Stages zipped tight?

Karla Hayward
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Headline Honeys dilemma illustrates St. John's performance place problem

When a budding performer debates pursuing a career on stage, they ask "Am I good enough?" "Will the audience like me?" "Is the script funny/touching/shocking/whatever?"

Not many, however, spend time wondering if they'll have a stage on which to stand. Certainly not, you might think, in a city as culturally vibrant as St. John's.

When a budding performer debates pursuing a career on stage, they ask "Am I good enough?" "Will the audience like me?" "Is the script funny/touching/shocking/whatever?"

Not many, however, spend time wondering if they'll have a stage on which to stand. Certainly not, you might think, in a city as culturally vibrant as St. John's.

But, according to Alicia Simms-Young, one-third of the vaudeville variety troupe The Headline Honeys, that is very much the case.

Simms-Young recently wrote to the St. John's media outlining her frustration. "Venues," she wrote, "are shutting down or becoming unavailable left, right and centre. The Majestic Theatre, a favoured stage for our shows, has decided to no longer rent to outside producers. This theatre has been home to our shows as well as the semi-annual and wildly popular fundraisers for the Neighbourhood Dance Works. The LSPU Hall is in such high demand that you must book more than three months in advance. They too, will be closing their doors this summer until 2009 to renovate. Rabbittown Theatre is a diamond in the rough, but with no help from the city to (cover) its extremely high utilities cost, it's fighting a losing battle to stay afloat."

Rabbittown owner Aiden Flynn certainly seems to agree, particularly when it comes to his space.

"There is a problem that has to be addressed with how our venues are funded and operated. The big thing is that the small to mid-size venues aren't funded at all," he says.

Rabbittown doesn't receive any operational funding, and struggles with high taxation due to the fact that it is taxed as a commercial operation.

"I'm trying to provide this venue to bring work to the community, to give the community a place to do work, and I get taxed like I'm Wal-Mart," says Flynn, only half-jokingly.

Low point

The impetus for Simms-Young's missive was a personal one. After producing two shows - "Vaudeville for Daffodil" and "Dr. Samuel's Fantasmagorical Old Timey Vaudeville Show" - The Honeys began planning a third, to take place this summer. Location quickly became a problem. Their hopes on performing at the Majestic were dashed; the LSPU was booked; Spirit of Newfoundland's new space at the Masonic Temple simply didn't work for their needs.

The troupe did eventually manage to negotiate a rental at Rabbittown Theatre, but the scramble brought the difficulties and costs of a theatre production in St. John's into sharp focus, inspiring a public call.

Beyond the stage

Flynn stresses that the issues facing the theatre community also go beyond physical space.

"The problem is that we have a lot of emerging companies, with some really talented people, that aren't getting access to the tools that they need to produce the work in the proper way."

Those tools, Flynn explains, are things like lighting and sound techs, designers, and "all the things that make theatre the wonderful experience that it is."

"We need to put more attention on making sure that our venues are accessible and well resourced," he says.

Putting pen to paper

Simms-Young explained her frustrations with a city which so vocally touts its cultural richness but seemingly does little to foster small live theatre productions.

"My purpose in writing that e-mail is that I know there's money out there in the city, out there in the province, to do this. It's got to be there somewhere. Whether it's investing in an already existing theatre, or reopening ... there has to be more than this."

Flynn has his wish list too. "My wish would be to have a complex that serves everyone."

He notes that many other cities boast venues that can accommodate all sizes of groups, as well as offering rehearsal and teaching space.

"Something like that could happen even with some reworking of the Arts and Culture Centre site," he says. "The one thing that's missing from that site now is the medium tier (location). If there was an upgrade to the basement theatre system, and then some thought put into where to construct that mid-tier, then we might be in a good place."

Hope springs eternal

Many in the city have pinned their hopes for a mid-size theatre on Paul Madden, new owner of the old Capitol Theatre location. Madden told The Telegram his plans are still in the works.

"We're still looking at doing something with the Capitol Theatre. Somewhere around the 15th (of May), Dennis Knight finished his study for the four- to five-hundred-seat venue in the downtown and it has been submitted to the City of St. John's. We've gone out to an architectural firm and had a capital costing done on the renovations, and we dropped that off on Friday. Two of the appropriate parties have gotten them and the others are to be picked up this week. And, I guess after that, we'll be putting together a proposal to see whether it's going to fly."

Madden says that he is still quite motivated to bring back the Capitol Theatre, but that "the wheels move very slowly when you get government involved." However, Madden says he no longer sees the venue as targeting live theatre.

"Right now we're looking at it being more visual arts; independent films, a small stage where somebody could do music or a recital or a presentation, but I wouldn't see a full-blown production going on there."

Call for support

With a municipal election just days away, Simms-Young thinks this is a good time to bring up the matter.

"It is a good time to really be pumping people, because everyone likes to say they support the arts, but where are the people who will actually do it?"

Organizations: Rabbittown Theatre, Majestic Theatre, Capitol Theatre Wal-Mart

Geographic location: St. John's, Newfoundland

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