Thursday, 8 December 2016

LIVE on Elgin: Small Club Fills a Big Gap in the Scene.

Recently, SceneRazR was fortunate to obtain some time with Lawrence Evenchick, who is one very busy dude. Jointly with his son, Jon, Lawrence runs an independent performance space - LIVE on Elgin -  at 220 Elgin Street, just upstairs from Dunn's Deli. LIVE on Elgin hosts a variety of performance/artistic entertainment seven nights a week, nearly every night of the year (although in December their calendar indicates that they'll at least take Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off - good call, gentlemen!). Knowing that Lawrence is a very in-demand actor for local theatre and films, I asked whether owning a busy performance space has cut back on his ability to nurture his acting career. (Note: it would be a tragedy if this were the case. Lawrence is a talented and supremely entertaining actor.)

Lawrence Evenchick, actor and
venue proprietor extraordinaire

Lawrence assured me that being part owner of LIVE on Elgin has not interfered with his acting projects. He went on to supply a very in-depth look at what local entrepreneurs may encounter when launching a live performance venue in the NCR, beginning with a guided tour of the premises.

The tour revealed some pleasing surprises. Often, the second-storey premises in older Ottawa buildings feel claustrophobic and seem almost more like second thoughts than second storeys. To be sure, LIVE on Elgin is accessible only by a long narrow flight of stairs, but this was a necessity:  the space is a sublet from Dunn's Deli on the floor below. Once you arrive at the top of the stairs, however, you are in a fairly generous space. There is a lounge area bordered with sofas and a flatscreen TV, with a medium-sized service bar opposite. (All photos are courtesy of LIVE on Elgin and photo credits for the interior shots go to Dave Di Ubaldo, Worn Leather Media.)

Paintings by local artists grace the walls, the decor is attractive, and the amenities are very up-to-date.

Lounge area

Bar area - yes, they're licensed!

Past the lounge and bar area is the performance studio which is where the magic takes place. At the far right-hand end of the room is a slightly elevated stage that is big enough to house an upright piano plus performance space that comes close to that of some of the smaller theatres in Ottawa. The stage feels almost as deep as it is wide, and has hosted musical groups, theatrical performances, burlesque shows, choirs, fan-fiction reading nights, improv theatre performances, and much more. Lawrence added that room has also been used for children's birthday parties, video shoots, and trivia nights. To get an idea of LIVE on Elgin's performance lineup you can view their calendar here.

The official stage area (although some acts, e.g. the poetry slams, prefer to perform on the dance floor - and LIVE on Elgin lets them do their thing their way).

As Lawrence explained, it's a very flexible space that lends itself to a variety of performances and uses. The tables and chairs are all mobile (no bolted down tables or booths) so they can modify the seating to make room for dancing, painting parties, or cabaret-style evenings, depending on the type of event or performance that is taking place. 

                    Flexible seating - tables and chairs can be repositioned or removed.

In addition to the size and flexibility of the performance area, other pluses are the "artist preparation" areas where performers can close a door or a curtain and get their war paint on, put on their costumes (or, in the case of burlesque dancers and naked choral groups, take OFF their costumes) and just generally have a place where they can get their heads in the game privately before taking the stage. Believe me: very few of the smaller performance venues in Ottawa offer this luxury, and it really IS a luxury.

After the tour and an offer of tea, Lawrence and I settled ourselves in the lounge area to talk inspiration, influences, and the challenges of doing business in the local performance community.

SceneRazR: You've stated that LIVE on Elgin was created because you and Jon Evenchick perceived a "gap" in the local entertainment scene. Your calendar is full every night of the week, so you were clearly correct. How did you settle on this particular format and venue to address that gap?

Lawrence Evenchick: "Jon's background is in music, mine is theatre. We thought we could cater to both." 

Lawrence noted that the gap in the music scene is primarily that, while many venues incorporate musical performance, not many are dedicated to music. To elaborate, he explained that many venues will have bands play, but there are still big screen TVs showing hockey or ball games while the band is "pushed off in the corner," so that the music isn't necessarily the sole focus. "That," said Lawrence, "is the niche we wanted to fill."

