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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Community Theatre

Nathan Raine
Published Wednesday November 26, 01:39 am
The Broadway’s doing some great things, and more are on the way

Photo Credit: Morgan Modjeski

It's 1953 and Saskatoon’s Broadway Theatre, a relatively new and completely en vogue establishment, is teeming with human energy. In a span of a single week in '53, some 5,400 moviegoers make their way through the doors to see the newest Gene Kelly musical, or marvel at Audrey Hepburn. A ticket to a show, after all, only costs a nickel.

Certainly the Golden Age of cinema, and perhaps likewise, the golden age of the Broadway Theatre. It's unlikely that the Broadway will see that kind of popularity again — but as recent recipients of a Lieutenant Governor's Award, it's safe to say that the Broadway has re-established itself as an arts and culture leader in Saskatchewan.

To see how far they've come, it's important to understand a bit of the history. From its inception in 1946 the theatre went through a handful of identities, including as a theatre for mainstream movies, an art-house cinema, and a short stint with seedy pictures. Bankruptcy and closure have often threatened the theatre, including a brief closure in 1993. But if nothing else, the theatre has been a model of resilience — and in 2004, the building went through a much-needed renovation, replacing the old wooden seats and increasing the size of the stage, among other things.

Fast forward to November of 2014, when the Sask Arts Board awarded The Broadway Theatre the Lieutenant Governor's Award for Arts Leadership in the province. Kirby Wirchenko, executive director of the Broadway, says it was a wonderful surprise.

“I was so unprepared to win that I didn't even have a speech,” he says. “But so many people think we're still just an old movie theatre, so all I did was reel off all the things we do here a year. Comedy, speakers, lectures, music, church, weddings, corporate and private events, our partnership with the Jazz Fest, Fringe Fest, Children's Fest. On top of that, film. All that stuff combined is why we're an art community. So your question about why how we survived? We survived by transitioning.”

That transition can be largely credited to Wirchenko. Seven years ago, when he started as the first ever executive director, the theatre was still largely just an art movie house, with little direction or business initiative.

“When I started, this place was like a dream to me; it held all this potential. The problem was it had no business plan. Right away we agreed that this place can only survive, and it had been in the minutes since its very first year, [if] the Broadway could be an arts and culture centre. To me that’s the big turning point,” says Wirchenko. “My mandate was, 'get people in this fucking door. Rent it. Rent it for anything. For everything. Don't turn anyone away. Be a good venue and help them all.' We wanted to turn ourselves from a movie theatre that did things once in a while into a venue that could do almost anything.”

In 2008, the theatre had 53 rentals, which was a record up to that point. Last year, they rented 233 times. And visitors have almost doubled, from 32,000 in 2008 to almost 60,000 this year.

“We grew rentals fast, because they brought money in the door and people in the door. We got the word out, got people sitting in the seats and saying, 'I didn't know it sounded this good. I didn't know the stage was this big. I thought the seats were still wooden.' What we did was became the arts and culture centre that people always envisioned we could be,” says Wirchenko. “I still, once in a while, will get someone who references it as an ‘adult’ theatre. I'm like, ‘You know it was 35 years ago, right?’ But that award for arts leadership in the province — I would like to think that's the final nail in the coffin [for the idea that] it's still that old movie theatre.”

The theatre has also begun expanding beyond its doors. In 2010, the Broadway Theatre became a producer of shows and events, both inside the theatre and at other venues, which adds financial security.

“[Becoming a buyer] made a world of difference in revenue,” says Wirchenko. “When we're the producer, it's a cash risk, but we earn about triple. This theatre has never had excess cash to do this before,” says Wirchenko. “The biggest excitement to us now is capital improvements. From spring of 2013 to spring of 2015, we're going to accomplish about $350,000 in capital improvements, and we're not in debt for any of it. We haven't asked for donations for it. That's incredible.

“Right now we're sitting at eight or nine per cent coming from government and another 10 to 12 per cent coming from corporate partners. And that's a great place to be, because we're not stuck if the grant falls through.”

This growth also means new progressive initiatives. In one calendar year, the Broadway will accomplish three major environmental changes: the famous blade sign on the front of the building has been upgraded, as was the stage lighting, both saving huge amounts of energy — and the theatre is installing solar panels on the roof.

“We're going to see 46 to 50 panels on that roof, and this will hopefully generate 40 to 45 per cent of our energy for the next 30 years,” says Wirchenko. “We didn't go to the public and ask for donations; what we did was work with our corporate partners. We're also in the middle of a province that's the absolute slowest to take on alternative energy [projects], so three major changes to be more effective and more green is a really good story of contrast. A lot of people think these old buildings can't be efficient.”

Down the road, the theatre plans to redo the lobby and concession, and get its own in-house audio system. Wirchenko also remains dedicated to improving and expanding its reach.

“I'd love to continue down this road of everyone in Saskatoon knowing something about the Broadway Theatre,” says Wirchenko. “I just hope that it continue to grow in a variety of ways and spreads, so that it's a regular part of everyone’s life. We used to be known for doing one thing; now we're one of the biggest generalists in the city. We [had] a double-feature midnight-horror on Saturday nights. They walk out at 4 am — and at 7 am, the church people walk in. I think that's an awesome metaphor for what a community building is, and what a community building should be.”

“Our goal is to entertain, educate and inspire. What we like to think is that we fill up people’s lives with the stuff that gives them joy. If they see a documentary that makes them angry, we're good with that — as long as we're adding to some other element of their life that’s not the regular treadmill. And I think we've done our job.”

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