Praxis Theatre is currently on hiatus! Please find co-founders Aislinn Rose and Michael Wheeler at The Theatre Centre and SpiderWebShow, respectively.
October 1, 2012, by

Mirvish blows up downtown Toronto theatre

Images from the Mirvish 'Second Stage' Season

by Michael Wheeler

Last week David Mirvish, the pre-eminent producer of for-profit Toronto theatre made two major announcements that reflect the rapidly transforming theatrical ecosystem to one driven by indie artists.

On Monday Sept 24, Mirvish announced the launch of a “Second Stage” season that will feature four productions of contemporary drama that are less mainstream than its general offerings. These shows are being offered as a package where four tickets can be purchased for $100-$200 depending on seating.

Two of these productions are Toronto indie theatre hits: Studio 180’s Clybourne Park produced originally in association with Canadian Stage last year, and Outside The March’s Terminus, one of the standout hits of the SummerWorks Festival two months ago.

The other two shows in The Second Stage Season also have indie roots: CBC’s Mary Walsh‘s Dancing With Rage was originally going to be a Theatre Passe Muraille production before it was cancelled due to illness, while Anthony Rapp’s (brother of playwright Adam Rapp) autobiographical one-man show Without You got its profile as a darling of the Edinburgh Fringe.

This seems an incredibly positive development for Toronto’s theatrical ecosystem by creating a plausible process whereby artist-driven, independent work created in the not-for-profit sector that demonstrates box office success can become a commercial hit.

Frank Gehry's proposed model for the King St Mirvish re-development.

Equally big news was Mirvish’s weekend announcement of plans to to tear down the 2,500 seat Princess of Wales theatre and replace it with a modern art gallery, a new campus for OCAD, retail space, and three condo towers – all designed by Frank Gehry who recently revamped the Art Gallery of Ontario. Click for photos of the buildings that will have to go to make it happen.

Anticipating a backlash to this news, Mirvish wrote a personal letter to the media in lieu of the regular press release outlining his reasoning and the Mirvish legacy in the neighbourhood.  Reaction to this announcement was much less generous than the response to the indie theatre season, leading many commentators to question the necessity of tearing down one of the crown jewels of Toronto performing arts.

Some thoughts to consider before critiquing this decision too harshly:

Big theatres in Toronto are in big trouble:

One needs look no further that The City of Toronto’s  Task Force studying what to do with the three municipally owned large-venue theatres: The Sony Centre, The St Lawrence Centre and The Toronto Centre for The Performing Arts, to see that no one really has a clue how to fill these massive venues on a regular basis. Mega-musicals with massive overhead and serious box office started to stop making sense around when Phantom and the original Ragtime left town.

The era of theatre as driven by expensive spectacle is waning. Or at least, Toronto cannot support too many of theses types of productions at one time and some of them now occur in tents on the waterfront and/or involve horses.

There is money in real estate not theatre

Regent Park mixed income redevelopment

Given the general benefits Mirvish provides the ecosystem – not just the Second Stage Season, but also a partnership with The Toronto Fringe and creator of a new home for Theatre Museum Canada, I’m reticent to go apeshit about the fact they will also transform their properties to create revenue.

Theatre is a sucker’s game if you’re looking to make a buck. How fast did Aubrey Dan burn through $50 Million? Better Mirvish Inc. makes money somewhere else so it can continue to be a healthy and thriving contributor to the theatre community.

Population density is good for downtown Toronto

It has become quite fashionable to critique condo development as garish cash grabs. Practically speaking, population density is something from which Toronto could benefit more from through social and environmental perspectives. In terms of transportation issues, this density is best added near existing subway stops, which the Mirvish development is.

I’m not arguing for sainthood for building condos, but I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world right if done right. I would love to see some income geared housing in there to ensure these places don’t become homogenous palaces for the superrich… Hey – you never know!

There’s an opportunity here:

David Mirvish stated a willingness to build a new theatre if necessary as stated in his letter to the media. Frustration at the loss of The Princess of Wales would probably be better channelled lobbying for something 500 seat-ish that meets the demands of contemporary theatre and audiences to be included in the development.

With TIFF for film, Roy Thompson Hall for music, and a new modern Art Gallery on the strip, King West would be a perfect location for a Gehry-designed permanent home for the newly announced Mirvish/Indie Theatre season.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @michaelcwheeler

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  1. Kieren MacMillan says:

    Right on, in most cases.

    However, I would like to point out that (e.g.) Paris is a beloved and vibrant city of immense cultural resources, with a population density one-third greater than Toronto’s — and it has accomplished all of that despite “suffering” a height restriction of only 121 feet until just two years ago.

