“Now why would you want to go and do that?”
– Most common response given whenever I would mention plans to move from Toronto to Kitchener
For close to two decades I thought Toronto was the centre of the universe. As a teenager growing up in the small and somewhat repressed city of Kitchener, I couldn’t wait to escape to the fantastic bohemian freedom of Toronto. I finally moved to the Big Smoke the summer of my twentieth year. Futures Bakery in the Annex served as kind of a creative hub for my friends and me. Plays were written, dreams were shared, and plans were made, fueled by endless cups of passable coffee and cheap all-day breakfasts.
I cut my teeth as a performer at the Toronto Fringe and SummerWorks Festivals. My friends made it to the cover of NOW Magazine, respected artists and agents were coming to our shows, and I was even deemed an “artist to watch” by a critic from EYE Weekly. All before we had even graduated theatre school. The world was clearly ours. Even after graduating I was still booking gigs. The only perceived problem was none of them were in Toronto. I loved the work I was doing with companies like 4th Line Theatre in Millbrook ON and Theatre & Co. in Kitchener but my girlfriend, my stuff, my Futures, were all in Toronto.
I spent more time catering in the city than I did auditioning. A callback for Canadian Stage’s production of Richard Greenberg’s baseball play, Take Me Out, was the closest I got to cracking the lineup in a Toronto mainstage show. There were some lines and some nudity. I even brought a towel with me in case they needed to see if I was prepared to get naked. It was for the role of the first baseman. I spent my entire life prepping for this part. Baseball was embedded in my DNA. I played for ten years, collected the cards, and memorized random statistics for most of the players during the mid-nineties.
I did a fantastic callback. That’s what everyone in the room told me. Yet I didn’t get the part. I knew the guy who did. Nice guy. Didn’t know much about baseball from what I remember and had the body type of a middle-infielder. I was devastated. It was the first time I truly, viscerally understood just how many people I was competing against for acting work in Toronto. How for every one of me there are eight equally talented guys higher up on three or four different lists who will either be brought in or go “straight to offer” before someone remembers my name.
As my twenties turned to thirties I got married, had kids and grew tired of not having any control over my career. So I switched gears. Went into arts administration to learn how to balance books, fundraise, talk to a board of directors and market theatre in a world where people would rather stay home and watch Netflix. After close to seven years of working for Factory Theatre, the Company Theatre and now Necessary Angel I’ve built an extensive understanding of producing and managing a theatre organization. I’ve learned from some of the best. Met some incredible people. Made some terribly difficult decisions, including leaving Toronto.
Growing tired of paying exorbitant rental fees – tapping out at $2400 a month – while watching the place shrink as our kids got bigger, my wife and I decided to buy a house with a backyard. We fixed our budget and set to find a place in Toronto. After an hour of looking on-line we realized if we wanted real estate we would have to leave. That or buy something, tear down the building and live off the land in a tent until we could afford to build a new home. Instead of emulating Survivorman we decided to buy a fully detached century home, seven minutes away from the downtown core in Kitchener.
Yes, that same Kitchener I fled seventeen years ago. That same city my wife swore she would never move to. That same city that now boasts a CBC station and regular commuter service via the GO Train. The success of Blackberry injected millions of dollars into the Region of Waterloo. The aesthetic of the landscape is changing. Young families are moving here for work in the tech sector with one of the hundreds of start-up companies or more established institutions such as Google and EB Games. Suddenly fancy burger joints, cool clothing stores, and cafés are popping up throughout the area. We even have a whiskey and espresso bar.
Our neighborhood is populated with interesting people. We actually just went to a wedding for one of our neighbours. In seventeen years of living in Toronto we knew maybe ten of our neighbours.
I commute three days a week to Toronto to our office at 401 Richmond and work remotely the other two days. It works. I really enjoy the people I work with and the projects we produce are pretty fantastic. But I went into the administrative side so I could eventually strengthen my impact as an artist. I never dreamed of being the General Manager of an institution. As such, I believe Necessary Angel will be my final stop on that part of the journey. NextI plan to take everything I’ve learned from my time in Toronto and apply it to the arts community in Kitchener.
My wife and I recently launched a new arts organization called green light arts. Our first project was presenting our friends Amy Lee and Heather Marie Annis and their clown show Morro and Jasp: Go Bake Yourself. We rented the kitchen at the downtown farmer’s market and presented two shows on a Saturday in May. (They get over a thousand people there any given Saturday.) We learned those who go to the Market are uniquely focused on the task at hand and are not terribly interested in anything outside finding a deal on a leg of lamb or a bushel of apples. That and we had to explain on more than five occasions that no one was going to get a pie in the face.
So, ya, we have our work cut out for us. But it is an exciting challenge. And we have a house we can afford.
Sometimes it seems Toronto is almost too big and offers too many choices. I feel we’re all working too hard to push the boulder up the hill. Instead of moving it, we just end up digging a hole beneath our feet and collapsing, burning out much too soon. In order to succeed, we end up perverting something about ourselves in such a way that makes it difficult to connect with the general public in an honest humane way. Instead they become, for us, a monoculture of consumers. I want to personally know who my audience is. I want to have conversations with them, share stories with them, and hopefully create something cool we all want to be a part of.
So now my question is this: With quality affordable housing, cool things to do, and the space and time to get to know your neighbours here in Kitchener, why would you want to stay in Toronto?