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p. C4, BUZZ: OUR LOSS Toronto Star, December 31, 2006, section theme on losses in 2006

ARTWORD THEATRE: Creative haven dies, but indies live on

Richard Ouzounian, The Toronto Star

December 31, 2006

"A sleek bright space is sacrificed to condos, and they're not even built"

Back on Feb. 19, when the final performance of The Gambler was over at the Artword Theatre on Portland St., it marked the end of one of our most vibrant theatre spaces.

Artword was more a state of mind than a building. It was started by Ronald Weihs and Judith Sandiford in 1993, down the block on Portland.

The two artist-dreamers had a joint desire to set up a performance space where creativity of all kinds could flourish. They were inspired by British models like the Battersea Arts Centre and the Riverside Studios - "places that combine theatre with art," says Sandiford. "I always thought you should walk into a place and see art, then go into the theatre."

Their first home at 81 Portland ("There was one squatter in there," recalls Weihs, "making pickled eggs and selling them to bars") had only 50 seats and limited wall space. After six years, they moved to the space they had lusted after all along: 75 Portland - "The only place we ever saw downtown, other than a church, with 32 feet of unobstructed span," says Weihs with reverence.

They renovated to create a comfortable 150-seat theatre plus a 60-seat alternative space with lots of wall to hang pictures.

The opening production was August Strindberg's Creditors, directed by John Neville. For the next seven years, dozens of inventive works of theatre, dance and music found a home there.

Revivals of Charley Chiarelli's Mangiacake and Cu'fu! played to enthusiastic audiences, and other memorable pieces included Disco Goalie, The Chairs and Two Words for Snow.

Inside Artword's sleek and bright but unpretentious space, creators of all stripes seemed welcome. There was no "Artword Style," no artistic or political philosophy being espoused.

Weihs and Sandiford kept the prices low and the welcome warm; that was enough for most people. I never dreaded going to Artword, which was not always true of other alternative venues - even if the play wasn't satisfactory, the building made you feel good just being there. And there was always interesting art on the walls.

You assumed Weihs and Sandiford weren't getting rich, but when it closed, it was still a shock to learn they hadn't given themselves a salary in three years.

What closed Artword down? It wasn't artistic quarrels or fiscal struggles - the owner sold the building to a group of condo developers.

When the news broke, the theatrical community panicked. The Poor Alex space on Brunswick had recently shut as well, another victim of a real estate deal. Second City had vacated 56 Blue Jays Way (including the intimate Tim Sims Playhouse) and rumours abounded that The Theatre Centre on Queen St. W. would close as well.

However, the wailing about the death of local independent theatre proved misguided. The Theatre Centre still operates. Jeffrey Latimer reopened both spaces at 56 Blue Jays Way with success. And Soulpepper's new home at the Young Centre in the Distillery District offers venues for artists of all ilks.

All well and good, but what of the visionaries who gave us Artword?

Weihs and Sandiford are "examining options" while their theatre equipment and seats from the venue wait patiently in a 48-foot storage trailer.

The old Artword was demolished on June 6, but due to differences between the developers and planning authorities, no construction has begun.

Unlike in Joni Mitchell's song, this time they paved paradise, but so far haven't even put up a parking lot.