Does Your City have an Arts Complex?

The term complex indicates an arts facility designed to accommodate theatre, dance and musical events for the entertainment of Canadian citizens -- a kind of arts shopping mall, a cement fountain spewing culture in all directions.
However, the word might also be applied to these structures in the Freudian sense -- as in, Stay away from me, I have an arts complex! -- referring to a pathological fear of the arts brought on by these malignant growths, together with the urge to bury an entire area of cultural activity in the deep unconscious.
As an architectural expression, the Canadian arts complex is an expression of madness.
Think of the word theatre, and what do you see? Bright lights; a garish sign advertising the name of the theatre and the title on offer; an overhang to shelter patrons on the sidewalk; a box office in plain view. For me at least, that is what comes to mind.
Now envisage the entrance to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa -- or rather, try and find it. I can't. I have performed for paying audiences at the NAC intermittently for 25 years, and I've never been able to figure out how they get in. No sign. No lights. No visible box office. To a stranger, the NAC might be the American Embassy, where every visitor is a potential terrorist.
The entrance to a building says a lot about the intentions of its architect, and here the message is that what happens inside is for the "in" crowd -- those who know how to get in. The front door of the NAC, like that of an after-hours club, is not an entrance but a screen, a way of filtering out the wrong sort of people.
The NAC is not as popular with the public as its staff would like, because it was never designed to be. Knowing this, would you want to be their publicist? Think it might give you an arts complex?
The Confederation Centre in Charlottetown goes a step further. Not only is the front door almost as difficult to find, in Charlottetown the entrance goes underground. It's as if you're boarding the subway. Then, having descended, the patron climbs back up, into the theatre -- like a beaver, surfacing inside its twig hut in the middle of a cement pond.
National symbolism? You decide. Perhaps the Confederation Centre's entrance is all about depth -- the need to burrow for the truth. Except that they're showing Anne of Green Gables to Japanese tourists, who might be forgiven if they think the edifice doubles as a bomb shelter. Which is no laughing matter -- in fact, it could be enough to give them an arts complex.
Designers of the Manitoba Theatre Centre found a novel way to induce neurosis in the arts, both on- and off-stage. It has to do with the word stage. I don't know about you, but for me the word evokes a platform, on which someone performs, for an audience seated in front of the performer.
In Winnipeg, this assumption would be in error. At MTC, only audiences in front sit in front of the stage; as the seats go back, they veer sharply left in a kind of dogleg. As well, the audience is divided into arbitrary sections by a series of cement walls, waist high. Meanwhile, backstage, the dressing-room walls aren't really walls as such, for they stop two feet from the ceiling. (More than one MTC production has been doomed by an injudicious comment in the supposed privacy of a dressing room.)
A theatre in which the audience can't get together, and the performers can't be alone. If that doesn't give you an arts complex, nothing will.
Nothing like a strange location to make you paranoid. Say the words concert hall and I, for one, envisage something downtown, on a well-frequented, well-lit street with a steady stream of traffic swishing back and forth late at night.
That image in no way describes the Queen Elizabeth complex, located in the shadow of the post office (a blank wall with loading bays), in front of a vast parking lot that used to be the Vancouver Bus Station. Translation: an institution built to house a profession of transient postal workers, in a section of town where, if you don't go home right after the show, an artist might pick your pocket and take the bus to Kamloops. As for signage, the QET could be a convention centre, a sports arena or a municipal zoo, but a stranger to the city would never anticipate concerts and plays.
Here lies the terrible irony of what transpired the last time government decided to do something for the performing arts: The most conspicuous result was a series of perverse buildings, designed by non-artists with a theory, which actually impede what the arts are supposed to do. Forty years later, these dead weights still lie upon us, as they will 40 years hence. The arts asked for health care, they gave us a tumour. The public asked for culture, they gave us a complex