    Food for thought…

  2. Gideon Arthurs says:

    Hi Wheeler – good thoughtful post on this. Having had extraordinary dealings with the man through the Fringe, I have to say that I trust David’s vision of Toronto (maybe the bottom 50 floors of his vision, rather than the top 30, but most of it!). As a for-profit theatre, he is neither obliged or given assistance to operate that massive venue, which really wass more of a roadhouse for populist work than a rung on our ladder. Oh yeah, and it wasn’t making money. Two stand out outcomes from this development for me are 1) anything that makes Mr. Mirvish more successful will allow him to be a continuing force in culture and 2) that stretch of the city desperately needs and interesting, vibrant reboot… OCAD studios, galleries, open spaces and architecture sound like a good start. I feel very differently around the conversations for places like the Bluma that house publicly funded work, but David – the private citizen and entrepreneur – has certainly done enough to earn my trust to blow some stuff up.

    – Gideon

  3. Geoffrey Pounsett says:

    Michael, thanks for a thoughtful consideration of this news from Mirvish. In the theatre community, we are naturally skittish about the loss of theatre buildings. It makes sense. But Mirvish has 50,000 seats to fill each week, at premium ticket prices. This isn’t the theatre ecology in Toronto right now. The loss of the Princess of Wales (not an architectural or historic loss, frankly) does not require Mirvish to reduce its programming in the slightest. And – aside from the cultural gain to OCAD, the visual arts community and the streetscape of King West – if this proposal helps keep the Mirvii’s powerful support to indie theatre and theatre artists flowing, then godspeed.

  4. @Kieren. Nice to hear from you on the blog.

    I hesitate to go crazy with this argument as a non-urban development specialist and non-Parisian. But based on limited news reports and one of my favourite movies (La Haine) it is my understanding that Paris is not a great city for many Parisians.

    It obviously has a crown jewel at its centre that tourists and the moneyed enjoy, but Im pretty sure urban sprawl and poverty-stricken immigrant driven suburbs surround the city. It is a similar problem to what we have here and was why I linked to the 2010 report 3 Cities Within Toronto:

    This stratification of Toronto increasingly into concentric spheres of haves and havenots was reputed to be a major preoccupation of the Miller administration, ie when we had a municipal government that was concerned with citizens, not just taxpayers.

    All this being said – I understand why downtown Paris shouldn’t be dotted with condo towers.

    @Gideon, Yep, totally agree about the Bluma, where I will start rehearsals with The Electric Company tomorrow.

    The City does need a municipally funded large scale venue that can house not-for-profit work. This is an essential element to the ecosystem that prevents us from becoming a roadhouse city for travelling mostly American touring shows. The Task Force’s report is due by end of November. Hopefully they will also recognize that.

    @Geoffrey, Hi Geoff!

  5. Michael Mackid says:

    I think we need to support Mirvish … his family has donated MILLIONS to the arts and supported so many artists in Toronto, Ontario and Canada. There are so many empty Theatres in Toronto, he actually is increasing the likelihood that the other Theatres will be used more often. This is a good thing…and I really think we have to respect his decision and THANK him and his family for everything he does, and will continue to do, and has done in the past…. I do not believe in biting the hand that feeds artists…. people should be ashamed for criticising him, seriously ashamed.

  6. MK says:

    Thanks Michael for articulating how I’ve been feeling. I worked at the POW for 3 years so yes, I’m sad to see it go but reaction has been way out of proportion.

    I’m planning on scamming one of the sculptures from the bar I used to work. 🙂

  7. Philip Akin says:

    Gee Michael you scooped my thoughts on this for sure. The one area that does need some careful thought is if there was a possibility of a smaller theatre the costs attached to that space as a full union house would make it too expensive for most non profits to actually use.


  8. Danny Harvey says:

    I’m reminded of the line from Rent.

    “With Condos on the top whose rent keeps open our shop”

    Can’t stop progess but its hardly a new idea.

  9. @MK Cool – see if you can snag me a War Horse also?

    @Philip Sorry for scooping! I guess we will have to be more successful in our efforts to increase not-for-profit investment from public and private spheres to afford to pay everyone non-poverty wages then.

    @Danny – Just to bring everything full circle – Without You from the Second Stage Season is about the making of Rent.

  10. ExChorusGirl says:

    There are many flaws in your argument.

    One of the Princess of Wales’ most lucrative tenants was the Chicago revival. Musical theatre does not need to be EXPENSIVE SPECTACLE to be successful, it needs to be good and I’d suggest that if the market for musicals is waning, the fault lies with producers who’ve given us inferior product over the years (Jane Eyre, Lord of the Rings, and much of Mirvish’s season offerings).

    Chasing contemporary trends is also a sucker’s game. This will be Mirvish’s second attempt at condos (the first one was a major flop and he lost a lot of money), and this one has already been admitted to be dependent on how the market is going, meaning we might get 3 towers….or 2….or one. They’re making this massive build on a wait and see attitude? Adam Vaughn has been aware of these plans for about a year; how can he be so behind something that is clearly not finalized?

