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The City Beat: How Toronto’s Coal Mine Theatre Rose From the Ashes

The best designed theatre is the one that still exists

By Simon Lewsen

In the summer of 2022, the Coal Mine Theatre, a scrappy East End establishment, concluded its season with a production of Lisa D’Amour’s Pulitzer Prize finalist Detroit. The play ends in a blaze of glory. “The lead couple has an epiphany,” says Ted Dykstra, who runs the company with his wife, Diana Bentley. “They decide to burn their house down and start over.” A few weeks after the show closed — in a turn of events that Dykstra is trying not to view as ominous — a toxic rag caught fire in a bin adjacent to the premises, and the theatre went up in flames.

To fund a new company home, Dykstra and Bentley raised $450,000 in private donations. They found a location in East Danforth — a place cheap enough to meet their budget and large enough to meet their needs. An indie theatre doesn’t need much, though. The most common theatre configuration is the classic “black box,” which is non-descript, but versatile, a dark chamber sealed off from the world.

Coal Mine Theatre
Photography by Matt Hertendy.

The Coal Mine’s new black box is in the basement of a former bank building near Woodbine subway station. “We love having a theatre downstairs,” says landlord Eric Veyt, who runs the construction management company One York. “The idea of renting to a golf simulator or an F45 gym made financial sense, but it wasn’t as cool.” Bentley oversaw the renovation, alongside the production designer Steve Lucas. One York leveraged its industry connections to help finish the retrofit — the fireproofing, the soundproofing, the new floors and the electricity upgrades — in a mere four months.

Coal Mine Theatre Company
DION: A ROCK OPERA, performed at the Coal Mine Theatre. Photography by Dahlia Katz.

Each square inch has been put to use. Everything in the black box, from the stage to the risers, can be dismantled and reconfigured. Backstage, there’s an old bank vault that’s now a storage space for klieg lights. Behind the theatre, there’s a bar so narrow you could fit it into a train car. And two floors up, there’s a passageway that’s been converted into a dressing room: to get onstage, the actors must descend several flights of stairs. The design program is messy and incoherent. It’s also everything it needs to be. For a Toronto theatre company in 2023, merely existing is a monumental achievement.

The Coal Mine Theatre
Photography by Matt Hertendy.

Theatre has always been a shaky business, but today the crisis may be worse than ever. Costs are soaring. Our post-pandemic homebody culture has been terrible for subscriptions and sales. Theatre workers, from actors to set designers, are becoming harder to find, since many decamped during the lockdowns for other industries and rural locales. A year ago, the Globe and Mail reported that two of the country’s most storied regional companies, the Neptune Theatre in Halifax and the Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg, were barely breaking 30 percent of pre-pandemic revenue.

Back in October, Dykstra figured that the Coal Mine may soon be shuttering too, but the financials have since rebounded, thanks to a raft of new donors and an uptick in sales. Which is a relief, since the company occupies a unique place in the Toronto theatre scene. With its ambitious international programming, it offers a rare alternative to the schticky musicals favoured by Mirvish or the didactic fare beloved by the granting agencies.

Arts & Culture
DION: A ROCK OPERA, performed at the Coal Mine Theatre. Photography by Dahlia Katz.

The design of the new theatre can be read as a metaphor for the precariousness of the situation. The Coal Mine Theatre feels wedged in. It is dark and mostly windowless — an architecture of basements, stairwells, and passageways.  Even the front-end spaces feel like back-end spaces, and the materials — rough cement, concrete, and drywall — are as basic as it gets. In a city where, increasingly, quality space is a luxury reserved for the rich, this is the aesthetic of survival, the design equivalent of a tree growing on a jagged rock face.

Toronto Arts and Culture
Photography by Matt Hertendy.

Coal Mine opened its ninth season in the new space with Appropriate, a satirical domestic drama by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, one of the most exciting new voices in American theatre. As with Detroit, the play ends portentously. “Pictures drop off the walls,” says Dykstra. “A rock comes through the windows. The couch falls through a hole in the stage. The entire house comes apart.”

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