Pumphouse rent faces second increase in two years as performance community shoulders weight of failed expansion

Theatre companies in Calgary are hurting for space and artists are paying for it. The problem isn’t new, but one that’s been exacerbated since the Pumphouse Theatre was forced to scrap an extensive expansion project one year ago this month.

The expansion – carrying a price tag of more than $15-million – had been in the works for over six years and included the planned construction of an additional theatre and funding for renovations to the existing Joyce Doolittle and Victor Mitchell theatres.

 The loss of anticipated funding resulted in drastic rent and fee increases for theatre companies using the space, in order to cover the cost of renovation and upkeep.

Aaron Conrad, artistic director of Scorpio Theatre, is one of several tenants making Pumphouse Theatre executive director, Scott McTavish, oversaw the theatres possible expansion from 2006-2011 before the development fell through.

Photo by Justin Wilsonchanges to his season after his rent increased 50 per cent in 2012, and is set to go up to 70 per cent more than the original figure next year.

“We’ve had to cut performances,” Conrad says. “Rather than doing 10 shows, we’re doing eight in a standard two-week run.

“When I get into programming next season knowing our rates are going up again, I’m going to have to ask, ‘How is this going to impact my bottom line?’”

For Conrad, an average two-week theatre rental would previously have cost around $1,900. The price is now around $3,000, and is scheduled to increase again next year.

The expansion

With the rent increase, some companies have faulted Pumphouse management, citing a lack of communication with tenants. But Pumphouse exectutive director, Scott McTavish, says the issues are more complicated.

McTavish pushed hard for the building’s rejuvenation. The City of Calgary hadn’t invested in the building since 1972 when Joyce Doolittle lobbied to have the theatre converted from an abandoned pumping station to a theatre space.

“Out of what was initially a $13-million project, the city was providing $4 (million), the feds were going to provide $3 (million), the province was going to provide $3 (million) and we were going to fundraise $3 (million). The city was getting a significant benefit for their $4-million capital investment,” McTavish says.

“I’d be happy to pay more if I felt like the lighting instruments are being updated, or the lobby is going to be changed, or the dressing rooms are going to be redeveloped.”

–Eric Rose

Throughout the six years, getting all three levels of government on the same page, dealing with donor fatigue, and needing to re-educate four cultural ministers going in and out of power, made it almost impossible for the Pumphouse to break ground on the expansion.

Where is the money going?

For some, the rent isn’t the biggest issue. Eric Rose, co-artistic director of Ghost River Theatre, has no problem with the increase, if the money is spent on changes needed at the Pumphouse.

“I’d be happy to pay more if I felt like the lighting instruments are being updated, or the lobby is going to be changed, or the dressing rooms are going to be redeveloped,” Rose says, but he has yet to see improvements.

Rose has expressed willingness to work with other companies to improve the Pumphouse without smaller theatre companies shouldering the weight of the failed expansion.

“It was devastating for us. What I would have loved to have happened was go, ‘OK, this expansion isn’t happening, but how do we re-envision the model here? How do we work together as a group to make the Pumphouse the best it can be?’”

Rose has looked at the models of other Canadian cities and wonders why Calgary’s municipal government historically lacks stronger backing for the arts.

The Pumphouse Theatre was the first pressurized water system in Calgary, and in 1975 was designated a provincial designated historic resource and in 1980 became Canada’s third major water landmark.

Photo by Justin WilsonEdmonton’s revitalization of Alberta Avenue has been underway since 2006 and according to the City of Edmonton’s website, the city invested $23.7 million between 2009-2011. Efforts have been largely in part to Arts on the Avenue, a non-profit organization, whose mandate is to cultivate artistic fellowship through arts celebrations, festivals and traditions.

“They want to change the neighborhood and they realize that by bringing artists in, they bring a kind of animation and suddenly people want to go there. It becomes a community. Sometimes in Calgary, I think that grassroots attitude is missing,” says Rose.

Where do we go from here?

While Rose wants to bring Pumphouse tenants together on the issues, some have instead decided to vacate and start fresh in other locations.

Storybook Theatre held its first performance of Buckskin & Chapperos at the Pumphouse in 1977 and maintained a strong relationship with the venue ever since. But the increase has seen them move to their first permanent home in the Beddington Heights Community Arts Centre.

Artistic director, George Smith, says Storybook had already found the space, but the increase pushed his company to move sooner than anticipated.

“We hadn’t planned on moving this year,” says Smith. “But we spent $35,000 at the Pumphouse annually. That was going to turn into $75,000. We figured if we took that and spent it accelerating the renovation of this space, we would benefit this year and the year after that and it becomes a legacy investment.”

By partnering with Front Row Centre Players, Storybook has invested $2.5-million into the community centre, showing the new location’s first production, White Christmas, on Nov. 23.

jwilson@cjournal.ca