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SMALL THEATRE, BIG UNCERTAINTY: Members of Surrey Little Theatre hope for the best as West Clayton densifies

Development pressures on 184th concern the theatre company
Members of Surrey Little Theatre assemble for a photo

SURREY — Brigitte Seib led the way into the “green” room, which was cluttered with stuff – theatre stuff. Dusty old props, costumes, chairs, tables, pieces of wood and other materials filled the dimly lit space, beyond a door from the stage and seats of Surrey Little Theatre.

“This is a little building,” emphasized Seib with a laugh as she gave the Now a brief tour of the theatre, painted white and located on 184th Street, just north of Fraser Highway.

In fact, there’s a lot of “little” associated with the 76-seat theatre and its resident company. A little parking lot, which has enough pavement for perhaps four vehicles, serves those who drive to the place, which is positioned on a little piece of land. Heck, “little” is even in the title of the comedy to be staged there starting next Thursday night (Jan. 28).

But big-picture issues linger for the small theatre company, whose longtime home, located in a former church, faces an uncertain future in an area slated for development.

Plans are in place for the neighbourhood of West Clayton to one day be a hub for higher-density housing and commercial activity. As it is, the area looks much different than it did in 1936, when Clayton United Church was built. By the 1970s, with the arrival of a theatre company, the building was transformed into a place for plays, not of worship. In subsequent years, Surrey Little Theatre became a gathering spot for those who enjoy producing and watching community theatre.

“The thing with community theatre is, everybody’s a volunteer and they all have day jobs, unless they’re lucky enough to be retired, like me,” noted Mike Busswood, president of the non-profit society that runs the facility.

Last Friday, Busswood and four others with the theatre group detailed the development-related pressures faced by the company as it rehearses its winter production, “Funny Little Thing Called Love,” a full moon-inspired tale of “romantic mayhem” set in five different  cities and featuring 13 actors in 28 roles.

As they talked about the show, the faint sound of rumbling trucks and revving cars could be heard through the theatre walls – such is life when the building stands mere feet from a busy road.

“The city’s plan is to widen that street,” Busswood explained. “And if that’s done, we’re dead in this spot, because we’re so close to the road as it is now.”

The other theatre-loving people seated in the room – Seib, June Ainsworth, Ellie Parento and Ruth Bedell – nodded in agreement.

“So we’re hoping someone, a developer, wants to move us, because that’s been discussed,” Ainsworth added.

“One thought is that the building could be picked up and moved back on this lot, but we don’t have much room on the property we own,” Seib cautioned.

The church building is listed on the Surrey Heritage Register but does not have formal heritage protection, according to the West Clayton Neighbourhood Concept Plan (NCP) approved by Surrey city council last July.

A “Design and Development Guidelines” section of the 267-page document addresses the former church building site, which “should not be developed until the church property and adjacent properties have been consolidated and the church is protected in a manner considered satisfactory to the city.

“If possible, the church should be integrated into a future development and upgraded to meet current standard,” concludes the report, which includes drawings of three “relocation” options.

In other words, the city seems keen to ensure the building owned by Surrey Little Theatre, the non-profit group, is protected and made part of any future residential-commercial complex there.

(PICTURED AT LEFT AND BELOW: Cast of "Funny Little Thing Called Love," staged at Surrey Little Theatre from Jan. 28 to Feb. .27.)

“The building that the (theatre company) occupies is of heritage interest, and we’d love to see it protected through development,” Don Luymes, Surrey’s manager of community planning, told the Now.

“The site it sits on is really small, so they have challenges with parking and, if 184th Street is widened, as it likely will be in the future, that will impact on that lot and building. They don’t own a lot of land, which does create a bit of an issue.”

An exact timeline for future development in West Clayton is not part of the city’s approved NCP for the area.

“For that immediate area, I don’t think changes will be imminent,” Luymes suggested, “and there are some servicing challenges, getting sewers and water lines into that area, that have to be overcome before there’s any new development in that area.”

The widening of 184th Street – something that would force a move of the theatre building – would only be triggered by increased traffic volumes, Luymes added.

“There’s a high school being built just up the way on 184th, but by itself, that’s not enough to trigger a road-widening,” he noted. “So typically what we do is wait for adjacent development to occur and then we, as a city, are able to require the dedication of the additional road area. We don’t go out and purchase that from the theatre or their neighbours, we wait until the development happens and then the city gets that wider road allowance as part of the development.”

Nearby, in addition to a new high school, there are city-approved plans to one day build a community centre that could include a theatre.

“When a city wants to build a theatre like that, or cultural centre, they usually want to put in more than 76 seats,” Parento contended. “But the problem is that for our kind of group, 125 (seats) is about the maximum number we can fill and still (manage) the other costs associated with doing a show.”

Also, groups like SLT tend to thrive when they own and operate their own building, used for rent-free rehearsals, prop storage and, of course, the production of plays.

“And the intimacy of this theatre is why people like coming here, because there’s not a bad seat in the house,” Seib added. “It’d be nice to have a bit of a steeper rake, but really, people like coming here because of the charm of a small theatre.”

Last fall, Surrey Little Theatre’s production of “Calendar Girls” was a big hit with patrons, who filled the theatre’s seats for the entire run. The company has similar hopes for “Funny Little Thing Called Love,” ticket sales for which are already very promising. The new play, set in the five cities of Dallas, San Francisco, Honolulu, London and New York, will have its Canadian premiere at the SLT stage, as will the company’s spring show, Luke Yankee’s “The Last Lifeboat.” Auditions for the latter production, a Dale Kelly-directed story about the Titanic and its builder, will be held at the theatre on Feb. 7 and 8.

With one eye looking well beyond those show dates, the people of SLT simply want some assurances, some idea about what their beloved theatre will look like, and where it will be located, five or 10 years down the road. Maybe the entire building will be moved to the grounds near Surrey Museum, a few kilometres southwest, as some have suggested, or perhaps not.

“In an ideal world, I see a really neat development, all the way around here, with Surrey Little Theatre right in the middle of it, like a jewel,” Seib revealed.

“I believe that if the split residential-commercial thing goes in here, they have a parking lot and here we sit,” Busswood said. “We’ll use the parking lot at night and we won’t be in the way too much – everybody’s happy. But the problem with that is an obvious one, because before they get to that, we’d have to cut a deal with the developer, and to them all we are is money, a pain in the ass. This is prime land, being so close to the corner here. It’s a tiny little lot and it’s worth $500K.

“Another real problem is when they widen the road, what are they going to do with us?” Busswood continued. “One danger is that we’d have to shut down for a couple of years while they do whatever, maybe a move, and we’d lose our momentum. As a club, we do three shows a year, people are involved. I’m not sure we would survive those two years of shutdown.”



Tom Zillich

About the Author: Tom Zillich

I cover entertainment, sports and news for Surrey Now-Leader and Black Press Media
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