Varscona Theatre REBORN!

Varscona Theatre GigCity EdmontonA packed house of enthusiastic friends and supporters helped raise the curtain on Edmonton’s newest theatre on Saturday night – the new Varscona.

The curtain is more than a metaphor. For the first time in its history the Varscona actually has a curtain – a large, voluptuous wine coloured velvet drape that splits apart to reveal a large curved stage. It was fitting that, in the let’s-put-on-a-show tradition of the 11 companies that will be using the brand new space, the entertainment for the gala opening was completely provided by performers who have appeared in previous Varscona productions – everyone from Sheri Somerville to Ron Pederson (of MAD-TV fame), and many, many more. They’re all seasoned professionals, well known in this town. They were all there, and they just kept coming, one after another. It was a celebration of local talent in wonderful new building.

Old magic, black mould

All that remains of the old Varscona Theatre are sturdy brick walls that were discovered behind layers of crumbling plaster walls. It was originally a firehall built in 1956 – the translucent tower where the firemen hung their hoses still dominates the skyline. By the early 1980s, people passing by saw a derelict building. Local impresario Brian Paisley saw a theatre. He raised some money, threw up a stage and some seating and created a home for his Chinook Theatre. In 1982, it became the first home of another Paisley creation – the Edmonton Fringe.

Physically it wasn’t a great venue but it did the job. The Chinook was a traveling children’s theatre and much of the year the Varscona stood empty – what they call in the theatre, “dead space.” When the Fringe operation went across the street to the new Arts Barns, a vagabond group of local theatre companies saw their chance.  Shadow Theatre, Teatro La Quindicina  and the improv companies Rapid Fire and Die Nasty formed the Varscona Theatre Alliance, registered as a charity and proudly not-for-profit.

Passionate and dedicated, they took over the building and filled it with life.

The new lobby

The new lobby

“Suddenly we had a place of our own, a place to put down roots. We didn’t have to redesign our sets for a new stage every time. Our audiences didn’t have to search for us,” remembers David Belke, Shadow Theatre’s resident playwright – also designer, carpenter, improv genius, award magnet and all ’round man-of-the-theatre.

“The building was already in a state of deterioration – it was held together with bailing wire, bubble wrap and duct tape.”

The stage was pie shaped. The wide end projected out into the audience and actors had to beware of patrons’ feet reaching onto the stage. Performers had to be careful when exiting stage-right because just behind the curtain they ran into a brick wall.

Conversations had to be staged carefully because when actors turned they immediately presented their back to half the audience.

“It certainly pushed us into some interesting groupings,“ muses Teatro playwright-director Stewart Lemoine. His performers would split up the audience with each one acting to their side of the house “It was a challenge but they made it happen.” The dressing rooms were “funky.” The bathrooms were the same used by the firefighters – and remained so until the old building was renovated.

“Vile,” is how Shadow Theatre Artistic Director John Hudson describes them.

Because there were no large doors, all sets had to be built on the stage – which meant the theatre lights had to be taken down every year so the sawdust could be cleared out of them. For a production of A Christmas Carol, Belke had to place his lights under the seats in the front row because there was no other way to get the desired ghostly low angle effect.

The troupe loved their new digs. They reveled in the intimacy with the audience. No one sat more than seven rows from the action. They cherished the “theatre ghost.” The dressing rooms were enveloping and warm – often much too warm when they weren’t freezing. They tell tales about the year the boiler exploded and the pipes froze.

Andrew MacDonald Smith, left, and Mathew Hulshof at the Varscona gala

Andrew MacDonald Smith, left, and Mathew Hulshof at the Varscona gala

“We had to send our patrons next door to Packrat Louie’s to use the bathrooms during intermission,” recalls Hudson.

Patrons will remember the industrial heaters installed in the ceiling during that time. They sounded like aircraft engines letting out a roar that drowned out everything so they had to be turned off for the production – and then turned on again for intermission. By the end of the evening audiences huddled together in their down-filled winter jackets. Actor Dana Anderson had a shower scene. “The poor man went out there in the cold and performed in a towel every night.” says Belke.

