Butts in Seats: the 2015 Fringe Venue Roundup

If there’s one thing theatre writers are good at, it’s sitting. From Robert Cushman to the lowliest blogger, our butts are what unite us. And don’t think we’re joking: we’ve sat in the plushly-appointed Princess of Wales, on benches at Theatre Passe Muraille, on blankets on the lawn in High Park, on virtually every flat surface in Toronto — and a few which aren’t.

As Fringe winds down, we’d like to share some of our wisdom with you. We’ve assessed every mainstage venue for comfort (will you regret sitting there?), utility (sightlines, proximity, etc.), charm (is it a nice room?), amenities (toilets, snacks, transit…) and access. Then we use this information to generate a score between 1 and 5 moons — after all, Mooney on Theatre doesn’t give star ratings.

Tarragon_donePhotograph by kaykaybarrie.

Tarragon Mainspace – 36 Bridgman Ave., enter off Howland
Comfort – 4
Utility – 4
Charm – 4
Amenities – 3
Access – 5
OVERALL SCORE: 4 MOONS OUT OF 5
4 Moons

Tarragon Extraspace – 36 Bridgman Ave., enter off Howland
Comfort – 4
Utility – 5
Charm – 4
Amenities – 3
Access – 4
OVERALL SCORE: 4 MOONS OUT OF 5
4 Moons

 

The Mainspace is an excellent all-around venue, with firm-but-comfy seats, well-appointed washrooms, a beer lounge in front, and perhaps the best wheelchair access anywhere in the festival. (Zip in the front door and straight into the auditorium.) Just be aware that, unless your hunger will be sated by a bag of beer-garden sour keys, your only nearby food option is the famous-but-dreary Vesta Lunch.

The Extraspace gains points on Utility — the performers are practically in your lap — but is a little less friendly to anyone who finds stairs to be a challenge.


Tarragon Solo_donePhotograph by kaykaybarrie.

Tarragon Solo Room – 36 Bridgman Ave.
Comfort – 4
Utility – 2
Charm – 4
Amenities – 3
Access – 2
OVERALL SCORE: 3 MOONS OUT OF 5
3 Moons

The Solo Room has its charms — it’s a damned intimate space — but getting there involves crossing an uneven gravel parking lot then climbing a flight of stairs, and the lo-fi technical setup (this is normally a rehearsal hall, they just tape off the windows and kludge in some lights) restricts what performers can do. Solo shows don’t suffer from this as badly as a fully-staged production, but these stagings are still palpably cheap-n-easy. At least the chairs are nice!


 

Randolph_donePhotograph by Canadian Pacific.

Randolph Theatre
Comfort – 4
Utility – 5
Charm – 4
Amenities – 5
Access – 5
OVERALL SCORE: 4.5 MOONS OUT OF 5

The Randolph, when it was still the Bathurst Street Theatre, used to have some of the worst seats in the city, but a renovation has really turned things around. This venue’s deep stage and comprehensive lighting system are excessive for some purposes, but vital equipment to companies who need them — and the front door is less than a block from the Fringe Club: you won’t find a better location. The seating is basically unraked, and they’ve got a ramp out back for anyone who can’t handle stairs.


 

Annex_donePhotograph by Henry Faber.

 Annex Theatre
Comfort – 4
Utility – 4
Charm – 5
Amenities – 4
Access – 2
OVERALL SCORE: 4 MOONS OUT OF 5
4 Moons

The Annex is my favourite venue — but don’t tell anyone, or this tiny little room will fill right up. Not only is the space charming and well-appointed, the auditorium is flexible enough that everything from aerialism to stand-up comedy to full-scale musicals have blown the top off this octagonal room. But the washrooms are a sight to be avoided, and plenty of people seem to have trouble climbing the steep stairs on the way in.


 

Al Green_done

Al Green Theatre
Comfort – 1
Utility – 3
Charm – 4
Amenities – 5
Access – 3
OVERALL SCORE: 3.25 MOONS OUT OF 5
3-and-a-quarter Moons

The thing with the Al Green is that it’s all very pleasant — so long as you don’t sit down. The Second Cup inside the building stays open until 11 PM, there’s a subway station right across the street, the fixtures are new and shiny, and committed Fringers are known to plan their days just so they can use the MNJCC’s sparkling washrooms, but oh lord, the seats. Despite only being a few years old, they’re uncomfortable, shaky, and if someone farts, the whole row will wobble. While the full range of stage equipment — even a grand drape! — is dead useful, the fact that you can land an aeroplane between the front row and the stage has a way of draining the energy out of smaller productions. Sometimes the extra space is a boon; more often, it’s a vacuum.


 

Ignatieff_done

George Ignatieff Theatre
Comfort – 5
Utility – 4
Charm – 5
Amenities – For adults by themselves, 2; for adults with children, 5
Access – 3
OVERALL SCORE: 4.5 MOONS OUT OF 5
4-and-a-half Moons

FringeKids has hit the jackpot this year, scooping one of the most comfortable and pleasant rooms at the festival — and while there isn’t a lot in the area, the FringeKids club right next door is the single best amenity for young people anywhere near a Fringe venue. Just be aware that food service isn’t always available.

With a steep-angled auditorium ensuring that little kids get great sightlines, and wide aisles for mid-show exits if things get too scary, the George Ignatieff has neat perks for parents too.


