In an empty storefront on King Street, an unusual crew have assembled to assist with a large renovation. Visual artists are building risers, comedians are hanging stage lights, poets are carting around stacks of chairs. Light streams in through the big storefront windows of the former Custom Copy and bounces off its white walls, but a group of actors and puppeteers are hard at work with paintbrushes, turning those walls a deep black.
Soon, under the dark of night and the hush of a quiet audience, those black walls will seem to melt away into a dark, blank void. Night after night, audiences and theatre-makers will come together for strange acts of collective imagination, transforming that void into a space of infinite possibilities, of comedy and drama, of theatre and dance, of beauty and absurdity.
But for now, the place is a flurry of loud buzzing activity, and at the centre of it is a small and serious man in overalls and work boots. This is Ryan Kerr, and for the last five years, Ryan has dedicated his life to creating a space for small independent theatre in Peterborough, The Theatre On King (TTOK).
Up to now, the theatre has been a tiny black box space in an out-of-the-way back alley off King Street. It struggles to hold much more than 35 people at a time, and artists and audiences have to contend with claustrophobically low ceilings and a large pillar that blocks sightlines, but TTOK has still become a focal point for the local theatre scene. Countless theatre artists have gotten their start there or honed their skills in TTOK’s workshops, and established artists have used the space to test out new work and experiment with unusual projects.
“The motto of the place is, artists need a place to fail,” says Ryan. “You need to be able to afford to fail, which means you can take chances. You can do experimental things. Do whatever you want, and I’ll try to help.”
But TTOK itself hasn’t failed. Over the past five years it’s grown in popularity, and now Ryan is moving into a new space—with higher ceilings, no pillar, a sprung floor (allowing for dance and more physical performance), a storefront facing the street (meaning greater visibility and foot traffic), and double the space for stages and audiences.
In a city where more and more artistic venues are closing their doors, TTOK is an unlikely success story, of how one man, supported by countless artists and community members, helped to establish a home in the downtown, to cultivate a whole generation of new local theatre-makers, and to create some truly wild and wonderful theatre.
For the first 16 years of his life, Ryan Kerr never had any theatrical ambitions. “I was a hockey and rugby player,” he says, who occasionally dabbled in “very bad teen poetry.” But that all changed when the high school drama teacher asked Ryan to come in and read a for a part. “I had never been on stage in my life, I’d never had any interest in acting, but I said, well I’ve got nothing to lose really. And I’ve got three or four friends here who won’t let me look like an ass.”
As it turns out, Ryan’s high school had a rather accomplished drama program, and that play, The Last Spike, was selected as the Ontario representative in the Canadian Youth Drama Festival. In his first foray into theatre, Ryan performed at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre in front of a crowd of 800.
Ryan caught the bug, and over the next five years, he was involved in every single one of the school’s productions—and there were a lot of them. Every year, they did six one-act and two full-length plays. “However,” says Ryan, “if you were an actor in one production, you could not be an actor in the next. You had to be tech. So over the course of five years, you learned stage management, lighting, sound, sewing, set painting, how to write a script, electronics, some welding… you learned everything!”
Ryan was very drawn to this. “As a tech person, you need to know what it’s like to be on stage. And as an actor, you also have to be on the other side to know, ‘Holy crap it takes a lot of work to make a costume! I’m going to treat these people much nicer.’ So in the end, everyone got along with everyone, because everyone understood what everyone was doing. I’ve tried to keep that idea and apply it to TTOK.”
Ryan also had his first chance to write and direct shows. His school went to the Sears Drama Festival finals every year, and Ryan won awards for acting and set design.
After high school, Ryan went to York University (“for I’m going to say… about two months”). He worked a series of “crappy jobs,” then eventually applied to Trent and got in. And that was when he discovered the Union Theatre.
“When I first saw the Union Theatre,” recalls Ryan, “I actually fell over laughing, because it was actually smaller than my drama room in high school.”
The Union Theatre was a squat black box theatre in a former coffin factory off a Hunter Street parking lot (next to the current location of Sam’s Deli). It was small, it was drafty, it was constantly on the brink of financial ruin. And, between 1989 and 1996, it was home to some of the most daring and exciting theatre in Peterborough.
Countless artists cut their teeth in that space, including Bill Kimball, Kate Story, Brad Brackenridge, and Robert Winslow. Run as a collective, the space had a wild and independent streak, open to political, experimental, and just straight-up offensive theatre.
“There was no money—zero money,” says Ryan. “You might get $10 at the end of the night for beers, but that was it.” But at the same time, “you could do anything you wanted. At any given time, I was on stage in one show. The very next week I was directing a show. The next week I was stage managing and doing lighting…. It was go go go. When you’re working that fast and that hard you’re not thinking about what you’re doing. We have to keep the doors open, and we’re young and we have a lot of energy, and let’s do this thing!”
When the Union closed in 1996, it left a huge hole in the local theatre community. There were other venues, like Showplace and Market Hall, but they were larger, and so cost more to rent out, and as Ryan points out, “when you have to pay for a big venue, you can’t take those risks. You have to get a certain number of people through the door. There’s certain things you can’t do there. And for smaller productions, you just can’t afford it.”
