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Local artists await the Empress

May, 2009

Many who have attended theatre performances at Geordie Productions or the Black Theatre Workshop would be surprised to learn that these well-known institutions don’t have permanent homes. After all, the two companies have entertained Montrealers for decades, Geordie Productions since 1980 and BTW since 1971.

The Quebec Community Groups Network describes English-speaking artists as “a minority community which is under-funded and geographically dispersed,” leading to isolation and “ghettoization” with “pockets of people not communicating with each other.” One reason for this is a glaring lack of adequate performance venues for local artists.

But this situation may soon improve. The two theatres, along with the McGill Conservatory’s community outreach program,the City of Montreal and the Borough of CDN/NDG, have joined forces with the board of the Empress Cultural Centre. The intention is to finally get a long-simmering $9 million project off the ground, that of restoring the former CinemaV on Sherbrooke W. to its original vocation and creating a cultural centre for the local arts scene. Most of the rare art-deco building has stood empty since being ravaged by a fire in 1992.

Taking the initiative from the Bourque administration, Montreal leased the building to Empress Cultural Centre Inc. in 1999 for 60 years, with the understanding that a multifunctional performing arts centre would be created.

“It’s been a bit of a saga, but it all came together last year,” said project coordinator Christiane Loiselle, as she described navigating the treacherous path to obtain funding. Several requirements had to be met in order to qualify for provincial and federal grants. Simply wanting a cultural centre didn’t cut it. There had to be artists, programming and a community element as well.

“The Minister of Culture doesn’t give money to a developer, but to artists. The two theatres agreed to formally join the project. When McGill joined, the board acquired a very serious and professional partner. Agreements were written, and signed.”

As well, the city had already invested some money in the project and will invest more pending the response from the other levels of government. The borough was on board as well, and offered some guidance. “The borough was very helpful in structuring the application,” Loiselle said.

Overcoming each obstacle made the team stronger and more credible. “We are an entity, professional artists, with solid consistent programming,” Loiselle said. “In the end it became a better project. The moment the doors open there will be music lessons, performances – the building will be fully lived in.”

All the players are in place, set, just waiting to hear “Go!” When that happens, a 350-seat theatre will be built, with a smaller “blackbox” theatre for experimental and multimedia performances. On the mezzanine a 50-seat cabaret space is planned, as well as an art gallery, and space for studios and an office. The Montreal Chamber Music festival will continue to lease the premises as it does now in the small recently renovated space formerly occupied by the Sesame health food store.

The building will be used primarily – but not exclusively – for English-speaking Montrealers. “If individuals or organizations want to use the space at the Empress in a way compatible with our mission mandate, we would make every effort to accommodate them,” said Dr. Clarence Bayne, who is the founder of the BTW but sits on the board as a representative of NDG.

One of the reasons the project has taken so long is the reshuffling of priorities during the transition from one government to another, Bayne said. “The transition slowed things down. It brought in a new administration that had to find its own vision for the city. But now the future looks good in the sense that we’re getting tremendous support from the city – not just at a personal in-house level but in a public forum. Mayors Tremblay and Applebaum have publicly indicated they support this project.”

Community activist Arnold Bennett is on the board of directors as well. He believes the restoration of the building will benefit everyone. “A cultural centre would revitalize that part of Sherbrooke St. It’s good for the neighbourhood and good for the quality of life of its residents.”

On May 20 and 21 Geordie Productions and the Empress Cultural Centre are holding a joint fundraiser, with proceeds going toward the project. This year’s play will be Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring, directed by Elsa Bolam, founder of Geordie Productions and Empress board member, who came out of retirement for this special occasion. The cast will be made up of a dedicated group of volunteers, with sets and costumes supplied by Geordie. A reception will follow the performance. The event takes place at the DB Clarke Theatre, 1455 de Maisonneuve W.

For tickets, information or to donate toward the renaissance of the Empress, visit or call 514-845-9810 or 514-481-6277.



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