Susan Rubes, a deceptively determined pixie who is battling time to raise money for Canada’s first performing arts centre for children, teen-agers and families, looks alarmed. Her dream is still two months and $250,000 beyond her grasp, but already her staff is letting prospects slip by—as though the new home of Young People’s Theatre was already theirs and paid for. Dismayed that a wealthy prospect was being allowed to slip away dollar-free, Rubes exhorts her flagging troops: “He’s president of the company and we’re dillydallying. That’s not good enough—the worst he can do is say no.”
Small wonder that some people hide in doorways when they see the Pied Piper of children’s theatre approaching. “No” to Susan Rubes is no more than “maybe.” Otherwise, the YPT she founded in her kitchen 11 years ago would still be an idea, instead of an historic building near Toronto’s lakefront that has just been renovated for $2.2 million. Rubes’ motto has always been: “There’s nothing you can’t do with imagination and money.” Imagination will make the YPT the biggest, most ambitious, most active of some 40 children’s theatres in Canada. At the same time, her tough-minded appraisal of the facts of theatrical life has kept YPT in the black, 11 seasons in a row, while well-intentioned theatres that rely solely on imagination turn up their financial toes.
Today, only the Stratford Festival employs more Equity actors than YPT, while few theatres anywhere mount nearly as many productions—never less than nine a season, sometimes 11—or reach half the audience. Last year, 400,000 youngsters saw YPT shows, some at theatres rented for the purpose, but most under cramped conditions in Toronto-area school gyms and cafeterias visited by YPT’S five touring companies.
The new centre, which began life in 1881 as a stable for street-railway horses, has stood empty for nearly 50 years, waiting for Rubes’ small miracle. Starting November 16, Rubes intends to mount two to four productions daily. These will be specifically billed, “for five-10 years,” for example, or “for families,” and curtain times will be adjusted accordingly. A special 11 p.m. curtain is being considered for teenagers, especially those whose part-time jobs keep them busy past regular movie .and theatre hours. Afterward, they’ll be able to dance, or listen to music and poetry in a restaurant at the mysterious end of the basement, filled with low-ceilinged rooms and narrow corridors supported by cast-
iron arches. The main theatre, a cavernous room three storeys high, will accommodate 350. Major productions will be mounted here, like The Count Of Monte Cristo, The Canterbury Tales, Snow Queen, and The Lost Fairy Tale—all of them to be staged this coming season. Puppet shows, rehearsals and theatre classes will take place in the small theatre on the third floor, with room for 100 tots on the floor, or 65 larger kids on its carpeted tiers.
But even as Rubes chooses the acts for the month-long International Festival of Arts for children that will open the centre, there’s a cloud looming over YPT’S future. For while two other theatres operating in city or Metro-owned properties pay rent of one dollar per year, plus taxes, the YPT’S 30-year lease in the building they renovated calls for a whopping rent of $14,800, plus taxes that may double it.
“I know it’s absurd,” agrees David Silcox, director of cultural affairs for Metro Toronto. “That property hasn’t been used for 50 years. The city gives YPT only $5,000 a year, but they give so much to the city. I don’t see why the city can’t get the rent down to a dollar.”
As yet, relief is not in sight. The unfairness of it all is for Rubes a clarion call to arms. “The city will change our terms,” she vows, “or I’ll go down in a pool of blood.” Susan Rubes is deadly serious about child’s play.
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