It was a chaotic time in the theatre scene, as shows were hosted wherever space could be found: in art galleries, back alleys, down by the creek. Between the closing of the Union in 1996 to the opening of TTOK in 2013, there was no permanent home in town for experimental theatre. “That’s two generations of young performers that never got the chance to fail, and I think that’s the most disappointing.”
Ryan found theatrical work where he could. He served as technical director for Public Energy and scattered other shows, and he also learned dance and choreography and started his own production company, Fleshy Thud. He started a business, Marginal Distribution, a distributor for alternative and small-press books, with his then-partner Esther Vincent. When that closed he worked as a house painter, but the hard, physical work was taking a toll on his body.
“I started thinking, what other jobs are there for me? Everything I’ve done from 16 until I opened this space trained me to open this space. Partially we needed a space for theatre and dance in town, and partially I needed to create a job for myself.”
The Theatre on King opened its doors on January 7, 2013. The first production was Pennies From Heaven, a BBC musical drama serial which Ryan adapted into a 12-part soap. Over the next six months, they mounted a new part every two weeks. Each show had between 3 and 14 characters, as well as a number of choreographed dance routines. And at each show, Ryan completely reconfigured the space. “This time you’re all sitting in the round. This time you’re looking at this corner. It was a way to showcase the space, and to pull in as many actors as possible.”
It was all a wild experiment, and Ryan had no idea if anyone would even show up. “We sold out opening night. It was like, ok, people want something like this.”
Soon other artists were catching on too. Established theatre companies like Mysterious Entity hosted shows there, and new theatre companies started popping up as well. Festivals like the Bernie Martin Festival and Precarious brought in new crowds, and helped cement TTOK’s place in Peterborough’s cultural scene.
Ryan has intentionally worked to make the space as open to new artists as possible. “In the first two or three years, that community was still being created. It was still very vague. Whereas now, there’s a core group that really like working at the space, and that really like going to the space and seeing the shows. And a lot of that core group really want to get better at what they do.” He holds workshops to train people in the wide variety of skills he’s learned over the years.
The shows themselves also serve as a training ground. “I try to incorporate new actors, new directors, new tech folk. In a bigger space you don’t necessarily do that, because it’s not as hands-on, and because you don’t always get that much time in the space.” Indeed, there have been many first-time directors in the space, such as Kelsey Powell, Eryn Lidster, and Simon Turner.
And there are a growing number of success stories coming out of TTOK. Planet 12 Productions hosted their first show in the space, and their most recent production, Boy Wonders, went on to a run at Toronto Fringe. Charlie Petch, a Union Theatre alum, premiered their show Mel Malarkey Gets the Bum’s Rush at TTOK, and it now tours across Canada. Local comedians Tamara Bick and Drew Antzis’ Settle This Thing started at TTOK, and this year went on to Toronto Fringe, Montreal Fringe, and Chicago Fringe.
And the theatre itself has become a success story. “We get between 2,000 and 3,000 people through the space each year, 35 at a time. And that’s not including the actors. And sure, maybe you’re counting the same person ten times because they came to ten shows… but, they came to ten shows! That’s so exciting!”
Shows now regularly sell out—which is a good thing, but it’s also tough to make a living selling out 35 seats at a time, for Ryan or for the artists. So when Custom Copy closed its doors earlier this year and their space became available, Ryan jumped at the chance. The new space is bigger, allowing for double the seating, and also creating more opportunities for inventive staging and other events. Ryan has already been approached by dance companies, craft fairs, and larger productions looking for rehearsal space, as well as out-of-town artists looking to bring their work to Peterborough.
“You could have a runway down the centre and have people sitting on either side. You could have a big stage at the end, a much more traditional proscenium, and have people on the floor. You could have the seating on risers, or the stage. You could have… honestly the space hasn’t opened yet, so I have no idea! But the possibilities are endless, and it’s very exciting to start this new space.”
Ryan has worked hard to build TTOK into what it is, and has devoted his life to keeping it running. “At this point, it’s a 24-hour-a-day job, every day, all the time.” But as the space grows, it’s becoming more and more of a community effort. When Ryan announced TTOK’s move, many local artists volunteered their time to assist with the move. A GoFundMe page was set up, and has so far raised over $9,000.
“It’s not the space itself,” says Ryan. “It’s the community that makes the space. It doesn’t matter where we are; the community is what’s important, and the community seems to be behind it. It’s amazing to see the people who are willing to support the arts. Some of these people I don’t even know, I’ve never heard of them before, but they see the space is important to the community.”
And so the move, like everything else in TTOK’s history, is a collaborative effort, where artists and community members come together to create something. In the intimacy of a black box theatre, that divide, between artists and audience, starts to break down.
Says Ryan, “One person said a while back, if you go to TTOK long enough, you’ll wind up directing something. And that’s perfect. Theatre isn’t magic; it’s just work. It’s hard work, and if you do the work, it looks like magic.”
The Theatre on King’s new home is at 171 King Street. The first show in the new space will be Fluff Stories, running September 20 to 22. Visit The Theatre on King’s Facebook page here.
Photos by Andy Carrol
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