Rolling Without the Roxy

In the wake of disaster, Theatre Network launches a new season without a permanent home.

Bradley Moss stares through the green wire fence at what used to be his workplace for the last couple of decades. It’s not much right now: a few mounds of dirt, a couple of twisted I-beams and jagged, blackened concrete protruding from the ground, bordering what used to be a basement, are all that remain of the site where many of his theatrical dreams came to life.

“I spent 20 years of my life here – shovelling walks, changing light bulbs, fixing the building,” says Moss, his voice trailing off as he surveys the carnage. “I think of it as 20 years of my life in a certain spot you gave a ton of love to. It’s now a memory.”

It’s a memory that Moss shares with thousands of Edmontonians. They have fond recollections of the ravaged plot of land on 124th Street just north of 107th Avenue – or, more notably, what once occupied it. The dirt and debris are the only tangible reminders of the venerable Roxy Theatre, a venue that, for 26 years, housed Theatre Network, where Moss is the artistic director.  

Thanks to a major fire that took out the Roxy in the early morning hours of Jan. 13, Theatre Network, the city’s second-largest theatrical company, now faces an entire season without a permanent home for the first time in 35 years. As well, the disaster almost wiped out what should have been a milestone 40th anniversary for the company. Its first mainstage production of the season, The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble – which subsequently landed Moss a Sterling Award for artistic direction – had already wrapped up in the fall. Until the fire, the next show on deck was a Calgary-based touring production of the prophetically titled Famous Puppet Death Scenes.

The moniker’s irony wasn’t lost on Moss, who would have otherwise come to terms with Jan. 13 as the date his mother died 21 years earlier. But those thoughts shifted to the fiery dose of real-life drama in which Theatre Network was now embroiled. The saving grace after the fire was the recovery of up to 90 per cent of its administrative data from computer hard drives pulled from the debris. “Without that data, there was no way we would have been back on our feet,” says Moss.

Today, he and the staff face their forthcoming season living what he calls “a new normal,” finding an administrative home on Whyte Avenue after hunkering down for two weeks in the 124th Street Business Association‘s boardroom. Meanwhile, Theatre Network accepted a lease deal from the Edmonton Jazz Society to occupy its C103 complex in Old Strathcona, which previously housed Catalyst Theatre.

“The generosity has been incredible – from monetary donations to office space to people just thinking about us, which was just unbelievable,” said Moss, whose company was given space at Eastglen High School and Backstage Theatre to finish its 2014-2015 season, not to mention funds from a page on the Canada Helps website and proceeds from the Mayor’s Celebration of the Arts gala in April. 

“Kudos for the arts community for stepping in. We’ve been really in a pocket of a huge outpouring of support. The next step for us is to create interest in the future.”

Moss hopes to generate that interest via a season rollout of three mainstage productions, starting with Jason Robert Brown’s 2002 off-Broadway musical smash, The Last Five Years (Oct. 27), followed by the Guys In Disguise musical production, Klondykes (Feb. 2) and the Morris Panych dark comedy, Gordon (April 26). Five productions by local theatre collectives in the Roxy Performing Series and Theatre Network’s emerging artist festival, Nextfest, round out the schedule.

“My first thing is to be more fun, so people can find us and get behind us again,” he says about the inclusion of two musicals in the mainstage itinerary. “I’m looking at stuff that can celebrate us as a company that can react and say that we’re here now.”

Naturally, there’s also interest in moving back to 124th Street, where there’s hope a new facility can be built. “We have long-held redevelopment plans for the Roxy Theatre, so this fire is reigniting that ambition,” says Paul Manuel, president of Theatre Network’s board of directors. “So it’s gone from a nice-to-do project to something that must be done, because we have lost a performance venue in the city and it must be replaced.”

Moss hopes the design will be similar to the streamlined art deco moderne look that was common in 1938, when the two-storey Roxy was built as a movie theatre by architect William G. Blakey, who also created the Edmonton Journal building and the Masonic Temple. Moss also predicted that it may take up to three years before Theatre Network will occupy that home.

That’s all dependent on the settlement of a lengthy, painstaking claim being handled by Theatre Network’s insurance company and an independent broker. Despite some rumours circulating in the local theatre community about what started the blaze, Edmonton Fire Rescue Services spokesperson Jill McKenzie reported that the cause of the fire, which resulted in $2.4 million in damages, was undetermined, and foul play had not been ruled out. For his part, the broker refused to comment on the matter, while Manuel claimed that all parties involved are co-operating. “Those negotiations continue as we speak, so I’m going to let that process unfold,” he says.

Sentimentality aside, several members of the local scene argue that another Roxy or similar facility is critical for other mid-sized and smaller theatre troupes. “The Roxy was a loss not only to Theatre Network, but to so many other companies housed in that building,” says Trevor Schmidt, Northern Light Theatre‘s artistic director.

“It’s a tragedy to the community, especially in a city where there’s a dearth of live theatre.”

Even if the disaster had not taken place, Theatre Network still faces a daunting set of market-related issues that come with the territory. For openers, Moss has to find a new sponsor for the Nextfest festival in 2016 after Enbridge dropped out. He also faces a mounting funding struggle. While he credits the Edmonton Arts Council for increasing its support, he bemoans the withering of Canada Council for the Arts assistance, which he says cut its funding to the theatre by eight per cent this past year. Moss adds that support from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts has been less lucrative – grant sizes have fluctuated since 1991, and funding has actually dropped by $50,000 in the last five years.

“That’s how much it is to do one show!” he exclaims.

He’s also anxious over how Theatre Network will be received in Old Strathcona, considering much of its subscription base is on the north side of the North Saskatchewan River. “We’re expecting to lose folks here, but we’re hoping to gain folks on the southside,” he says. “Maybe, down the road, there will be a convergence of those two audiences and, when we come back, we’ll be healthier than we ever were before.”

Most importantly, Moss and the staff have to figure out how to retain audiences, a problem facing every theatre group in the city. As older patrons drop their subscriptions and younger audiences opt for single shows, usually at the last minute, he’s looking for more ways to attract a steady base. 

“The boomers are probably our biggest advocates and supporters, and they had built up habits to go see us,” says Moss. “I don’t think the younger generation has that ingrained sense of having to support something. Viewing habits are changing; you can stay home and watch Netflix.”

Board member Gail Hall doesn’t envy what Moss is facing. “I thought running a private business was hard,” says Hall, who owns and operates Seasoned Solutions, a loft and cooking school in Edmonton. “But knowing how theatres operate, and especially with what’s happened to Theatre Network, I think it’s extremely challenging.”

While these challenges need to be met, Moss is also looking at them as an opportunity to connect with future audiences and grow the company. Even in the wake of a disaster that almost destroyed his livelihood, Moss can’t help but find some humour in the experience.

“Well, there was that tree in front I always wanted to get rid of,” he muses. “It’s gone now.”

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