    The ONLY thing this is about is preserving family legacy. Since you brought up Dancap, if Mirvish feels so strongly he didn’t need another theatre, why didn’t he let Aubrey Dan buy the former Pantages? Because he’s a jerk who wanted to bury one competitor (Dan) and stick it to a former competitor (Drabinsky). Ed Mirvish was justifiably proud of the Princess of Wales, so if David wants to honour his family’s achievements, WHY would he tear down what his dad worked so hard to build?

    The entertainment district is going to be reeeeeal entertaining with a gallery that closes at 8 pm and condos full of people who don’t want noise after 10. Good luck King street, David Mirvish is really putting the “wrecking” into wrecking ball.

    Thanks for this blog, Praxis. Are you hoping that Mirvish picks up one of your shows for second stage some year? is getting behind this ludicrous and offensive idea really just away of cozying up to David Mirvish?

  11. @ExChorus Girl

    I agree that musical theatre doesn’t have to be expensive spectacle to be lucrative. Just wrapped being assistant director on Shaw Festival production of Ragtime and we did the same show debuted by Livent with 20 (or so) less performers. I think it succeeds because of the music and performances not just the spectacle of a Model T car driving across the stage with a massive chorus. The good shows are good because they are good.

    None of this addresses the fact that there are multiple large venues not in use in this city and they are all losing money. Blaming Mirvish is akin to shooting the messenger. Even a lefty like me doesn’t think a private citizen who isn’t accessing public funding has a moral obligation to run a for-profit business at a loss. Meanwhile, as Geoffrey pointed out, none of this requires Mirvish to scaleback operations.

    As to whether I would like a Praxis show to be picked up by Mirvish – duh – yeah! Also I would like to direct something large scale for Luminato, which we have been fairly critical of lately. Hopefully the through-line you will find to all our advocacy is that Aislinn and I are advocating for those changes that will best benefit Toronto independent theatre.

  12. Jeff Margolis says:

    Ok, I need to just make one teeny-tiny point: ExChorusGirl, you said, “and this one has already been admitted to be dependent on how the market is going, meaning we might get 3 towers….or 2….or one. They’re making this massive build on a wait and see attitude?”
    Yes, yes they are because they are intelligent people. We have been overbuilding condos at an alarming rate and the developers generally don’t care if these units are purchased by speculators or at all because, hey, there will always be another buyer. Well, maybe not so much anymore. To actually consider demand is something that should be applauded and not condemned. Understanding that the market might not actually exist for three massive condos is a GOOD thing. We have enough vacancy, enough downward pressure on that saturated market to do serious damage in the midst of this real estate correction.

    It hurts the whole city to flood the market, I’m relieved to see that someone understands that. As for musicals – the 90s are over, even Garth would have a hard time in this market.

  13. @Jeff – Fake money Garth or real money Garth? Plenty of evidence to suggest that the Livent approach to massive theatrical spectacles in the 90s was not possible if it was paid for with the earth dollars the rest of us use.

    While I’m here – wanted to provide a link to The Globe and Mail’s theatre critic Kelly Nestruck on the issue. He also supports the notion Toronto’s theatrical ecosystem would benefit form a Mirvish-created 500 seater.

  14. Jeff Margolis says:

    The Mirvish plan has an abstract art museum as a centerpiece, why is anyone even debating the issue? Other cities should be so lucky.

    And Garth just couldn’t move the money (real and imagined) around fast enough. His New York adventures were the last nails in that coffin.

  15. Holger says:

    Excellent piece.

    I’ve had similar thoughts re. the need for one (or more!) mid-sized venues, which really don’t exist at all in Toronto right now. It doesn’t really make sense to me that we have one “theatre,” the Sony Centre, that’s bigger by far than any house in London or New York, nor do I understand why our biggest actual theatre is larger than any on Broadway or in the West End. We have too many inflexible behemoths, and far too few theatres, commercial or otherwise, that could actually sell out regularly while offering something other than musicals or stand-up comedy.

    Detailed thoughts (and more figures) here.

  16. Lynn Slotkin says:

    If there is even a hint of a theatre being built, 500 seats or other wise, Mr. Gehry NOT build it. Witness the cramped, cold in hospitable theatre he built for the Signature Theatre company in New York on 42nd street.

  17. Hi Folks,

    Just jumping in to draw attention to an article in The Grid by Edward Keenan called, “David Mirvish and the curse of condophobia“.

    Keenan also support the notion that condos in this location could be good for Torontonians and more importantly gets into how affordable housing could be included.

    I learned a new term: Inclusionary Zoning. Apparently Vancouver, San Fran and Washington already use this type of zoning to ensure a diversity of incomes in new developments.

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