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Going up against the house
Artword Theatre a new condo site
Will founders take another chance?

Jan. 26, 2006

RICHARD OUZOUNIAN , Theatre Critic, Toronto Star

As Kenny Rogers once sang: "You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em."

Well, Ron Weihs and Judith Sandiford will be folding 'em on Feb. 19. when the last show after seven years closes at their Artword Theatre.

Appropriately enough, the play is called The Gambler and it's opening next Tuesday. But it isn't set in Mr. Rogers' neighbourhood of Wild West card sharps.

No, this one goes back to the original high-roller, Fyodor Dostoevsky and his 1867 novel of the same name that delved into the psyche of a tutor with a gambling addiction that fuels his self-loathing.

Weihs has penned this upcoming version and he thinks "it's a great coincidence" that it's the way he's chosen to say goodbye to the multi-purpose space at 75 Portland St. that has served as home to many of Toronto's independent artists since it opened its doors in 1999.

It isn't lack of audience or financial insolvency (those twin terrors of any arts company) that are forcing Weihs and Sandiford to close their doors. No, it's the unstoppable condominium development juggernaut sweeping through Toronto that's written "finis" to this particular fairy tale.

Last October, the duo who built Artword out of their own pockets and kept it running all these years without any public funding, were told by their landlords, the Galani Brothers, that the building had been sold to the Freed Development Corporation.

"It wasn't a total surprise," admits Weihs, sitting with Sandiford in a kitchenette at the back of Artword last week. "The Galanis had let us know for sometime that they were actively looking to sell the building. But it happened much faster than any of us expected."

At first they hoped they might be able to keep the place open until the end of the theatre season, but developer Peter Freed told them politely, yet firmly, "If I can't have my sales office here by spring, I lose a year's revenues."

And so that's how it ends: not with a bang, or a whimper, but with a model suite for the latest line of condos.

"We had close to seven good years out of it," says Sandiford, with the quiet strength that characterizes her, "and I believe life goes in seven-year cycles."

"A lot of wonderful things happened here," smiles Weihs, just a bit wistfully. "Hundreds of projects."

His pleasant demeanour hardens a bit. "You know, we're getting lots of coverage now that we're closing, but we got virtually none when we opened and we were the only new theatre in this city for 20 years, apart from the Princess of Wales."

Where did Weihs get his passion for the arts? "From George Luscombe," is his immediate answer. "I spent a year with his Toronto Workshop Productions shortly after I graduated from Uof T, and that's where I got my notions of what theatre is all about."

Weihs then headed out to B.C., where he worked with the Caravan Stage Company for two years, writing their show Hands Up, about the famous outlaw Bill Miner.

Next he went over to Vancouver Island, where he founded a company in Duncan called Island Stage.

"That's where I met Judith," he recalls. "She was an artist who came in to draw the actors as they worked. One thing led to another and after so many years, she's still here."

Luscombe brought Weihs back to Toronto to co-author The Wobbly, his 1983 show about the International Workers of the World, and "somehow Judith and I stayed."

Theatre was then, as it is now, an uncertain way to make a living. So Weihs had something else up his sleeve.

"I picked up the skill of writing technical manuals for computers. That brought us a source of income that gave us the financial solidity to do something like Artword."

For Weihs and Sandiford, the concept of interacting with creative spirits in a free environment meant more than actual bricks or mortar.

"We decided to do this from sheer bloody-mindedness and a lot of people told us we were crazy." Ron Weihs, Artword co-founder
"Artword is not a building," says Weihs, " it's a way of associating with artists and the building is just a vehicle for doing it."

In fact, the original Artword was right beside the one that's about to close. "At 81 Portland," recalls Weihs, "when the whole building was derelict. There was one squatter in there, making pickled eggs and selling them to bars. We got it for a song."

But they always had their eye on the space next door. "The only place in downtown Toronto," exults Weihs, "other than a church, that we ever saw with 32 feet of unobstructed span."

In 1998, when the Galani Brothers decided to move their clothing factory to the suburbs, Weihs and Sandiford were ready.

"It was a challenge," admits Sandiford. "It was the universe calling our bluff," declares Weihs.

They went to the bank and asked for a small business loan of $80,000 and they got it. "Talk about gambling!" Weihs chuckles.

"But the reason we got that loan," he adds, "is that we were not a not-for-profit company. We took individual liability and responsibility. We decided to do this from sheer bloody-mindedness and a lot of people told us we were crazy."

They were inspired by British multi-purpose facilities like the Battersea Arts Centre and the Riverside Studios. "Places where they combine theatre with art," approves Sandiford. "I always thought you should walk into a place and see art, and then go into the theatre."

Sandiford became the project manager. "Judith knows every nail and circuit in the building," says Weihs proudly.

Their strategy was simple. In Sandiford's words: "We believed that if we had a nice place and filled it with good stuff, then people would say `Let's see what's on at Artword tonight.' "

And for nearly seven years, that's exactly what's happened. They're walking away with no regrets and no red ink.

"We didn't start the space to make money," declares Weihs. "We paid off all our debts, our credit is good." Still, they haven't taken a salary for the thousands of hours they've spent there, and Sandiford concedes, "If we had paid ourselves, there's no way it would have worked."

"No one's going to pay you for doing things differently," adds Weihs. "If you want to change a government, or change an art form, then you do it for free."

They both slyly let slip that this isn't the end of the road for them "and there's going to be a future ... really soon."

"We just want some time first," sighs Sandiford. "Time to think and visualize and investigate. Time to ask yourself hard questions about what you really want to do instead of just what people expect you to do."

But first they open The Gambler and then they have to close their beloved theatre.

Still, Weihs leaves little doubt what will happen after that.

"The gamble we do is the gamble theatre people always do. We dream it, we imagine the result, and then we start heading towards it."

Richard Ouzounian