When The Star leaked news last week that David Mirvish would be demolishing the Princess of Wales Theatre to build an arts centre and three condominiums with Frank Gehry, I had what can only be described as a knee-jerk reaction. The Princess of Wales is a true Toronto gem, a gorgeous state of the Art Theatre and I did not want to see it demolished for condos. Admittedly I took to social media in outrage (as did many of my fellow theatre lovers) before stepping back to look at the situation again.
I believe the real reason for the outrage over the demolition is not because we are losing that theatre, but rather because of what the action says about the future of Toronto's commercial theatre industry as a whole. None of us like to see a theatre close down, but admittedly most people have less emotional ties to The Princess of Wales than other theatres in the district (I freely admit if anyone tries to touch the Royal Alex I will chain myself to the building).
Where the sting lies, is in the fact that if you look at the cold, hard numbers - David Mirvish is right. We don't need that theatre right now. And that is what we should be outraged about. We're a bustling metropolis, an arts and culture hub and at one point were in the top three theatre cities in (arguably) the world. Now we are publicly admitting we can destroy one of our theatrical treasures because, simply put, we can't fill the seats. David Mirvish understands this, and is doing what any good businessman would do - he's evolving. The new arts and culture centre will provide a showcase of his extensive arts collection and a home to our new theatre museum, and hopefully be a place where we can celebrate all of Toronto's theatrical achievements of the last century. As for the condos, Frank Gehry and David Mirvish have both stated they would like them to be considered 'artistic structures', and I believe both men intend to create something beautiful and unique for King St.
One question remains: Is Toronto ready to admit defeat? Do we want to send a message to the world that we can't fill our big houses, and that too many empty seats and dark theatres have led us down the condomium path and away from commercial theatre? I say no. Toronto used to be a leader in commercial theatre, showcasing first class productions of mega musicals and original shows and drawing huge crowds to the city. Admittedly we've been dealt some tough blows, with SARS, the passport law and the rising dollar affecting tourism. But as one blogger pointed out, Stratford still drives large tourist traffic and I believe we could do the same. What we need is a concerted focus and desire to become what we have the potential to be. Do we need The Princess of Wales? I will leave that decision in the hands of the business and policy makers. But we do need to decide not to settle. We need to collectively decide that our city, our people and our Canadian talent deserve better than what they've had over the last number of years.
Lastly, we need to keep looking for that silver lining. If we're demolishing The Princess of Wales, perhaps an opportunity exists for the creation of a smaller theatre within the new centre. A home for the Off-Mirvish season, Theatre 20 and other up and coming companies. Perhaps Mirvish can continue to help foster and grow these smaller productions - because you never know where you're going to find the next mega musical. In the meantime, when you become angry about the decision and have an emotional knee-jerk reaction like me, I urge you to remember what David Mirvish said in his open letter: “Finally, if we find we need yet another facility, we will be prepared to build a new theatre. We have done that before and we will be willing to do it again. We are as dedicated to the performing arts as we have ever been, perhaps even more so now.”