Some call it devastating; Benjamin Blais calls it “puberty.”

The founder of the Storefront Theatre, his business partner Claire Burns, managing director of the Storefront Arts Initiative, and their band of volunteer producers have spent the past few weeks cleaning out the street-level space at 955 Bloor St. W., the flagship location of the indie theatre company that has been producing noteworthy productions since 2012.

Tuesday was the last day in their tenancy, after getting notice of the termination of their lease on Boxing Day.

“There’s some nostalgia here, I was looking through the slide show that the staff created and I was getting a little misty,” Blais said as he prepped the space for one last goodbye bash on Saturday night.

Having to move by the end of January — a surprise — meant that productions slated for winter and spring were left homeless (most have since found new venues).

Blais, Burns and a real estate agent began the hunt for a new space quickly. “I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m also looking forward to what’s next,” he said.

As one of the first companies to emerge in the recent storefront theatre movement (and the one who most embraced it, right in the name), the Storefront Theatre is also one of the last to lose its space.

In 2015, the east end’s SideMart Theatrical Grocery closed, followed by Kensington Market’s Videofag and Parkdale’s Unit 102 Theatre for various reasons: landlords, neighbours, condo development and the desire to start new projects.

The Storefront’s search for a new venue comes at a point when the company wants to go from indie dream held together with duct tape to legitimate and professional organization (eligible for government funding and a liquor licence). That means finding a new storefront space — the majority of which are built to suit retail requirements — that meets the Ontario Building Code and Toronto’s zoning bylaws for a performance venue.

“We’re excited to be able to bring plays to a space that has more than one washroom and stairs that aren’t rickety,” Blais said.

He and Burns had already intended to find a new space over the summer after they failed to reach agreement on a long-term lease with the owner of 955 Bloor; they reallocated funds raised to soundproof the roof toward a move.

In fact, according to a representative for the owner, 1119778 Ontario Limited, the intended renovations alerted the City of Toronto to the building’s use as a performance space in what was approved as retail. Without the money to immediately bring the space up to code — wider exits, sprinklers, fire protection between the theatre and tenants upstairs, and more — the Mariobet owner cited safety concerns as the reason for the lease termination, mentioning the Ghost Ship artist collective fire in Oakland, Calif., in December as a worst-case scenario.

As of now, there is no new tenant lined up, but the company would consider leasing to an arts company again as long as building codes were met — possibly a deal-breaker for cash-strapped cultural startups.

The Storefront Theatre was one of the most decorated establishments of the storefront movement, with several Dora Award-winning productions. Its new musical Chasse-Galerie moved to the larger Soulpepper Theatre this winter.

But of course, part of its charm, as well as that of the storefront movement as a whole, was seeing professional-grade theatre in a space that was rough around the edges.

The Storefront’s story lays bare the complicated job of trying to find arts space in Toronto or making your own.

Storefront performance spaces create buzz for the neighbourhood and affordable space for young artists. But they also offer nearly insurmountable challenges when it comes to turning them into permanent establishments. Rising rents, gentrification and city bylaws that weren’t written for such uses mean the once robust storefront theatre movement is struggling to be more than an under-the-radar phenomenon.

“I believe that the storefront theatre movement is not a pop-up movement. Neighbourhoods should have their own storefront theatre. . . . We want to be legitimate,” said Burns. “We bet there’s an audience and a need for these spaces in the city. In Chicago there have been storefront theatres for over 50 years as permanent theatre spaces.”

As their search continues, the Storefront Arts Initiative continues to operate out of its studio space on Brunswick Ave. and in a shared office with the SummerWorks Performance Festival on Richmond St. W.

Their first satellite production opens this month at the Factory Theatre Studio: Deceitful Above All Things by Genevieve Adam and directed by Tanya Rintoul.

They hope to have a new home in the fall that meets all architectural requirements, at which point they can focus on the challenges that all theatre companies face in Toronto: how to meet the bottom line while keeping ticket prices affordable and taking risks on new artists.

Growing up is hard to do.

Carly Maga is a Toronto Star theatre critic. She alternates the Wednesday Matinee column with critic Karen Fricker.

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