Arts By The Lake

“The Centre,” is what staff and Executive Director Brenda Heatherington are calling the new Burlington Performing Arts Centre scheduled to open in October. Yes, it's a performance centre (different from the existing Burlington Arts Centre down the road). It's also in the centre of downtown, and for almost two decades ““ depending whom you ask ““ it's been a central hot-button issue in municipal elections and city hall debates.

But now they've built it, and hope that you will come.

More than that, Heatherington envisions The Burlington Performing Arts Centre (BPAC) as the centre of a community where people experience and even participate in the arts. She also of course wants it to be the place to go when its time to see a concert, experience a new dance production or book a school recital. The vision of The BPAC, according to Heatherington, is to bring arts experiences to the community.

“We want to create a gathering place for people in the community to see a local choir or a kid's dance performance, or experience any of the professional performances we bring into the theatre. It's an exciting time to develop relationships with the community.

“I have the responsibility to booking the entire season. I want to create balance and diversity with what we put out. I select what I like and what I think will engage the community.” The process, she says, is a curatorial one ““ an art, actually, that requires a combination of intuition and experience. “I've seen a lot of artists and some I've presented before, so I know what the audience reaction was previously.”

The line-up for the 2011/12 season, especially on the main stage, is heavy in musical experience from opera, traditional holiday, swing revival, to pop, Celtic, jazz and gospel and, curiously, a lot of dance including educational opportunities. In accordance with grant funding received from the Ontario Government, the plan is to hire a dance coordinator to organize workshops and classes to allow members of the community to both learn more about contemporary dance and maybe try their hand (or feet) at a new style themselves.

But first the centre has to open; officially in late November although programming starts in October.

The much publicized opening week (November 27 to December 3) will conclude with a final formal high-priced ticket gala featuring crooner Sarah McLachlan. Storyteller of Vinyl Cafe fame Stuart McLean graces the main stage in late October. During the October 1 introductory launch the public can meet Heatherington (if you haven't already), see a multi-media presentation of the shows to come and listen to the love ballads of multi-instrumental performer Royal Wood. In December, The State Ballet Theatre of Russia presents The Nutcracker for two shows ““ nearly an on-demand performance considering Burlingtonian requests.

“I'm learning what the community is looking for and what they want to see,” Heatherington says. “I am meeting with a lot of community groups, including Rotary Clubs, and talking to people. I find if you ask people, they are willing to give you their two cents worth, and I'm open to people's suggestions.”

Heatherington comes to this job via a circuitous route. The well-coiffed model-esque executive director arrived in Southern Ontario via the Prairies, and if you ask her she'll happily admit she's an Alberta girl at heart. She spent 17 years in St. Albert (an affluent bedroom community of Edmonton) running The Arden Theatre for the municipality there. It is a smaller theatre than BPAC, but with a similar artistic vision and demographic. She was ready for a change, she says, and that's when Burlington called with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to open a facility and establish the focus from the ground up.

The Burlington Performing Arts Centre ““ a name selected by $5 million donor Gary DeGroote ““ contains one 718 seat state-of-the-art theatre space, or main stage, and a “black box” studio theatre that can be configured in different ways to accommodate up to 200 patrons.

The theatre, along with lobby atrium space, event patio and six-storey fly tower faces the waterfront at Elgin and Locust Streets, adjacent to a parking garage. It's designed by Diamond and Schmitt Architects Inc. and built (on time and on budget is a refrain heard frequently from the BPAC team throughout early 2011) by Bird Construction for a price tag, including cost of land, of $41 million. The city owns the land and stately edifice, but leases it to BPAC, a registered non-profit entity.

Although either theatre is available for rental, the studio space is likely what smaller community groups will be interested in using, and that's where the majority of theatre productions will find a home either as rentals or “presented by” performances which are the selections, and responsibility, of BPAC. This season, for instance, will see Toronto's Crow Theatre's version of the one-woman play I Claudia in the studio theatre for two nights ““ one open to the public and the other for students only.

According to Manager of Marketing and Development Hilary Sadler, all performances (including community group rentals) will receive “marketing support” from BPAC in the form of brochure distribution and a mention on the BPAC website.

Burlington residents opened their mailboxes in mid-August to find an official 2011/12 season brochure promoting shows BPAC presents until April. Next, another prior-to-January brochure will list all the events, including rental performances. And a second brochure will follow in the New Year again listing all shows until April.

However, the question remains how many performing arts centres can Southern Ontario audiences support? Mississauga, Hamilton, Oakville, Kitchener, and even Milton sport their own sprawling seat versions; so many have appeared on the landscape that they're practically becoming a right of urban development passage. But competition isn't the issue, according to Heatherington. What's important is evolving and nurturing culture and access to it.

“What's going to be in Burlington is different from what's going to be in Oakville. We have a larger venue here,” she says. “I don't see overlaps as much as complimentary experiences. We also hope that since the BPAC is downtown in our own backyard, Burlington residents will be compelled to come here when they are considering a night out because they don't have to drive far from home, or drive at all.”

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