Toronto east-end theatre gets new venue after fire

The pro bono cause

When fire destroyed a beloved east-end Toronto theatre last fall, the old adage “the show must go on” fueled its artistic directors and supporters to get a new space up and running again as soon as possible.

Located on Danforth Avenue, the Coal Mine Theatre’s 80-seat venue has become known for its productions that have regularly sold out. The not-for-profit theatre is operated by co-artistic directors Diana Bentley and Ted Dykstra, both well-known in the Canadian arts community. The theatre and its productions have become a haven for many of Canada’s leading actors.

The fire occurred shortly before the theatre company was about to open its eighth season. The fire badly damaged the lobby and front of the theatre, but fortunately no one was hurt. Water destroyed the dressing rooms and everything in the downstairs area of the theatre.

The Osler pro bono connection

Retired Osler partner Brett Ledger, former Chair of the Litigation group, is a member of Coal Mine’s board of directors. He received a call on the day of the fire.

“Firefighters were able to control and put out the fire and limited it to the theatre premises, but it gutted the lobby area of the theatre and made the theatre unusable, destroying the dressing rooms downstairs,” he says.

Recognizing the theatre would need help managing insurance issues in the aftermath of the fire, and in negotiating a lease for its new home, Brett reached out to Osler’s Community Law Committee to take on the work.

“It’s been a tough three years for the theatre with COVID,” says Brett. “But we had mounted a very successful partial season last year, garnering critical acclaim. Then came the fire.”

The primary challenge ahead included dealing with the lease at the previous premises, finding a new space and negotiating a lease at a new property on the Danforth.

“I had called Laura Fric in the Litigation Group at Osler and she advised that we needed to deal with the lease issues first. I had done pro bono work previously when I was at Osler so I was familiar with the program. I asked Laura if they would consider taking this on,” says Brett.

That’s when Matthew Ritchie, associate in the firm’s Real Estate Group came in to help. He advised on the lease and addressed other complications presented by the fire.

By October, Coal Mine’s principals had found a new home for the theatre, close to its previous location on the Danforth.

Working with Matthew, Ted and Diana negotiated the new lease for the theatre space in an old bank building.

“Matt brought a great overview to all the issues. He was able to do it efficiently and effectively,” says Brett. “I can say that without Matt we wouldn’t have been in the position of reopening at the beginning of February.”

A new home and a new lease on theatre’s life

“It’s so wonderful that the firm can offer these services and help us provide theatre to the 100,000 people who walk to our shows on the Danforth. It’s become an institution. With no exaggeration, Matt and Osler have helped it to stay alive,” says Ted. “With a lot of grace, we’re going to get through this, and Toronto will have its newest theatre space.”

In February the theatre reopens at 2076 Danforth Avenue at Danforth and Woodbine with the first production of the season – Yerma, directed by Diana and starring acclaimed television actress Sarah Gadon (star of Alias Grace), followed by The Sound Inside with previews on May 7, 2023. The new theatre will feature additional amenities including seating for about 120 patrons, new chairs, and a more relaxed seating configuration.

“We needed a certain level of representation, but we certainly wouldn't have been able to afford it in the heat of the moment,” says Ted. “We had to figure things out so quickly and move fast on this lease and get it done in time to build the space to open for February 9, which was an impossible task to start with, but if we hadn't signed the lease in a timely fashion, we wouldn't have had a season. Now we're doing three of four shows, which is a great save.”