Old Strathcona here they come: for the first time in Workshop West history, a theatre of their own

Heather Inglis, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre artistic producer, at the Gateway Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Workshop West Playwrights Theatre is moving.  

Come March 1 you’ll find the venerable company, age 43, in their own theatre, in the heart of Edmonton’s entertainment district. Welcome to the newly christened Gateway Theatre in Old Strathcona — formerly Theatre Network’s  Roxy on Gateway, formerly C103, formerly Catalyst, formerly a defunct warehouse.

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“It’s the first time in its history Workshop West will be housed in an autonomous venue that it operates,” says artistic producer Heather Inglis of the 130-seat black box theatre next door to the Yardbird Suite on Gateway Blvd. And for the first time, Workshop West’s roster of plays-in-progress can be developed, workshopped and rehearsed in the theatre where they will be performed.  

For the last 30 years, the theatre company founded by Gerry Potter in 1978 to develop and showcase new Canadian plays has applied its signature tender loving care to new scripts (and their writers) from offices and rehearsal space in a north-end neighbourhood ex-church. And when it came time to take new plays to the stage, they’ve rented theatre venues all over town, among them the Backstage Theatre, La Cité francophone, the Citadel’s Rice Theatre. The earliest sighting of Workshop West, as Potter has said, happened when he rented Espace Tournesol, the grotty ex-Kingdom Hall near the Coliseum that became Theatre Network for a puppet non-extravaganza called Punch and Polly.

The company that started in Potter’s own south side apartment has included headquarters in an ex-furniture store on 95th St. behind the long-gone Theatre 3 and the McLeod Building downtown. And, since 1992, Workshop West has been ensconced in The Third Space near Kingsway, originally fixed up by Northern Light Theatre (and shared with that company before NLT de-camped its offices to Old Strathcona).   

“I love that space up north,” says Inglis of the ex-church, a desirable, busy, and affordable rehearsal space. “But really (its location) takes Workshop West away from the public eye… So the notion that we can have our own venue with a store front where people can find us in the heart of an arts district, where people are looking to attend cultural events … will allow the company to grow.” 

“A fully operational black box and bigger space … gives us lots of opportunities to promote playwriting and playwrights. To generate a larger impact for the work that we’re producing,” says Inglis. “It’s a big year for us, a lot of work, and really exciting to see the sign go up!” 

“Gateway.” Inglis likes the sound of it. “It’s simple. It speaks to the notion of theatre being a gateway — to new conversations, new ideas.” The Workshop West slogan ‘it starts here’ “might seem funny for a theatre that’s 43 years old,” she says. “But it’s about new beginnings, new voices, new stories; it’s about bringing people together…. When people come to the theatre they are coming to the beginning of something.” 

There are other theatres in town that produce new Canadian plays of course, Theatre Network, Fringe Theatre, Catalyst, the Citadel among them. “It’s the development part of the equation that makes us unique,” says Inglis. “It’s the emphasis on working with writers, the community outreach of finding and identifying them, and helping them get their work eventually to the stage.” It was former artistic director Vern Thiessen, a playwright himself, who noted that Workshop West Playwrights Theatre is the only professional theatre in the country with “playwrights” actually in its title. 

As soon as Theatre Network moved out of the Roxy on Gateway last spring (back to their 124th St. home where the re-built Roxy is applying finishing touches), there was interest in the Old Strathcona space, leased from the city by the Jazz Society. Workshop West submitted a proposal to the Jazz Society for a 10-year lease in late summer, says Inglis. “It’s a once-in-a-decade opportunity; when the iron is hot….” 

Until Rapid Fire Theatre move into their new home later in 2022 in the old telephone museum they’re renovating in Fringe-Land, they’ll sub-lease from Workshop West. The improv company has been doing shows there since January.  

For Workshop West, the Old Strathcona location is exponentially higher-profile. “And for playwrights it’s a very unique circumstance to be workshopping in a space where the work is potentially going to be performed,” says Inglis. Not only that, but the time lost in moving to rental performance venues will be re-gained, to benefit the playwright, the cast, and the production crew. Extending the performance run for popular shows becomes a possibility, too.

The flexibility of reconfiguring a black box theatre is particularly appealing to Inglis’s aesthetic. She arrived at Workshop West just pre-pandemic from Theatre Yes, an indie with a history of site-specific performance in unexpected spaces sometimes as tiny as an elevator (The Elevator Project). “It allows you to change the configuration specially for every play that’s produced in the building…. Plays are about a relationship between an audience and a story.”

“For the audience we can constantly shift the expectation of what they’ll be seeing in the space — one of the beautiful things a black box offers.” 

Workshop West has maintained an active, multi-pronged program of playwriting initiatives. But even before the devastation of COVID, the mainstage seasons were shrinking in number of productions. “Our hope is to expand — not immediately; we are in a post-COVID world — back to three or four mainstage shows a year,” says Inglis. 

“We want the space to be available to the community at an affordable price,” she says. “Our preference is for artists who are producing new Canadian work.” She hopes the City and Arts Habitat will maintain the Third Space as a civic arts venue, so crucial to small and mid-sized companies as a rehearsal space, “the best in town and so important to the arts ecology here.” 

Meanwhile renos to the lobby of the Gateway Theatre continue (“to make the space our own!”). And fund-raising for equipping it with permanent theatre gear is about to start. Workshop West’s season in their new Gateway digs starts with the Springboards Festival, returning to action March 22 to 27. It continues with the premiere of Michelle Robb’s Tell Us What Happened in May, and public performances of The Shoe Project in June. And then, in the summer, the Gateway will be an official Fringe venue. 

The signage counts. “We want to be able to promote the work of playwrights to the community,” says Inglis, “to keep the importance and relevance of local work front and centre.… We are a town that loves local playwrights.” 

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