Friday, September 22, 2023

From Under The Staircase and Into the Light: How Three Business Owners Saved an Arts Incubator

Only days after it was announced in August that The Staircase Theatre was closing and being put up for sale was a plan hatched behind the scenes to save the venue.  

The plan started casually, as a conversation between friends. Both had expressed disappointment at the closure of the space they loved- another venue closure in a year that has seen numerous independent venues in Hamilton shutter their doors. The two friends speculated about what could be done to keep The Staircase operating as a performance space. 

Realizing that the two had always wanted to collaborate together, the friends started talking about what could happen if they worked together to keep The Staircase from being sold. As business owners, they recognized the potential of a good idea, and brought in a third confidante, who also adored the work of the theatre space. After further discussions, they approached Staircase owners Hugh MacLeod and Kathy Garneau, who shared their enthusiasm.

The three business partners, who are currently remaining anonymous, worked quietly for months with the current owners of The Staircase to build a viable plan that would allow MacLeod and Garneau to maintain possession of the historic theatre and community space, while the building was leased to the newly formed partnership, who would take over the business operations. On Monday, “The People Under The Staircase” announced via Instagram that they would be taking over the arts incubator.

“Honestly, this is a dream come true for all three of us. We never thought this would happen.” One of the new leaseholders confided to Beyond James. 

All three of the business partners are members of The Staircase community, each with different passions that they are now excited to host and ensure can continue on in the building. For one partner, The Staircase has been synonymous with the summer Fringe Festival; for another, the sense of community created by the improv spaces; for the third, it’s the independent films shown in the building, specifically through the Hexploitation Film Festival

The trio is also excited to continue The Staircase’s legacy of hosting charitable events, and working with other not-for-profits to ensure that they have a platform and physical space to make their voices heard. Lifelong Hamiltonians, the three partners are familiar with the struggles of the creative community in the past year, as venue after venue has shuttered.

“We know so many performers and artists that are saying ‘now I am without a platform.’ So everybody who is in the alternative art scene, everybody who wants a space for performance is going to be able to have that,” One of the new managers stated about The Staircase’s reopening. “That’s what we’re the most excited about.”

Although the official timeline for reopening is still unknown due to the pandemic, the group is hopeful that they’ll be able to start sharing some of their plans in early 2021. Among them is the intention to transform The Staircase Cafe on the main floor of the building into a restaurant space. 

“We want to make it a reliable place where people can come and eat- even if you’re not necessarily going to an event at The Staircase. . .It’s a beautiful space just to sit and have a beer and some food.”

The trio has already received interest from local breweries in developing a special Staircase craft blend and are determined to maintain a local flare in their operations to maintain the strong sense of community that the arts incubator is known for; something they credit to owners MacLead and Garneau, as well as past Executive Director, Colette Kendall. While the owners of the building will remain the same, the trio is uncertain at this time if Kendall will play a role in its future. However, they are grateful for the legacy left by those who made the space what it is today.

“We’re so grateful for everything they’ve done.” said the new partners. “So many people have reached out to me, for example, just saying ‘I can’t wait to put on this play.’ And these are all people that Colette has brought in here. She’s been invaluable to getting us where we are.”

As businesses and event spaces are able to safely reopen, the new managers also hope to take advantage of the large building in order to welcome audiences back in a safely distanced manner, with possibilities that they acknowledge could be “endless.”

In the meantime, the new partners are eager to continue their work with MacLeod and Garneau to ensure that the reopening of The Staircase is a great success that allows them to “weather the storm” of the pandemic. With a notebook full of ideas, they promise to keep the community updated through signage outside of the building and social media posts, eager to maintain the sense of community that the arts incubator is known for, until such a time when they can officially welcome artists and audiences back again.

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