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The Playhouse’s final bow is a hard pill to swallow

by on February 23, 2016

Those of us who work in the performing arts are in the business of suspending reality. We believe that one of the great joys of attending a theatre, dance or music performance is the opportunity to step outside of everyday life, and experience something unexpected and even fantastical.

Each week, hundreds of people attend shows at the Fredericton Playhouse to have these experiences, escaping reality and suspending disbelief for a couple of hours. And on a surface level, everything looks perfectly fine when you enter our doors, take your seat, and focus your attention on the performance.

But like the performance you watch on the stage, what you see when you come to the Playhouse is an illusion. The reality of what’s happening behind the scenes isn’t so pretty.

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YouTube Video: “Looking Inside the Fredericton Playhouse”

Last month, we released an online video titled “Looking Inside the Fredericton Playhouse.” This video was created in response to questions from the public following the release of a study in 2015 that recommended replacing the Playhouse with a new downtown regional performing arts centre.

Justifiably, people had questions about the state of the building and the reasoning behind the decision not to refurbish it. The goal of the video is to take the viewer behind the scenes, providing a look at issues that aren’t immediately apparent when you attend a Playhouse performance, and to explain what a refurbishment project could entail.

The Playhouse was built in the 1960s in an unusual way. Over the years, design issues ranging from heating and electrical, to safety exits and structure, to underground pipes and ventilation, have become increasingly problematic.

Some might question how a 50-year-old building could be at the end of its life. We don’t have to travel far to find buildings that are much older and still in public service – theatres included. But the truth is that in 1964, we as a society were not building public infrastructure to last hundreds of years.

Even contemporary design and construction methods require that buildings be updated throughout their service life. The Playhouse was not built with this requirement in mind, and decades of deferred maintenance have taken their toll, forcing the building to take its final bow.

What exactly is wrong with the Playhouse? The building is energy inefficient, using 2.6 times more energy than a comparable building. The Playhouse has no insulation and has outdated mechanical systems, making it difficult to heat and cool the building. Additionally, the electrical system needs complete replacement – some parts are more than 50 years old.

Not only is this problematic from an environmental perspective, but it means financial resources that could otherwise be directed toward providing community programming or keeping costs of using the facility lower must instead go toward energy consumption costs.

Some have asked why we don’t fix these problems, and work to refurbish the building. It’s a question we have spent a great deal of time and resources trying to answer. We’ve received extensive feedback from numerous engineers, consultants and architects, all of whom inform us there is no simple fix.

As the video explains, refurbishing the Playhouse would mean closing for at least two full performance seasons. With pipes buried beneath concrete, the financial risks would be substantial. Anyone who has embarked on a home renovation can understand such risks, as fixing one problem often uncovers another.

Perhaps the most sobering statistic is that, even if we were to refurbish the building, we would lose 35 per cent of the Playhouse’s seats – shrinking from 709 to 463. We would also lose part of the backstage area, and would need to eliminate a third of the already cramped lobby space.

Over the past 50 years, the Playhouse has hosted thousands of professional artists, as well as countless school and community groups. This is the venue where Leonard Cohen kicked off his world tour in 2008, but it’s also the place where you watched your child perform in her first dance recital. It’s a place where memories are made – which makes the decision to leave the building behind us a difficult one.

But the Fredericton Playhouse is more than a building; it is an organization, a set of ideals, a way of creating community and sharing ideas. The building we manage is the instrument we use to achieve our mission: to provide the community with enriching live performance experiences. Now that our instrument is broken beyond repair, we need a new one to not only continue the work we do now, but to contribute to community life for future generations.

We must honour the service the Playhouse building has provided our community over the past 50 years. As we work together to build our next performing arts venue, we should consider not only how this service will be continued, but also how it can expand. How will a new regional performing arts centre impact life in Fredericton for the next 50 years? It’s an exciting idea to consider.

Tim Yerxa is the Executive Director of the Fredericton Playhouse.

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