THE LITTLE THEATRE SCHOOL THAT COULD

By Andrea Jezovit

In the Lloyd Studio on the third floor of Ryerson’s theatre building, fourth year dance students are warming up for their morning class.

Mirrors and ballet bars line the walls and a pianist plays a melody as the 24 dancers glide across the floor. But this isn’t your typical dance studio. Amidst the pli?s and double pirouettes, two gigantic wooden pillars stretch from ceiling to floor in the middle of the room, both covered with soft padding. “Someone ran right into one of them last week,” says dancer Michelle Baldry.

Though the dancer wasn’t injured, the pillars, which act as structural support, are still a concern. However, the pharmacy students who studied in this room more than 100 years ago wouldn’t have minded them.

The Ryerson Theatre School inhabits the old Ontario College of Pharmacy building at 44-46 Gerrard St. E. Opened in 1887, it was built with chemistry labs in mind rather than acting, dance and production studios. With a growing population of students squeezed into cramped facilities not suited for the program, the Theatre School has been adapting to the best of its ability since it took over the building in the mid-seventies.

“Because of the history in this building there’s a certain culture that the Theatre School can put up with almost anything and still turn it into a wonderful educational experience,” says resident production manager Peter Fleming who, among other duties, deals with campus planning and the Theatre School’s spending.

“But at some point we’d love to have a nice facility.”

According to a pharmacy journal from 1892, the building was once state of the art. It speaks of a pharmaceutical lab “superior of any in the United States,” and lecture halls with seats “of the latest, improved design, with a folding writing board.”

But during the Theatre School’s recent Program Review, a panel of outside professionals said the school’s facilities needed vast improvements. Since then, improvements have started coming along:

A wardrobe room has been renovated, $30,000 from the Dean’s office has resulted in a classroom converted into a new sound studio, and a new dance studio is being built in the basement of South Kerr Hall through the Ryerson University Backfill Project.

The university has also donated space in the basement of Eric Palin Hall as a drafting room for production students, which will open soon. Drafting tables, new dance floors for studios, and new computers and equipment for production students have been funded with infrastructure money the school received a few weeks ago.

Theatre School Chair Perry Schneiderman says he’s ecstatic about the improvements. “As much as we need a new facility, we have had a major injection of support from the university,” he says. Students welcome the changes.

Second-year production student Kristina McNamee says the 60 first-year production students competed for space in one sound studio last year. “We all had class at the same time, and people in the upper years needed it too, so battling with them for time was a problem.”

Even though the new sound studio is still not enough space, she says, production students are happy to have it.

Back in the Lloyd Studio, fourth-year dance student Sarah Yu is happy about the new dance floor that has just arrived. “The old floor has high linoleum content, so it absorbs sweat and moisture and gets slippery,” she says. “The new floor gives better traction and with bare feet it’s not as sticky.”

Yu says a lot of hip injuries resulted from the slippery floor as dancers would have to tense their muscles to keep from slipping. But the facilities are still far from ideal.

“This building doesn’t have any classrooms except a tutorial room on the third floor, and even then we move desks and use it as lab space for acting and dance-it just goes to show the extent of our lack of space,” he says.

Lack of storage space means hallways are crowded with stacks of tables and chairs and the odd overhead projector. Faculty offices are like cubbyholes, and there isn’t enough space for all faculty members to have one.

Then there are the infamous pillars that get in the way of dancers and actors. Besides the two in the Lloyd, there are four in the dance studio on the main floor. And there are two smack in the middle of the stage area of the small theatre on the second floor.

“You have to turn them into trees, lamp posts, you know,” Schneiderman says, laughing.

The current theatre is a flexible box space, he says, but it only holds a maximum of 60 seats and the Ryerson Theatre isn’t an adequate replacement. “It’s just not the best space for smaller dance performances or for most of our theatre performances.”

Renovations to the existing building would make a new theatre possible. Schneiderman says Peter Smith, the leading architect who built the Princess of Wales Theatre, already has plans that would see a 300-seat theatre built in the courtyard adjacent to the theatre building, and that the nearby Ryerson parking lot could easily contain a two- or three-story studio space.

Schneiderman estimates the costs of the new renovations at between $15 million and $20 million. “The hope and the aspiration is to, in the next five years, have a new facility….Right now we have to find a major donor who would like to see their name on the building,” he says. Even renovations may not solve what has been another common complaint about the old building.

The Theatre School used to have its own cleaner, who would pay special attention to techniques needed to clean areas like dance floors, but today the building is cleaned by the same contracted custodial service that the entire university uses.

“We have movement classes where we have to roll around on the floor, and there are silverfish crawling around by your head, dirt everywhere,” says third-year acting student Nils Hognestad, “Everyone leaves the class filthy.”

Dance instructor Nadia Potts acknowledges that cleanliness may be a universal problem the whole university faces, but that the Theatre School needs special attention due to the nature of the program.

“Think about going to one of your lecture classes and having to roll around on the floor…that’s why you’ll always hear the Theatre School complain the loudest.”

Still, Fleming says the Ryerson Theatre School remains a wonderful experience for students despite lousy facilities. But he still believes the need for improvements shouldn’t be ignored.

“It’s a bit like the show Fame; a rundown building where everyone makes art,” Fleming says.

“It’s nice to have a building with some character, but in our case it also goes with crumbling plaster and plumbing, cracked tiles, and everything you get in an old building.”

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