Players’ Theatre’s office, located in Room 309 of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) building, was closed indefinitely on Feb. 12 after tests performed in preparation for the upcoming building construction showed high levels of disturbed asbestos in the space. Although SSMU staff retrieved musical instruments from the room on March 5, personal property remains quarantined due to health and safety risks of exposure to disturbed asbestos.
“As standard protocol for a construction project, the areas [to] be affected by the construction are tested to determine if they contain materials like asbestos,” SSMU Vice-President (VP) Student Life Jemark Earle said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “Other areas of the University Centre have materials containing asbestos, but Players’ Theatre was the only area flagged because of the substantial damage to the materials containing asbestos.”
The entire SSMU building will close to the public on March 17. However, the evacuation of Room 309 was sudden and unexpected, and disrupted the theatre’s 30th annual McGill Drama Festival, which was supposed to run from Feb. 7 to 17. The festival, largely organized by Coordinator Gretel Kahn, had already been rescheduled following SSMU’s announcement of the building closure.
“The McGill Drama Festival is an event that is scheduled in March and April,” Kahn said. “But after hearing about the building closure, we decided […] to move the festival to February [….] I have been organizing this for months.”
On Feb. 14, part way through the festival, SSMU relocated the Theatre to the Cafeteria on the second floor of the SSMU building for it to continue its performances. Despite this, all shows were cancelled that day because the Players’ Theatre executives were unable to retrieve their props, costumes, instruments, and equipment from Room 309.
“Music students left their instruments in the theatre space,” Kahn said. “One of the keyboard players asked me if he can get his keyboard back, because he has a show. I wasn’t able to help him.”
Of all the Players’ Theatre productions, the drama festival draws the largest audience and generates the most revenue. Given how disruptive the sudden closure has been for their operations, Players’ Theatre members have expressed frustration over not receiving advanced notice of the original inspection.
“Our biggest concern is [why] this wasn’t made an issue before we had 50 students working months to put on this show,” Cheyenne Cranston, Players’ Theatre events coordinator, said.
However, Earle stressed that SSMU has the right to conduct inspections without notice.
“Players’ Theatre was not informed of the subsequent inspection by SSMU as it was deemed a safety issue and the SSMU may intervene in any area of the University Centre without prior notification if there [is] a safety or security concern,” Earle said.
It is unclear how significant a health risk the level of contamination in the theatre space poses.
“The material tested contained 0.1 per cent up to 5 per cent asbestos,” Earle said. “We can’t really comment on health risks, [you] would have to consult a medical professional.”
Besides the McGill Drama Festival, the group originally had a co-production scheduled with the McGill comedy sketch troupe Bring Your Own Juice (BYOJ) later this semester. Due to the closure of the theatre, Players’ Theatre was unable to offer a space to BYOJ, forcing the comedy team to relocate its three-day annual event to MainLine Theatre, a venue in the Plateau that is not affiliated with McGill.
While SSMU will be arranging a new theatre space for Players’ Theatre during the building closure, the exact location has not yet been determined.
“We’ve been assured that we will have some type of functional space,” Cranston said. “But we don’t know what that would look like at all. We’re still in the process of figuring that out.”