In fact, the Ed Mirvish is larger than any London theatre (the Palladium and the Apollo Victoria come close; there is also no theatre this big on Broadway). There is no venue like the Sony Centre in London. Both the Princess of Wales and the Centre for the Arts would be among the ten largest theatres there, and the Elgin and the Royal Alex wouldn’t be far off. The majority of West End venues seat somewhere between 350 and 1,200 spectators. (It may be interesting to note that the London home of War Horse is barely half the size of its Toronto home. And the same is true of its New York venue!)
As in Toronto, the largest houses are almost exclusively occupied by musical theatre productions; unlike in Toronto, most of those run for many years. What else is similar? The size of most non-commercial venues. The Young Vic seats 420, the Royal Court 380, the Almeida 325, the Hampstead up to 325, the Donmar 250, the Soho 160. The difference is, however, that shows that do well in those relatively small spaces can then transfer into theatres of a suitable size — not impossibly big (like ours), but big enough: theatres like the Noel Coward (870 seats, where ex-Donmar-AD Michael Grandage is putting together a season next year); the Apollo Shaftesbury (775 seats, where productions such as Jerusalem moved); the Wyndham (759 seats, where the Donmar has staged its own West End season); or the Duke of York’s (640 seats, where Royal Court productions have frequently gone). The rough rule of thumb seems to be that theatres larger than 1,000 seats or so are almost exclusively for musicals (the sole exceptions are the National Theatre’s Olivier stage and the Old Vic, both of which seat around 1,100).
I think this is a very useful perspective. The only theatres we have in what seems to be the appropriate range for commercially successful non-musical work (and it’s usually a broad mix of classical, 20th-century, and new work in London) are the Bluma Appel and the Panasonic. And neither of those exactly feels like a great theatre. Both are cavernous spaces clearly designed as multi-purpose venues. Instead, imagine a Royal Alex with an auditorium half its current size. Wouldn’t it be nice to have three or four venues like that in town?
The salient point is that the very large theatres in London tend to run the same shows for many years. They crucially depend on tourists — a steady stream of punters who haven’t had the opportunity to see those shows before. New productions, on the other hand, and especially new productions of non-musical theatre, find a home in smaller houses. And those are the productions that draw much more heavily on the local population — people who may also go and see We Will Rock You or Phantom of the Opera or Spamalot or Jersey Boys, but probably not over and over again. Of course London’s population is much larger than Toronto’s, and of course Britain has much greater population density and people travel to London just to see plays. But the point is not that Toronto ought to have as many theatres as London. The point is that the general shape of things in London provides a useful and appropriate model for us as well. (Again: I understand the differences. Right now, two competing productions of Uncle Vanya are about to open in the West End, with a combined seating capacity of close to 1,500. One of them is booking to February 2013. I don’t think we’ll ever see anything like that here, much as I would love to.)
There is no reason to expect venues like Mirvish’s to be constantly full. Toronto isn’t large enough, and we don’t have enough tourism for that (or at least not anymore). There is, however, also no reason to think that smaller venues, offering more varied programming, couldn’t do better and couldn’t generate more interest among Torontonians.
All of which is why I, for one, am not sad to see the Princess of Wales go. But I am concerned that the exciting cultural complex Mirvish has planned does not include any kind of replacement for the theatre he’s knocking down. Like some others, I think there is a very strong case to be made for having a smaller venue — or two! — integrated into the planned buildings. Venues of 400-500 seats, designed as performance spaces for less populist work than the usual Mirvish fare, as receiving houses for independent productions from elsewhere in the city perhaps. Not only is there a pressing need for such theatres in Toronto, they would also be an excellent fit for the kinds of audiences Mirvish’s planned museum for abstract art is likely to attract. If this is a complex designed for an artsy crowd, as a place to celebrate international modern art, why not also make it a new home for artistically challenging, internationally connected theatre in the city?
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