TORONTO — A new theater for a major repertory company is a thrilling enough prospect, but combine it with a high-tech home for a theater school in a restored historical building and it’s easy to see why this city is getting so excited about it.
The Young Center for the Performing Arts officially opened to the public on Jan. 15, and the 44,000-square-foot facility is drawing raves from architecture and theater critics alike. The Globe & Mail called it “the vital spark that every city desires,” while the Toronto Star praised it as “a masterpiece of comfort, flexibility and beauty.”
The two driving forces behind the project are the Soulpepper Theater Company and the George Brown Theater School.
Soulpepper, formed by a dozen actors in 1998, has presented 35 productions to generally favorable reviews and impressive attendance. During its seven-year history, it operated almost exclusively in the summer months as a tenant at the Harbourfront Complex. But artistic director Albert Schultz wanted to give the org some permanence and run it on a year-round basis.
George Brown is also known as the Toronto City College, and its theater school has been in operation for 30 years, with a total enrollment of about 100 students at any given time. It has a solid reputation for equipping young actors to join the professional world, but the school also was working in a series of less-than-adequate facilities around the city.
Its artistic director, James Simon, also seeking a permanent home, teamed with Schultz to present a proposal for a structure that would combine a professional theater with an educational facility in a format that Schultz affirms is “unique in the world.”
Searching for a location, they decided on what has come to be called the Distillery District.
This area close to the shore of Lake Ontario is about 10 minutes east of the downtown entertainment district and is the site of the former Gooderham & Warts Distillery, which dates from 1832. It had been deserted for many years (and served as a location for the films “Chicago” and “Cinderella Man,” among others) until it was restored and opened in spring 2003 as a complex of restaurants, stores and galleries.
Crowds were always good in the summer, but nearly nonexistent in the winter, which is why an anchor tenant like a performing arts center should prove beneficial.
Schultz estimates that, running at capacity, the Young Center will attract 140,000 new bodies to the District each year.
The renovation was designed by Tom Payne of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects, who respected the integrity of the original structure while managing to install all the design, workshop, rehearsal and classroom space the orgs needed, as well as eight distinct performance spaces with capacities ranging from 50 to 400.
The final price tag is C$14 million ($12.1 million), and Payne says the facility is opening on schedule and on budget. The center was named in honor of the Young family, who donated $3.75 million of the total cost. Toronto businessman and philanthropist David Young and his wife, Robin, contributed the money in honor of his late brother, Michael.
The first official production will be Soulpepper’s staging of the Thornton Wilder classic “Our Town,” opening Feb. 1, followed in repertory by Gogol’s “The Government Inspector,” in a new version by Morris Panych, on Feb. 2.