In terms of local theatre, Lawrence pointed out that there really are no small spaces. There are independent theatres of course, accommodating 200 to perhaps 600 patrons, but no smaller spaces where performers can hope to launch a performance and also walk away with some money in their pocket... the larger venues are simply not affordable propositions for the smaller and fringe acts that permeate the artistic scene. There are plenty of performers, Lawrence noted, who can sell 50 to 60 tickets - which would be a financial fail if they want to rent the larger theatres, but could look (and feel, in a smaller room) like a complete success in an establishment the size of LIVE on Elgin. Lawrence wanted these performers to have a venue, a voice, and a chance to generate some income. The solution, clearly, was a cabaret-style space in an area where there would be decent urban traffic.

The idea crystallized when Lawrence attended a house concert (yes, a concert in someone's house) by Craig Cardiff, an Ottawa musician. Lawrence learned that Craig enjoys playing house concerts because so few music venues are structured to focus on the performance. Often the musicians are an afterthought.

Craig Cardiff doing his thang (photo property of Craig Cardiff)

About the same time as the conversation with Craig, Lawrence heard from a couple of friends who had visited New Orleans. They told him that they had attended a drama performance at a bar: the admission tickets were affordable, so patrons showed up for the show but still had some discretionary dollars left over to buy a few drinks. Thus, the bar profited and there was still some money to throw to the actors at the end of the night. 

For Lawrence and Jon Evenchick, this sounded like a win-win format for everyone. The mission was clear: create a space that can house the smaller event populations; offer drinks at an affordable price; make sure the artists have the space to do what they require and have the space to host their audiences. And pay the bills on the space while they achieve all this.

SR: Brilliant idea! What was the biggest challenge you faced in getting it launched?

LE: (laughing) "The biggest challenge? The city!" (more laughter).

"It was touch and go... building permits, we've never renovated to meet building standards before." Some modifications to the space at 220 Elgin were simply cosmetic, but others were structural and more complicated. In terms of the permits, Lawrence listed them off: building, fire, health... and then there were the permits that had to be managed by exception (because, after all, LIVE on Elgin is an exceptional place). Lawrence had worked liquor establishments before, and figured he was on solid ground in terms of fulfilling the conditions for a liquor licence.

"I know all about liquor licences," Lawrence said. "I've known about SmartServe for a long time, I've worked bars for years, but you have to fulfill other conditions and also guarantee some guaranteed parking, which we can't do as it's all on-street parking. So we had to go to a variance committee." However, with his experience in the beverage industry, Lawrence felt he was on solid ground and was confident about LIVE on Elgin's chances for approval. "I thought it would be a slam-dunk," he admitted.

Unfortunately, this wasn't the case. The committee was split on whether to approve - the dissenters had reasons which were really irrational, according to Lawrence -  and it eventually came down to a tiebreaker that the Chair of the committee had to decide. Lawrence recalls that the variance committee managed to keep LIVE on Elgin's liquor licence in a holding pattern well past the club's launch date while it contemplated the application. As a result, the first week that the club was open, they served soda pop only because their liquor licence application had not yet been approved.

City variance committee member?

There were other issues: the building inspector was not an easy person to deal with. He misread the plans causing a misunderstanding about washroom capacity, which further delayed the permits.

That hasn't stopped many local musicians, poetry slammers, comedians, or theatre troupes from showing up at LIVE on Elgin. In fact, many local performers were supporting it before the venue got all their city approvals. "There were over fifty letters of support that were sent to the variance committee," Lawrence recalled. "From performers, musicians, producers...saying that we are the kind of venue that this city needs." It was encouraging that getting the support from the artistic community was easy: it was a sure signal that Lawrence and Jon were on the right track. "We hit the ground running, and we had a lot of really good support from Day One." They still do, and their reputation is growing.

SR: what would be the farthest "fringe" or niche performance that has ever graced the LIVE on Elgin stage?

