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Act II for a Toronto theatre

A large performing arts space in suburban North York has been divided into two. The goal is to become more nimble in staging shows of differing sizes as the city's live theatre needs shift

The Toronto Centre for the Arts, redesigned recently by Diamond Schmitt Architects, began in the early 1990s as the North York Performing Arts Centre and aimed to be a cultural anchor for the suburb.

Every theatre has its secrets, and one is hidden backstage in the Lyric Theatre, one of the four performance spaces in the Toronto Centre for the Arts in North York.

The audience sees only the stage and the unusual theatre interior, covered with an intricate array of translucent wall panels that can change colours to add mood and theatrical effect to a performance.

Yet backstage in the wings hides the secret, the remains of a whole different theatre. They are the box seats of what was originally the North York Performing Arts Centre built in 1993, part of Mel Lastman's dream of creating an urban cultural anchor for North York, back when he was mayor of North York and before the suburb's amalgamation with Toronto five years later.

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The original theatre was created to give North York more of a cohesive city-centre feel, with all the surrounding business and commercial real estate benefits that would hopefully entail. The area was not the high-rise pocket it is today. "I worked in that building when it opened. It had nothing but parking lots around it. It was basically the cemetery [York Cemetery] behind it and parking lots," joked Clyde Wagner, head of Civic Theatres Toronto (CTT).

The hidden box seats have a wooden, brass look, reflecting the original theatre's Art Deco motif. Management of the theatre had been handed to Garth Drabinsky's Livent Inc. which erred on the side of a certain opulence.

The Lyric Theatre, created in the division of the facility’s former main hall, features acoustical wall panels that can change colour. Eventscape engineered, fabricated and installed the 3,000 square feet of panels that wrap the theatre walls and proscenium.

The theatre was built to accommodate touring Broadway musicals and events of similar size. But with Livent's demise, the City of Toronto took over management, and last year the main theatre was converted into two smaller theatres (the Lyric and the Greenwin) by Diamond Schmitt Architects, with two other even smaller performance spaces also in the centre.

The centre is now run by CTT, which in Toronto also operates the Sony Centre and the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, both of which have also struggled to evolve. Many in the industry feel the Sony Centre, the largest soft-seat theatre in Canada, has never fully regained its soul since the National Ballet of Canada and Canadian Opera Co. moved to the newer Four Seasons Centre. The centre in North York remains underused, Mr. Wagner said.

"To be honest, where the metrics are today is not good," he said.

So CTT is drawing up a new marketing and rebranding push, said to come early next year. In North York, the idea is to heighten the feel of an arts anchor for the one million people living in the area. The North York civic building and the busy branch of the public library are already magnets adjacent to the centre, alongside Mel Lastman Square which hosts outdoor civic events. Three blocks away, there's even the Lee Lifeson Art Park, a tiny, wonderfully designed amphitheatre dedicated to Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson of Rush, who grew up in the neighbourhood. (The seashell-shaped bandstand was designed by Paul Raff Studio and built by Eventscape, which also produced the complicated translucent interior panels in the North York centre.) There is no lack of amenities, just a strong lack of presence.

The North York centre has established arts companies regularly using the building, from Harold Green Jewish Theatre Co. and the Jazz Performance and Education Centre to Tafelmusik and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. It's a difficult task for any arts centre to accommodate a diverse selection of events, especially since all have different stage requirements and preferences.

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Kristopher Dell of Civic Theatres Toronto goes behind the scenes at the Lyric Theatre to show how the back lit acoustical panels work and how they change colours.

A major part of the reason for the centre's redesign was to better meet demand by performing groups for 300– to 700-seat theatres, said Kristopher Dell, director of production for CTT. Matching the right production with the right-sized theatre is a difficult art in itself. Yet the centre is currently used just 40 per cent of the time.

"That is not a good number for me. A successful number for these kinds of buildings is somewhere around 60 per cent," Mr. Wagner said. "If you're a total superstar, absolute out of the park, you hit 80 per cent which is where Koerner Hall [the Royal Conservatory of Music's performance space in downtown Toronto] is."

So, the aim is to bring far more of the creative activity from all of northern Toronto, including areas farther afield such as Jane and Finch, to the centre through continuing partnerships with arts groups. "They are creating up there, and they are not coming downtown, and we need to be a space that's open to them," Mr. Wagner said.

Changes will include new signs – and not just boring, directional signs, Mr. Wagner said – to point people from the streets and subway to the arts centre. He also wants to turn the centre's lobby into a communal living room, a place to meet for coffee and drinks, "which is something they do really well in Europe," he said, noting the bars and restaurants of the National Theatre and Southbank Centre in London.

In other words, the aim is to make it a more obvious draw, not just for its performances, but as a centre. "We have all the resources. We don't need to build anything. It's just about opening it up and making sure the public understands it," Mr. Wagner said.

The performance spaces at the reconfigured Toronto Centre for the Arts are varied, not only to draw in different kinds of crowds, but to meet the needs of different performers and arts companies.

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A seashell-shaped bandstand, also created by Eventscape, adds to the cultural presence around the Toronto Centre for the Arts.

On stage

The performance spaces at the reconfigured Toronto Centre for the Arts are varied, not only to draw in different kinds of crowds, but to meet the needs of different performers and arts companies.

The Lyric Theatre has a highly modern interior with its walls of backlit panels. It seats 574.

The George Weston Recital Hall is the centre's main concert venue, suitable for orchestras. It seats 1,036.

The Greenwin Theatre is a more versatile space, aimed at community and not-for-profit arts organizations, as well as smaller ensembles, dance performances and comedy. It seats 296.

The Studio Theatre is the smallest space in the centre, and the most flexible, able to host theatre in the round and other types of staging. It seats 183.

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