Richmond Hill arts centre worth the wait

February 28, 2009
If you drop by the new Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts, which celebrates its gala opening tonight with a program featuring Louise Pitre, I can guarantee one thing: You won't mind staying after school.

Not only is this bright and beautiful new $32 million venue, with a luxurious 631-seat theatre, a joy to behold, but its sleek modernity also embraces its links to the past with the 1897 heritage schoolhouse on the property (which later became part of the Old Town Hall) incorporated into the design.

"We think that's one of the most important features," says Eli Lukawitz, the centre's marketing and development co-ordinator, "because it serves as a constant reminder of why we're here and that's as a place built expressly for this community."

It may have taken 24 years from original impulse to opening night, but all the effort seems to have been worth it.

Michael Grit, the theatre manager, recalls that it was in 1985 when a needs assessment was done for Richmond Hill, and that a performing arts centre was earmarked as one of the necessary things missing in the community.

A recession soon followed, however, and nothing was done for about a decade.

"But then," Grit adds, "in the late 1990s, everyone became concerned with improving Richmond Hill's downtown core and the presence of a theatre became more essential."

Richmond Hill Council approved the current location (at Yonge and Wright Sts.) in September 2003, a steering committee was struck in March 2004, and Enbridge launched a fundraising campaign with a donation of $100,000.

In May 2005, the firm of Diamond and Schmitt Architects was awarded the contract for architectural services for the building, at the same time the firm was working on the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in downtown Toronto.

In fact, you can see some of the same creative impulses in both buildings. There's a wrap-around floor-to-ceiling glass wall that encases the lobby areas, bringing the outside in and the inside out, happily embracing the building's place in its environment.

But like many construction projects, a series of delays repeatedly postponed the opening, originally set for last October.

"It was like being in rehearsal for 26 months," groans Grit, "but the people in the community were all incredibly understanding about the postponement. They'd come to me and shrug, `I bought a condo when it was under construction and it wasn't ready on time either.'"

Still, in the end, everyone agrees it was worth the trouble because, as Lukawitz proudly says, "There isn't anything we can't do here."

The spacious stage features the only fly tower in York Region, which means it can handle the largest of dance or theatre shows. Some upcoming productions include everything from Seussical to Tosca and everyone from Holly Cole to Jim Cuddy.

The orchestra pit (capable of holding 30 musicians) is on a hydraulic lift, which can raise it to stage level or lower it out of sight in seconds. A state-of-the-art lighting system makes the centre competitive with any other facility and the whole building is heated geothermally.

But it's in the other numerous details surrounding the building that you really get to see the care that's been put into things.

There's a 150-seat rehearsal hall with flexible seating that can be used for everything from dinner theatre to corporate events, other multi-purpose rooms suitable for workshops and meetings, audio-visual equipment advanced enough to allow the Toronto International Film Festival to run an offshoot of "The Reel Thing" here, and full banquet and kitchen facilities.

A beautifully conceived outdoor piazza will make the place attractive to passersby and, in Grit's words, "We'd like to see this place running 24/7, 365 days a year."

Richmond Hill Arts Centre Worth the Wait
Gala opening tonight for facility that melds historic past with sleek modernity
Richard Ouzouian - The Toronto Star