A sign warning students they will be entering at their “own risk” may soon hang on the door of the Ryerson Theatre School (RTS) basement, according to operations manager Peter Fleming.
Recently, a section of the basement became flooded by water coming from a leaking metal valve in the area. The space, which is used for costume storage, is prone to flooding when it rains, but this is the first time it was caused by faulty pipes.
Due to a foundation issue, the basement usually floods when it rains. Even though it is not a mandated work area, the basement is used regularly by students because there is little storage space for costumes and materials elsewhere in RTS.
“Anyone who really works in the wardrobe department has to come down here anytime they have to look for something,” said Stephen Elgar, a fourth-year production student. “It’s the only space we have to store a lot of our fabrics and a lot of our clothing, which is actually really bad because it’s so humid down here that it destroys (the clothing).”
Ryerson president Sheldon Levy said the ideal solution would be for the university to build a new school, but the funds to do this are not available.
The space was fully functional until 10 years ago, when a major flooding deemed it a non-work space. The computer room on the first floor was converted into wardrobe storage and other items were stored elsewhere, including a crammed room in Kerr Hall that is being used to store nicer items.
Fleming said campus planning considers the basement a “dead space.” According to Fleming, faculty refuse to go down to the basement and students have the right to refuse to enter the space as well. But students in the costume department use the space up to five times per week, especially during the production of shows.
“We said to students, ‘you are never to go down there again,’” Fleming said. But he added students still visit the basement in search of cheap materials and props for shows.
After The Ryersonian learned about student complaints, Toronto Public Health was approached and a health inspector was sent to check the area last Monday.
Natalya Plotnikova, the inspector who visited the school, advised Fleming to repair the leak and returned on Friday for a followup inspection. Fleming said the pipes had been repaired as requested but Elaine Pacheco, manager at Toronto Public Health, later reported they had not been fixed yet because the school was still waiting for a fixture necessary for the repair. In the meantime, the school is using a bucket to contain the leak, which is being checked every three hours for potential spillage.
Before the recent inspection, the RTS had not been inspected for four or five years — the last time the space flooded. According to Fleming, there are no routine inspections of the area and Catherine Drum, Ryerson’s environmental health and safety officer, was not aware of the conditions in the school’s basement.
“We never physically check it ourselves,” Fleming said. “If we need to look for something that’s gone missing or if we need to throw something down there, we open the door — if there’s a flood, we call campus planning,” Fleming said.
But Levy said diligent inspection is key to ensuring older buildings are well maintained.
“I would argue that those buildings need inspections more often than newer buildings simply because the university not only has an obligation, but the university wants to make sure that it has a building that is safe and healthy for people,” Levy said.
During last week’s prompted inspection, Toronto Public Health checked the basement for black mould and found no signs of it. Students and faculty still remain concerned about entering the space.
The RTS opened in 1971 and this week marks its 40-year anniversary.
“We have a building that’s past its prime,” Fleming said. “In 1971, we were promised a new building. Forty years later, we’re still waiting,” Fleming said.
Levy acknowledged rebuilding or replacing the building is necessary but he said the university has been unsuccessful in finding a viable way to do that.
“Replacing the theatre is extremely difficult because the building divided by the number of students is hugely expensive,” Levy said, adding it would cost $50 million to $60 million for a building used by only a couple hundred students.
He said studies have been done to come up with a solution, but part of the problem is that any government funding the university may be able to secure is not enough to cover the cost of such a project. The other alternatives are subsidizing the cost by cutting other parts of the university’s budget or finding a donor that could help with the cost.
“Everyone thinks there’s some magical donor. Well, if there’s some magical donor, please introduce this person to us,” Levy said. “So you try to do a bit of repair, maintenance and keep it reasonably in good shape, but it’s never going to be in great shape. It’s always going to be in what was the first pharmaceutical faculty in Canada.”
“I’m really happy to leave,” Elgar said. “I want to go somewhere where I’ve got facilities where I can really practise my art. Ryerson doesn’t — we have the faculty, just not the facilities.”