 

Playhouse_donePhotograph by Simon Law.

Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse
Comfort – 3
Utility – 5
Charm – 3
Amenities – 2
Access – 3
OVERALL SCORE: 3.25 MOONS OUT OF 5
3-and-a-quarter Moons

The Helen Gardiner Phelan is a surprisingly awesome space for one-handers, combining the intimacy of a small space with the technical tools normally only available in larger rooms. Several of our favourite small-scale shows have been set here to tremendous effect. But judged on its own merits, the HGP has its problems: unless you like hot dogs, there’s not much around in terms of munchies, and transit access is (thanks to the Pan Am Games) virtually non-existent.


 

Robert Gill_done

Robert Gill Theatre
Comfort – 4
Utility – 5
Charm – 4
Amenities – 4 during business hours; 2 at other times
Access – 1
OVERALL SCORE: 3 MOONS OUT OF 5
3 Moons

Perched atop a U of T student services building, the Robert Gill is a lovely theatre — modern fixtures and equipment, pleasant seats with loads of legroom, a full proscenium setup — which just happens to be virtually inaccessible and, after business hours, located in the middle of nowhere. There’s a streetcar stop at the front door, and you’re only a block or two from the cluster of all-night businesses at College and Spadina, but the theatre’s still four storeys in the sky — and no matter how slowly you climb stairs, I guarantee the elevator is slower.

Worst of all, you need to climb more stairs to get from the anteroom to the venue (no elevators this time), so anyone who uses a wheelchair is out of luck.


 

St Vlads_done

St. Vladimir Theatre
Comfort – 2
Utility – 3
Charm – 4
Amenities – 3
Access – 4
OVERALL SCORE: 3.25 MOONS OUT OF 5
3-and-a-quarter Moons

St. Vlad’s is notorious for sharing a ventilation system with the museum next door — pack a sweater, it’ll be chilly — but beyond that, it’s a decent space. The floor’s flat, but the stage is high enough that you’ll still have a good view, and while the backstage half has a few unwelcome surprises for performers, the comfy waiting area and the nearby amenities (streetcar stops, coffee shops, a froyo parlour and free wifi) keep audiences comfortable. The chairs are school-gymnatorium wooden, but an hour-long show isn’t long enough for it to really start to hurt.


 

TPM Main_donePhotograph by Trevor Schwellnus.

Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace
Comfort – 4
Utility – 3
Charm – 4
Amenities – 4
Access – 4
OVERALL SCORE: 3.75 MOONS OUT OF 5
3-and-three-quarter Moons


TPM
is one of the city’s most important indie venues, and has a lot going for it: the seats are cushy and comfortable, you get up close and personal with actors, and this converted bakery is a piece of Canadian theatrical history: more than one person has wiled away 20 minutes by contemplating the memorabilia. But the stage is a wonky shape which doesn’t always do favours to its companies, and a side-effect of the small auditorium is one or two seats with awful sightlines. Still, walk a block and you’re surrounded by streetcars, shops, late-night restaurants and cool places to people-watch.


 

TPM Back_donePhotograph by static416.

Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace
Comfort – 2
Utility – 2
Charm – 4
Amenities – 4
Access – 2
OVERALL SCORE: 2.75 MOONS OUT OF 5
2-and-three-quarter Moons

I like the Backspace, but it’s a challenge to work in — and to enter and exit. Less a black box than a black thimble, the tiny size makes every show an in-yer-face, up-their-nose experience but greatly limits what companies can do with it. (When life gives you a tiny stage with a single entrance and no wings … make lemonade?)

Getting in and out involves climbing and descending two flights of stairs, and for toilets you’ll need to sneak next door to the Mainspace, but you’re right in the middle of Queen West, with plenty of scope for drinks and dinner after the show — and your choice of streetcar lines to take you home.


 

Factory_done

Factory Mainspace
Comfort – 5
Utility – 5
Charm – 5
Amenities – 5
Access – 3
OVERALL SCORE: 4.5 MOONS OUT OF 5
4-and-a-half Moons

Factory Studio
Comfort – 4
Utility – 4
Charm – 4
Amenities – 5
Access – 3
OVERALL SCORE: 4 MOONS OUT OF 5
4 Moons

There’s a reason they run NextStage out of Factory: as a festival hub, you really can’t do any better. Inside and out, Factory is one of the best venues in the city, comfortable and modern and ideally-located. Whether you’re packing into the tiny wee studio, sliding into a comfy mainspace seat, or sipping a beer on the patio, Factory’s here to take care of you.

Access isn’t great: you need to climb two flights of stairs to reach the mainspace, or climb and descend one for the studio — but once you’re in, you might not want to leave. Trust us on this, they’re great.

One thought on “Butts in Seats: the 2015 Fringe Venue Roundup”

  1. There’s another important consideration concerning venues, one not mentioned above: acoustics. In some of the venues, sound echoes badly, making it hard to understand the actors, especially when they’re speaking quickly or not facing the audience. Other venues seem to just swallow up the sound. This year, I found the Annex Theatre particularly bad for echo, while the Robert Gill let voices carry very clearly. From the second row at the Factory Mainspace, I was able to hear the actors quite clearly, but in the past I’ve had trouble hearing the actors from further back.

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