By Phil Jenkins
The shovels are in the ground. It’s only a matter of time before the lights come up on a new theatre space for uOttawa’s acting and theatre arts students. Construction began last August of a new 120 seat “black box” theatre and four theatre arts classrooms, as part of a new building complex that will include a renovated home for the Ottawa Art Gallery and a revitalized Arts Court on Waller Street, steps away from the uOttawa campus and the university’s Department of Theatre.
It’s a joint project between the City of Ottawa and the University that will bring a new state-of-the-art work space for the department and new artistic life to the city’s centre.
A black box theatre is a tall, empty space built for different seating arrangements and set designs. Almost all university theatre arts programs in Canada have one. While it’s called a black box, directors-in-training can do it up in any colours and configurations they like, whether they want a theatre in the round, a frontal theatre or the classic proscenium arch theatre. To date, uOttawa’s theatre arts students have been primarily using Academic Hall, the oldest theatre in Ottawa, which was renovated six years ago and experiences an overwhelming demand for rehearsal space both during the academic year and the summer. The new black box theatre will help relieve the bottleneck in both performance and rehearsal space, and provide additional revenue from rentals outside the academic year.
Joël Beddows, chair of uOttawa’s Department of Theatre, says that having the new black box theatre so close by, connected to a renovated Arts Court and Ottawa Art Gallery, makes for a perfect location and combination. “The most exciting thing about this is to have training space in a professional arts cluster. Theatre is a convergence art. We have to look to visual arts, we have to look to dance, we have to look to video, and to know we’ll have those resources in the same building and create partnerships is just marvelous.”
The project does more than provide the right kind of physical space. It means the Department of Theatre can now develop a much-needed conservatory-style bachelor in fine arts in acting, in both official languages, which will help keep young, local acting talent rooted in Ottawa. Beddows says the new program will be critical for the department’s future, but also for the theatre community in Ottawa. “In both English and French, when you have a conservatory program, the graduates create structures, and these structures gain reputations, and they start to tour, and audiences are developed. We will be training the actors to have ownership of their own artistic enterprises, to be actor-creators, because we all think that’s the best way to create an artistic community here in Ottawa. The better art we do, the more people will come. I’m convinced of that.”
Renowned Ottawa architect Barry Padolsky is leading the new building’s design. Doors should open to uOttawa students and the public in 2017, in time for Canada’s 150th birthday. Beddows says support for the project—from the Association des Théâtres Francophones du Canada, Théâtre Action, Ontario’s Ministry of Education, Heritage Canada, the City of Ottawa, and uOttawa—has been critical in the projects’ planning and fundraising. “It’s a statement about the importance of the fine arts as a whole,” Beddows says. “When the University of Ottawa says it wants to be a comprehensive school, in my mind investing in this kind of infrastructure is a clear indication they’re serious about it.“