The Varscona persevered to become one of the most successful small theatres in North America. The budgets were modest and for the first 15 years they operated in the black. A typical Saturday would unfold like this – at 11 am, a children’s show, 2 pm, a matinee, at 7:30 pm an evening performance and at 11 pm  a late-night improv show. With 300 performances a year attended by 30,000 patrons, the Varscona had become a major cultural centre.

“Fortunately we didn’t have to build audiences. We brought them to the table,” says Hudson. “The spin-off effect on the surrounding community was impressive. The thousands who came to our theatre did a lot more than just show up. They went shopping. They had a meal before the show.”

The Alliance threw some $300,000 at the crumbling building hoping to hold it together.

“But we just outlived the building,” says Belke. “There was magic in the walls. Unfortunately there was also black mould.”

The economy lays an egg

They tried to save it. The original thought was to move the lobby a few feet forward so patrons wouldn’t have to stand outdoors at – 30 waiting to pick up tickets. So they brought in the experts from PCL Construction to take a look – and they said the building was done. The roof was overloaded. The walls were leaking. The venerable plumbing, heating and ventilation systems had long since passed their due dates. The paint was lead. The walls contained asbestos.

In 2010, after a good deal of angst and soul-searching the Alliance came to the only conclusion possible – to tear down the old place and build a new state-of-the-art theatre. There was a desire to preserve what made the old building special. Working with architect Allan Partridge, they built in the folksy intimacy of the original.

The new theatre came with a $7.5 million price tag. It took a few years of talking, cajoling and great patience, but all three levels of government finally kicked in. The theatre mounted an energetic fund raising initiative featuring local performers in all-star (and often original) musicals. But then to misquote the famous Variety headline, “The economy laid an egg.”

Lemoine observes, “We always knew how much money we had and we never got any of it taken away from us. We’d tell them what we wanted – they’d tell us what it cost and we’d go ‘OK, we don’t need that.’”

“The philanthropists in our community – particularly the big oil companies – just didn’t have the money for spending on capital projects,” noted Hudson. The Alliance got its new theatre – and a half-million dollar mortgage.

Says Hudson dryly, “Fundraising will be an ongoing process.”

Varscona Theatre GigCity EdmontonAnd what has all the effort brought them? Well, judging from Saturday night’s delighted reaction from the invited audience, the Alliance has come up with a big hit.

The building commands the centre of 83rd Avenue in Old Strathcona just across from Walterdale Theatre – another old firehall. The front and sides are vibrant red brick, picking up the firehall look. Inside, the spacious off-white and taupe lobby is bounded by magnificent exposed beams of B.C lumber and original brick.

There is a much larger concession where (experimentally, at least for a while) foods such as pizza will be served  (and yes, the traditional red licorice will be on offer).

The bathrooms are bright and spacious. The old theatre held 176 seats. There are a little over 200 in the new building. They are set at a rake that pushes the audience forward, recreating some of the same intimacy as in the original (although the steep angle of the stairs may provide a challenge to older patrons).  Located in the space below the theatre is a large 60 seat space that can be used for rehearsals or rented out for other projects. The new stage is no farther than four feet from the audience. The control booth, the entire new lighting system and sound system, is state-of-the-art, and the ceiling is high and the lighting grid (with all new lights) is accessible and makes for a quick turnover.

What has come out of all this effort is a beautiful, accessible, friendly and accommodating theatre. It’s going to be ready for the Fringe this year and will serve the community for a long time to come.

David Belke thinks the tradition of the old theatre has been honoured: “The DNA of all that was crazy, special, and absolutely wonderful in the old building remains.”

The first official production will be Stewart Lemoine’s new play For the Love of Cynthia, running June 2-18.

Photos by Ryan Parker