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Halifax’s theatre community rallies behind The Bus Stop Theatre Co-op

Ahead of council's decision on Hail-Mary funding to save the space.

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“In our crisis, we also see opportunity,” says Labelle. - IAN SELIG
  • IAN SELIG
  • “In our crisis, we also see opportunity,” says Labelle.

Sébastien Labelle is perched in a booth at the front of The Bus Stop Theatre, looking out from the window onto Gottingen Street, wearing a rare uneasy expression. On his laptop he listens to a radio interview, waiting for a hint about the fate of the co-op he leads.

Broadcasting on News 95.7's Rick Howe show, HRM city councillors Lindell Smith and Steve Streatch both admit: Their inboxes have been bursting with concerned letters since a staff report mid-May recommended denying the theatre's request for additional funding.

For 15 years The Bus Stop Theatre has served emerging artists, professional theatre and dance companies, musicians, comedians, community groups and many, many more, transforming flexibly from its black box foundation to suit the needs of each of its users.

Under Labelle's leadership over the past three years, the non-profit has made impressive gains: Earning grants which have allowed meagre but previously unattainable payment for three part-time staff, ("We all have other jobs," he says, laughing) and the maintenance of an aging building. All the while, demand for the space is exploding—it offers a capacity of 90 seats, a bar and an in-house technician—and requests have only risen in the wake of the closure of two north end theatre spaces just last summer.

"We're bursting at the seams," Labelle says, "regularly turning people away because we don't have the space."

Most recently they were forced to decline bookings from the YWCA, Go North Tours, and 2b theatre company.

But now, what little financial security it earned is under threat, as an upcoming property sale looms, leaving the future of The Bus Stop Theatre uncertain.

This is why Labelle hopes to expand.

"In our crisis, we also see opportunity," he explains, detailing a vision for a renovated facility, with two stages, and rehearsal rooms, that would extend into the lot behind the existing theatre.

This plan was achieved on the back of a provincial grant, and a partnership with a local architecture firm.

Labelle pitched this proposal—which would allow the co-op to purchase the property from owners below market rate—to all three levels of government and some private sector players. City staff say the timing and urgency of the request also played a part.

And though it's been widely, warmly received, each potential investor asks the same question: "Who's already signed on?"

But with no one willing to take the first bite and pay up, the Bus Stop is left without the hero it needs. "If we lose that, then it goes on the market and it's pretty much over."

Shelley Fashan, a leader in the Black community, has organized many events at the Bus Stop over the years, including screenings, live music and a panel on Black feminism just last week. "It was standing-room only!" she says.

The Bus Stop is exceptional not only for its financial accessibility to a fully equipped performance space (rent rates hourly right up to monthly are cheaper than anywhere else) but because of its cultural accessibility.

Communities like Fahsan's, who have been made to feel shut out and unwelcome in other spaces, have flourished at the Bus Stop.

LGBTQ, Francophone and Indigenous communities, just to name a few, are among those increasingly thriving in the humble edifice.

"There's really no other place that would my accommodate my stories," says Fashan.

There's still a chance the theatre could receive operational municipal funding for the coming year (an announcement is due this summer) amounting somewhere near $10,000; that falls short by an enormous margin to purchase the property before the deadline.

HRM council will consider staff's recommendation not to provide the $500,000 in extra funding on Tuesday, June 4, a determination that could halt the beating heart of the chosen home to performing artists in the city's north end.

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