By Nicole Feenstra
A wish list from Ryerson’s theatre school has been handed to Campus Planning and Facilities in hopes of making the 118-year-old facility competitive against other schools in the country.
Theatre school chair Perry Schneiderman met with a project architect from Campus Planning and Facilities on Nov. 14 to present a list of ideas meant to improve the former Ontario College of Pharmacy building, while maintaining its historical integrity.
“There is no commitment at this point, but there are ongoing discussions, so we’re confident something’s going to happen,” Schneiderman said. “(The project architect has) gone away to crunch some numbers and come up with a package.” Among the theatre school’s advisory council’s suggestions are an improved heating system, a quieter air conditioning system for the theatre, upgraded bathrooms and the installation of an elevator.
“With the technical students, the problem is elevators,” said second-year theatre technical production student Jenny So. “I’ve carried (tables) from the third floor down and across the street.” Schneiderman has also suggested the construction of a two-storey annex in the courtyard behind the theatre school or in the nearby parking lot to create more studio space. “To be truly in competition with other theatre schools around the country … we do need a studio annex to really be on the same level as other schools considered in our class. We don’t have enough studio space,” he said. The theatre school at York University is one of those competitors. T
he school offers its students a carpentry shop, three acting and rehearsal studios and a 600-seat auditorium, among other things — and it is still growing. “We want to be able to have more facilities,” said Shawn Kerwin, chair of the department of theatre at York.
“There is pressure to expand in universities, to get more facilities to have more to offer students.” York’s new fine arts centre, called the Accolade Project, is a $107.5 million expansion. A press release from York said the building will house “a 325-seat proscenium theatre with orchestra pit, a 325-seat recital hall and integrated recording studio, a 500-seat cinema/lecture hall, a performance halls lobby, a student-run art gallery, new dance studios, and specialized music studios.”
Kerwin said the Accolade Project will open in January. In the future, Schneiderman also hopes Ryerson will be home to a centrally located performing arts centre that will serve the entire university community. “I have to be realistic about an actual performing arts centre, I think that’s further down the line,” Schneiderman said. “After a library, I would hope that that would become a priority.” Ian Hamilton, director of Campus Planning and Facilities, said that while there are no official plans or budget yet, the university supports Schneiderman’s ideas.
“We’ll take Perry’s vision and put something together with him,” he said. Schneiderman estimates the costs of complete renovations and an annex at $7 million. He said if the university approves the complete renovations, the school would ask University Advancement to help raise funds and look into sponsorship. Schneiderman said the theatre school has been ignored in the past because former administrations have set agendas that didn’t include the performing arts.
He said Ryerson’s new president Sheldon Levy has made up for that. “He’s extremely supportive of us. And I’ve had good talks with him and he’s come to see our shows,” Schneiderman said. “I am absolutely sure that we have one of the best theatre schools in the country,” Levy said. “There is no doubt in my mind that the student and faculty deserve better physical facilities. “What Perry calls a wish list I call a reasonable list.”
The theatre school has already benefited from the renewed interest. For the first time, production students have access to their own drafting room for the full year, rather than sharing space with mechanical engineering students. A new dance studio has also been constructed in Kerr Hall South thanks to the Ryerson Backfill Project. The new studio has “no posts in it,” said Schneiderman, referring to the pillars that stand in two of the three dance studios, as well as in the middle of the Abrams Theatre stage.
This term, students opened up the building’s second entrance, which was being used for storage. Schneiderman said Campus Planning and Facilities re-varnished the wood panels in the entrance and added lights and signage to make it an authentic theatre entrance. With the addition of a theatre and more space, Schneiderman said an entirely new facility wouldn’t be necessary. “I would rather put my energy into the renovations and the annex and ultimately into a performing arts centre for the university.” he said. And in the end, Schneiderman said it’s what goes on inside the four walls that makes the difference.
“The reason we stay competitive is that we probably have the best teachers … in the country, if not North America,” he said. “If the teaching isn’t there, it doesn’t matter if we’re in a palace.” First-year dance student Chelsea Lee said that while there isn’t enough space in the theatre building, to her Ryerson is still the most technically advanced program in the country. “The teachers and the program take over, so (the building) doesn’t matter as much,” she said.
First-year acting student James Macdonald said facilities at the theatre school at York are “a thousand” times better, but he still prefers Ryerson. “York is visually stunning, the architecture is unique, everything is new,” he said. “Within the first week of school the sub par facilities (at Ryerson) cease to matter. The faculty makes up for anything the facilities lack.”