Sunday, May 22, 2022

A Tough Climb for The Staircase: Venue Closes A Year After Reopening

The Staircase announced its triumphant reopening via social media. Thirteen months later, its closure was announced in the same way.

“Closed.” was all the Instagram image read, with the subsequent post calling the latest closure as a result of the pandemic a “knockout punch.”

Originally opened in 1997, The Staircase has held a prominent role as a local arts incubator. In mid-March 2020, the building, which consisted of two theatre spaces, a performance and rehearsal space, a basement multi-purpose room and café, closed their doors as a result of the pandemic. Although offering some of their signature dishes for takeout, owners Hugh MacLeod and Kathy Garneau quietly began looking for new owners.

In August of 2020, it was announced that the measures weren’t enough and that the building would not open post-pandemic. But three local business owners stepped in, and by late November 2020, a social media post announced that a lease had been secured and the arts incubator would continue. When it opened under pandemic restrictions on January 29 2021, the café had transformed into a vegan restaurant, the theatre into a cinema and an arcade moved in; all part of the new leaseholders’ efforts to diversify revenue. 

When it reopened, the new iteration was named “The People Under the Staircase;” a tribute to the leaseholders’ love of film, specifically horror movies. Keeping up with this them, the interior of the building was given a makeover in tribute. The building’s twenty-foot high walls and ceilings were covered with VHS cover boxes and movie posters, while the main floor café was painted by local artist Dope Chief

The transformation was not just cosmetic. Programming also followed suit towards alternative genres, with a holiday punk rock “Hexmas Market,” an October residency with comedy freakshow duo Monsters of Schlock and music performances by metal groups like Nightchill and The Great Octopus.

The main floor theatre-turned-cinema offered showings of cult favourite movie classics, and the top floor Bright-Room-turned-Fright-Room was able to be rented for free by local artists for rehearsal or performance spaces. However, the times in which either space was able to be filled to capacity were slim, as pandemic restrictions caused limitations in when and how the spaces could be open. 

In both iterations of The Staircase, the venue has served in a for-profit capacity, which restricts the types of government support that other arts incubators or organizations depend on as part of their financial plan, both during the pandemic and on an annual basis.

News of the Staircase’s closure comes in the same week that both the Federal and Provincial governments have announced government support for individuals and organizations impacted by the most recent lockdown measures. The Federal government has confirmed that the Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit, the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit and the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit have been extended to May 7, 2022. As of December 30, applications are open for an expanded Worker Lockdown Benefit. Organizations affected by revenue losses as a result of the most recent lockdown may also be eligible to apply for wage and hiring support and/or the rent and property expense programs.

The Ontario government announced a $10,000 grant to small businesses forced to close due to public health measures. Eligible businesses include restaurants and bars, performing arts centres and cinemas, meeting and event spaces and more. Small businesses that qualify can expect to receive their payment in February.

The province is also introducing a hydro relief program for businesses and residential customers, providing the off-peak rate 24-hours a day for 21-days, beginning January 18. 

For many in the arts community, the venue’s closure represents a loss at a time when venue spaces were already at a premium. The incubator offered a space for experimentation and workshopping of pieces that may not otherwise be performed; a home for numerous festivals and companies and a place to share skills and stories. 

With the closure of this latest chapter, it is unknown whether a new leaseholder will step in, or if the venue owners will return to their search for a buyer. With the LRT announced and reapproved, the venue will have a prime location at the corner of Dundurn and King. However, without a replacement location, those festivals and companies that called The Staircase home will be left without a performance space, whenever they are able to welcome audiences back.

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