LE: "The fan fiction night is... crazy!" Apparently, fan fiction can get pretty randy, and listening to the actors read it aloud sends the audience into hysterics. Lawrence added that other fringe performances are equally popular. "The Improv Nights are unbelievable. And Les Bunheads - they've auditioned for America's Got TalentAnd the Ottawa burlesque community consider us their home." 

Unconventional ballet duo "Les Bunheads!"

Many of the LIVE on Elgin events definitely cater to niche communities. As an example, the burlesque night is a dedicated performance once per month: therefore, it isn't competing with another performance genre. At LIVE on Elgin, catering to what works for the artists is key. "We've stuck with the artists rather than the producers, and artists feel at home here because it's a performance space,"  Lawrence noted. So far, it is working out well.

LIVE on Elgin has demonstrated considerable resiliency in terms of facing down city opposition and gaining and retaining support from the artistic community. Lawrence emphatically credits the participation from Ottawa's diverse performance community as the backbone of LIVE on Elgin's success. Rogers Cable have taken an interest, recording live music performances at the club and editing them down to be broadcast on YouTube - which is great for the musicians in terms of building their presence and broadening their audience. The segments air Sunday nights on Rogers Cable at 9 o'clock, and Lawrence estimates they have several months' worth of footage already in the can. It's another encouraging example of how arts and performance communities can support and cross-promote one another.

SR: A recent article in the Ottawa Citizen pointed out that both Zaphod's and Barrymore's had sold-out shows that week - mind you, one of those was Sebastian Bach! - and that this speaks to the need for more music venues in the NCR. However, when there are bars and clubs that struggle Monday to Thursday in terms of filling seats, do you think we need more venues or more support for the venues?

LE: "I think we need more support for the venues that we have." Lawrence pointed out that many people shell out big money to see out-of-town performers at the National Arts Centre, "...and then get squeamish about paying $35 or $40 to see local performers who are equally as talented." 

SR: And the NAC have pretty aggressive telemarketers as well! 

LE: "Extremely, extremely aggressive telemarketers. The people at the Gladstone Theatre, they can't afford to do that." He noted the irony of NAC patrons paying in the neighbourhood of $140 per ticket to see performers who don't live here or work here, and then balking at paying a decent price to support local performers. He feels it's partly due to an unfounded and incorrect assumption that the local talent is somehow inferior to the touring performers. Clearly there is money to be spent on art and performance, but patrons are choosing to support non-local entertainers. "It's really backwards," he observed.

 In addition to better support for local talent, Lawrence believes that the NCR needs more variety in terms of the size of the performance establishments. He noted that a lot of touring acts skip Ottawa between Toronto and Montreal because the NCR offers a choice between two gigantic stadiums, or smaller clubs the size of Ritual, for example. For certain performers, these venue sizes are too polarized and there is no mid-size that would suit the capacity that they are likely to draw. Lawrence's son and business partner, Jon, originally wanted to create a venue to meet that niche: 800 to 1000 seats, with a flexible space that could accommodate cabaret style seating or traditional theatre set-ups. LIVE on Elgin is proving to keep Jon busy enough, however, so the larger venue is part of his "Ten Year Plan." Lawrence agrees that it would help fit a need for music and theatrical performances alike.

SR: So we won't be seeing a "LIVE on Bank Street" or "LIVE on Woodroffe" anytime soon?

LE: "I think the next step is getting LIVE better known by the general public." Lawrence said that the arts and performance community are really locking in with the venue, and his hope is that people who don't move in the artistic circles will still make LIVE on Elgin their "go-to" for good entertainment at reasonable prices. Given how quickly the venue has caught on, the outcome is promising.

"I think we've met our goal," said Lawrence, "in terms of providing a space where performers are free to show up. We have built a space where many local performance acts feel they have a home." They feel they belong, here, he said, because it is an environment that is a performance space first and foremost.

SceneRazR loves a happy ending, and wishes LIVE on Elgin continued longevity and popularity!

SceneRazR is very grateful to Lawrence for giving so much of his time to tell his story and give us a guided tour. LIVE on Elgin is definitely worth some space on your calendar. Please visit LIVE on Elgin to see what floats your fancy - you will not be disappointed! >:]


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