Summer Marriage: Sterling and Unit 102

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A Summer Marriage on Queen West: Unit 102 and Sterling Theatre to Merge

This summer, two of Toronto’s west-end indie theatre companies are joining forces. This is great news for artists and audiences alike. Sterling Theatre Company and Unit 102 Acting Company will share a roof at the corner of Queen and Dufferin, and the venue will be renamed and announced at their upcoming inaugural event, scheduled for mid-August.

When I sat down with them to discuss the merger, I expected the core members of Unit 102 and Sterling to be energetic and enthusiastic. What I didn’t expect was the immense trust and admiration these artists have for one another. Each is fiercely dedicated to their craft and, as members of a creative team, they are steadfast in their support of one another.

Both companies reside in intimate studio spaces in Toronto’s west end and produce a combination of original work and classics. Both provide an affordable venue for other local theatre artists. This joining of forces has—in spirit—been brewing for some time.

In the Beginning…

Unit 102 (originally The Parkdale Players) was founded in 2010 to present “authentic and relevant community-based theatre in the neighbourhood of Parkdale.” Since 2011, their home has been the Unit 102 Theatre at the corner of 376 Dufferin Street West (at Queen).

Sterling Studio Theatre Collective was founded in 2011 with a mandate to “stage Canadian/Toronto premieres of plays from other countries as well as facilitate the creation of new Canadian works…” They carved out a quiet niche for themselves at their studio space at 163 Sterling Road (just off of Dundas West).

Today…

Both companies now express reluctance at defining their objectives so concretely. Such carefully worded and restrictive framing devices for artistic work are used to justify artistic choices, and are usually the result of a board of directors, investors and funding agencies supporting creative endeavours.

Both companies, however, are self-supporting—a key aspect of their identities and a source of pride—so there’s no need to define their aims so concretely. Both Sterling and Unit 102 are committed to doing “something good and honest.” Remaining spontaneous and unpredictable is of utmost importance.

The main purpose behind this new venture is twofold: continued financial independence and tighter creative control. By sharing the cost of a theatre and pooling their artistic and financial resources, they can eliminate rentals and save time—time that can be dedicated to their own projects—which will result in a consistency of vision.

Achievements

The core members of Unit 102 remain dedicated to producing shows together—no small feat for an indie theatre company. It’s common for artists to band together for a project or two before moving onward. The founding members are proud to have stuck it out and grown together.

For the Sterling team, pride comes from their ability to create self-supporting theatre and provide a home to over 65 actors who otherwise might not have had the opportunity to do indie theatre. They’re also proud to have premiered original work by local playwrights—like You Said Love by their playwright in residence, Noah Davis.

Challenges

Both companies carried heavy show loads. Out of necessity, the core members have worn many production hats, not just for their own shows, but also to satisfy the needs of rental groups passing through their spaces. Both companies have been spreading their resources too thin, and their own productions were getting squeezed out.

Then there’s the problem of brand confusion. Forced to rent space out to visiting companies, the visiting productions are frequently associated with the host venue’s name, making it difficult for theatre-goers to distinguish between the who and where of any given production.

For Sterling, there’s the additional challenge of getting audiences out to their venue, due to its remote location at the end of a long and winding side street. An ideal venue location is nestled among restaurants and bars, to allow for socializing before and after performances.

The New Venture

Sterling:102SecondaryHoused under the same roof, Sterling and Unit 102 will present shows in a rotating season of 3-week runs. In addition to this core season, there will be secondary programming collaboratively managed by both companies. While no longer offering an open rental space, both companies still want to provide opportunities for the greater theatrical community. It allows for the discovery of new resources and is also an acknowledgement that community is largely responsible for their success.

These two teams have an eclectic and intriguing new season in the works. First up is the anticipated mid-August unveiling of their newly named venue at 376 Dufferin. Next comes Unit 102’s production of Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero in November. Sterling’s production of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth will premiere in December.

Details:

  • Sterling Theatre Company is run under the artistic direction of Kyle Labine, Sophie Ann Rooney and Danka Scepanovic.
  • Unit 102 Acting Company is run under the artistic direction of Luis Fernandes, David LaFontaine, Jesse Hughes, Lindsay Junkin and Scott Walker.

Photos of Unit 102 (in white): Luis Fernandes, David LaFontaine, Scott Walker, Lindsay Junkin / Sterling (in black): Sophie Ann Rooney, Kyle Labine, Danka Scepanovic courtesy of Farrah Aviva Photography.

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