A royal struggle

Fabien Maltais-Bayda on the uncertain future of NDG’s Empress Theatre

It is undeniable that a community’s culture is one of the principal factors that defines it. Given this sort of primacy, it is interesting to see what happens when a community’s cultural identity is in jeopardy. According to many citizens, this is precisely the case in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (NDG) borough of Montreal. This neighbourhood is the setting of a battle, of theatrical proportions, to preserve and re-invigorate the historic Empress Theatre, located on Sherbrooke just west of Decarie.

The Empress, notable for its Egyptian architectural flair, was constructed in 1927 as a vaudeville theatre, and continued to entertain the citizens of NDG in a variety of ways until it was damaged by fire in 1992. Since then, the fate of the theatre, labelled by Empress Cultural Centre board member Jodi Hope Michaels as a “jewel of the community” has been in jeopardy. Now, the Empress Cultural Centre Inc. project aims to bring the theatre back to life. Directed by the Cultural Centre Board, the project took over the lease of the theater from the city in 1999, and has been attempting to make their dream of a multicultural community performing space a reality ever since. But when asked by The Daily to describe the issues threatening the project, Paul Scriver – founder of the Renaissance Empress citizen movement, and a current director on the Empress Cultural Centre Board – ominously replied, “Where do you want to start?”

The building itself, though architecturally stunning, has posed some major structural problems. The fire in 1992 caused extensive damage to the interior of the building as well as to the roof, leaving it exposed to further elemental decay. Although certain attempts at repairing some of the damage have been effective, the repairs have been funded what Scriver describes as the little “money that’s coming in dribbles,” and have therefore been insufficient.

The hurdles that hinder the cultural centre’s progress seem to reach their apex in the administrative aspects of making something like the Empress Cultural Centre really happen. Innumerable hours and exhaustive effort recently culminated in what Scriver calls a “major proposal” for the reinvention of the Empress Theatre, which was put forth for funding to the provincial government of Quebec, but subsequently rejected. The $11.2 million proposition was “supported by the NDG bureau… but when it went to the provincial government, [they] turned it down,” said Scriver. In reflection, he sees many problems that may have put the proverbial nail in the proposal’s coffin. “We haven’t yet found the right formula, and there could be a lot of reasons for that,” said Scriver, such as “the way it was presented to the Quebec government” with too great “a focus on English theater” as opposed to a more diverse agenda. In this situation, the simple omission of “a number of things that are in the business proposal and the business plan, but weren’t emphasized in the grant proposal” may have contributed to its less-than-award-winning performance.

Whatever the reasons, the rejection of the Empress Cultural Centre proposal put a great deal of strain on the movement’s momentum. “When that particular application wasn’t accepted it lead to a crisis,” revealed Michaels. It was not long after this pivotal moment that the impromptu citizen-created Renaissance Empress organization materialized in order to bring awareness to the issue, and support the Empress Cultural Centre Board. The effort certainly seems to have made an impact, as many members of Renaissance Empress, including Scriver, are now on the board. Many are hopeful that this shake-up of the board will reinvigorate the cause. “Something really wonderful now is to have so many new people on the board all at once to bring new energy,” explained Michaels.

It seems, however, that support in the NDG community is not as unanimous as those on the board seem to believe, nor is the outlook for the project as optimistic. In a brief telephone conversation, a communication officer with the NDG Direction de la culture, des sports, des loisirs, et du développement social stated that as far as she was aware, “Everything is in hold.” She went on to explain that, with planning and design for a separate S21 million NDG Cultural Centre well underway, there seemed to be no immediate need for a similar institution to be created at the Empress site.

The future of the Empress Cultural Centre is both the most essential concern for the project, as well as its most precarious. After all the challenges and “frustrations over the years,” this is, as Michaels aptly expressed, “the moment of truth.” Scriver emphasized the diversity of the community and the centre he would like to see conceived, which he believes should have “an inter-cultural focus” which could serve the many “ethnic communities in the NDG area.”

While there has been skepticism from some community members and media outlets, those involved in the project remain optimistic about its future. “I think that community members and the media are justified in being skeptical,” said Scriver. He qualified this, however, by pointing out that “if you look at other projects similar to it, you can see that projects of this enormity often take 15 to twenty years to come to fruition.” It’s a monumental undertaking but there is tremendous motivation to preserve the Empress Theatre, and to raise the curtain on Empress Theatre Cultural Centre. Success in this endeavour, though as yet uncertain, would help to maintain the place the Empress Theatre has held in the hearts of many Montrealers for generations.