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Space case: a new theatre for Halifax?

While better seating, study spaces and a cafe appear to have a place in the new Halifax Central Library, the fate of a performance venue is still undecided.



When Judith Hare talks about what the new central library can bring to Halifax, the list of possibilities could lap the current Spring Garden location 10 times over.The Halifax Public Libraries CEO has been with us since 1996, and she knows what the public wants: new amenities that aren't being offered downtown by the current library system.

"The library is increasingly becoming more like the town centre," says Hare. "We're about linking people, and introducing people to a lot of different ideas, and this space is a really crucial piece of doing that."

Halifax Public Libraries held public consultations in the form of meetings, surveys and focus groups, and found that there is a need for comfortable seating areas, individual study space, group study space, a cafe and a performance venue.

The Spring Garden Road-Queen Street Area Joint Public Lands Plan dictates that the new library has to include 7,000 square feet of retail, but since the library's still in the planning stages nothing has been detailed.

While better seating, study spaces and a cafe seem to have a home in the new plan, the idea of a performance space is just that---an idea. Hare and Susan McLean, HPL's director of public services, have met with organizations to get a feel for what Halifax's performing arts community needs as a venue, but so far it's just been a collection of hopes.

"We have to look at what [the library's] needs are, and do they fit with what a professional group might need," says McLean. Hare adds that the performance space would serve primarily as an auditorium for the library, as HPL can't host anything downtown of significant size. The plan is to see if it's possible to build inclusions for dance and theatre groups, with a 200- to 250-seat theatre.

"We don't see the library as being a totally fitted-out professional stage with back-of-house and all those kinds of facilities, but for the small performances," says Hare.

That's not the impression Paul Caskey, artistic director of Live Art Dance Productions, got from his meeting with Hare before Christmas, though. Caskey says he realizes it was simply a consultation, but he was unaware they didn't want to include professional details.

"What I fear is that we get a space that only half serves the professional arts needs," says Caskey. "Things like the Bella Rose and the new Citadel High School auditorium---the newest 'theatres,' I'll say in quotation marks, in our city, I mean they don't have any of the stuff that professional theatres require, i.e. change rooms, backstage space.

"If they go halfway, then I think they do themselves an injustice, and they do the community an injustice," says Caskey. "It really depends on what their objectives are. If it is to make a theatre, then make a theatre---make a good one."

Hare and McLean say they realize they can't meet everyone's needs, as the budget limits what can be done with the space. They're ready to make their architect recommendation to the city, and that council meeting is tentatively scheduled for March 9. Hare promises another round of public consultation---another chance to say what you think are library frills, and what are necessities.

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