“It’s all behind-the-walls stuff. It’s not something you see, but something you feel,” says Peter Schalk, Board Chair of the Cranbrook Community Theatre Society.
Schalk is talking about upcoming Trust-supported renovations to the society’s facility, the Studio/Stage Door, as well as upgrades that have occurred periodically throughout its past.
On the wall of the upper lobby is a photo of the building taken nearly 30 years ago. Compare that image to one taken yesterday or a hundred years ago and there aren’t many differences. That’s a testament to the decades of heart and soul the members of the society have poured into the place it calls home—giving the facility the care it needs to move into the future while honouring its history.
The downstairs studio, the theatre above and the upper lobby have been there since the building was constructed in 1909. The office space, makeup room and back staircase, hidden from the public eye, were added some time in the ‘70s.
Any actor or musician who has ever made the trek from the makeup room to the back of the stage knows how the society has creatively used the space. After a quick costume change, you can expect to climb three flights of stairs, only to descend another two before your cue. “It took creative minds to figure out how to get you from the makeup room on the lower level to the backstage without people seeing you,” Schalk explains. “For a community theatre group to have this kind of building is unprecedented.”
Even those who frequent the makeup room may not know what lies beneath in the basement: an impressive catalogue of shoes, purses, hats, suits, dresses, period props, set pieces and even lumber. Costumers Sandy Kay and Jean-Ann Debreceni spearheaded the organization and building of the props-and-costume storage in 2013. Like the rest of the building, the use of every nook and cranny is innovative. They don’t waste space.
On the main level entering the studio is the lower lobby. It was renovated in 2014 with new insulation, windows, paint, flooring and electrical, but the average person can’t tell when they walk in. Schalk says, “We’ve been very careful to keep it appropriate to the period. One of the members is quite artistic and she’s taken the time to research period colours and decor so that everything fits. We want to keep it how it was. We aren’t looking to do anything fancy.”
The current upgrades to the upper lobby will be similar. “Right now, you can feel every gust of wind if you stand in front of one of the old windows, and so many piecemeal upgrades over the years have left a mess behind the walls. The money from the Trust’s Arts and Culture Venue Grants will be used to upgrade the windows, remove the lath and plaster, install proper insulation, rewire the electrical and then make it look like nothing was done at all. We’ll keep the original glass panes on the concession and the original doors leading into the theatre—they just need a little sprucing up. Most people won’t notice the upgrades, but we’ll see it in the energy bill.”
What’s next for the building?
Sometime in the next few years, the society hopes to have a heritage building expert evaluate the building and help them prioritize future upgrades with an estimate of costs. For now, however, the theatre space itself is next on the list. “There’s plaster falling off the walls and a mess of wires on the ceiling from years of adding on,” says Schalk.
The theatre holds 83 patrons, plus a few volunteers in the booth, and hosts three to four of the society’s own productions each year, along with several weeks of local school productions and travelling music acts. At one point the space held close to 100 people and was the only theatre in town. Now, the bigger acts stop at the Key City Theatre instead.
But despite its smaller facility, the society is confident it has showed its value to the community. Not only are there the theatre performances, but the studio downstairs holds a Scottish dance class, a martial arts class, lunchtime yoga, a children’s music class, weekend dog shows, birthday parties, a Sunday morning church service and weddings. Groups can rent the studio, with kitchen and bathroom, for $20 an hour. “Sip and Script” meets in the theatre once a month to read through a play while enjoying a glass of wine. Other musical acts and small productions frequent the space too.
The Trust funding will help ensure this diversity of users and experiences can continue in a comfortable, safe, energy-efficient and historically faithful fashion. This support includes over $12,000 in 2017 from the Trust’s Built Heritage Grants and over $76,500 for the current round of renovations from the Trust’s Arts and Culture Venue Grants.
The Studio/Stage Door is a facility the society, and all of Cranbrook can be proud of—even though some of its best secrets remain hidden behind the walls.