New architecture firm selected to design Playhouse replacement

An artist rendering from Diamond Schmitt Architects for a new performing arts facility to replace the Fredericton Playhouse. (Submitted: Fredericton Playhouse)

The Fredericton Playhouse has sat in the same spot on Queen Street for more than 50 years. It’s known for keeping the downtown area alive with its music, plays and always has a full house. But in a few years, the city will have to say goodbye to the Playhouse. The city selected Diamond Schmitt, an architecture firm, to design a new building to replace the Playhouse.

Nearly 10 years ago, the Playhouse board of directors researched maintenance for the building. The engineering report unveiled the building wasn’t built right and was beyond repair.

Greg MacFarlane, the president of the Playhouse’s board of directors, said the closure was a surprise to a lot of folks.

“Since 2011, finding a way to build a new performing arts centre has been part of the organization’s mandate,” said MacFarlane.

Built in 1964, the current Playhouse building services the arts community in the Fredericton area. The Playhouse hosts local theatre and music, as well as larger touring artists.

Though there is no specific date set for the new Playhouse to open its doors, MacFarlane said three years is a feasible time frame.

Built in 1964, the Fredericton Playhouse hosts local theatre and music, as well as larger touring artists. (Aaron Sousa/AQ)

Through thousands of hours of work with community members, city staff and consultants, the board identified several options for a new centre. It reviewed over 30 proposals from developers across North America before going with Diamond Schmitt, a company based in Toronto.

MacFarlane said one of the reasons they chose Diamond Schmitt was their experience in designing 30 to 40 performing arts centres across North America. He said they are also partnered with engineering firms in Fredericton, giving the design lots of local content.

The board of directors decided a new performing arts centre would need to offer more than the current Playhouse. The new building will have two theatres inside, with 800 and 300-seating capacities.

MacFarlane said that although a new Playhouse is a hefty upfront cost, the operating costs of the building will remain similar to that of the current building.

“Ticket prices aren’t going to go up,” he said.

MacFarlane said money is still needed for the new building. They have enough to pay Diamond Schmitt, but not enough for the building itself. The city committed $14 million and is continuing to hold discussions with other levels of government around the project. The current Playhouse doesn’t have any insulation, but MacFarlane said the new building will cost 50 per cent less to cool and heat.

Lisa Anne Ross, a St. Thomas University fine arts professor, has been a part of the conversation of what the new centre needs. She said insulation is only part of the story. Ross said corroding pipes, an outdated electrical system and lacking facilities plague the current building.

She also mentioned the hard part of selling the idea of a new building to the public is that people wouldn’t know the Playhouse’s state from the outside.

“All of those fundamental things are not sexy or creative or interesting to the public,” said Ross. “People are like ‘it looks beautiful, it looks fine.’ Those things are critical.” 

Carter Scott, a fourth-year English and Great Books St. Thomas University student, has performed at the Playhouse with Theatre New Brunswick in their production of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. He said a large investment like this from the city will mean a lot to the performing arts community.

“Seeing that the city wants to put money into the arts community, that’s just as big as the building itself,” said Scott. “They care to put the money into an infrastructure that’s going to last a long time for the arts community.”

St. Thomas University student Carter Scott said a large investment from the city will mean a lot to the performing arts community. (Aaron Sousa/AQ)

Scott also pointed out the benefits a new Playhouse could have on young children and youth in the Fredericton area. He said one of the best parts about The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe was doing school visits for the kids who were bused to the Playhouse for a field trip, which exposed children to live, professional, performing arts.

Scott said the Playhouse was filled with elementary and middle school children who were in deep investment in the show when he performed for them.

“Those kinds of things are what’s really special about having an art venue in the city,  you can incorporate learning from school into performance,” said Scott.

“It could be inconsequential to you, but you making a joke on the stage that makes an audience laugh could spark some kid to want to be a comic on stage.”