A person sings while sitting on stage to another person playing the piano and sings back. Photo courtesy of Henry Chan

Toronto Theatre Guide

Toronto contains the third largest English-speaking theatre district in the world, after London’s West End and New York City’s Broadway. But how do you navigate it? Here, to get you started, are five theatres, and their neighbourhoods, that deserve standing ovations.

Man hanging with large art piece in background Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, the longest-running queer theatre in the world. Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh
Buddies in Bad Times Theatre
Church Wellesley Village

Founded in 1979, Buddies is the largest and the longest-running queer theatre in the world. Just as the LGBTQ2S+ community has grown and diversified, so too has the theatre’s programming, which has included some of the earliest plays by co-founder Sky Gilbert, Daniel MacIvor, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Tawiah M’Carthy and Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory. Collaborations with Obsidian, the city’s leading Black theatre company, and the Indigenous-led Native Earth Performing Arts, have showcased the range of queer and experimental work.

The theatre’s position in the Church Wellesley Village means queer history, and helpful resources, are just steps away. Among the places to see are the 519 Community Centre, the AIDS memorial and Glad Day Bookshop. The latter is one of the few remaining queer bookstores in the world, and besides being able to find scripts of some of the plays that debuted at Buddies, you’ll also find poetry and comedy events, as well as the always popular drag brunch. With all that going on, it’s “Shantay, you stay” – in the neighbourhood – after attending something at Buddies.

Exterior of Crows Theatre building Streetcar Crowsnest, located in Toronto's Leslieville. Photo by Dahlia Katz.
Crow's Theatre

For the longest time, Toronto theatre was centred in the west end. But with the 2017 launch of the $11-million theatre complex at the base of a new condo in Leslieville, all of that changed. Under artistic director Chris Abraham, Crow’s, which had mounted shows at other venues for 25 years, has proved one of the most exciting artistic hubs in the city. And the company’s programming, which has included works by Michael Healey, Cliff Cardinal, Kristen Thomson and Hannah Moscovitch, remains unparalleled in terms of critical success and popularity.

Leslieville has become a hot spot for microbreweries, with places like Saulter Street Brewery and Eastbound Brewing Company providing the perfect backdrop to discuss the show you’ve just seen. And if you’re looking to chill out, two of the city’s nicest parks are within walking distance. Up the street is the beautifully maintained Withrow Park, and to the west is Broadview Park, which includes a view of the TO skyline so stunning you might be inspired to write your own play one day.

Building on street corner Founded in 1970 Tarragon Theatre is considered a premiere place to see new Canadian drama. Photo Courtesy of Tarragon Theatre
Tarragon Theatre
Tarragon Village

The story of Canadian theatre would be incomplete without the Tarragon, founded in 1970 and long considered the premiere place to see new Canadian, and occasionally international, drama. Now-legendary plays like Kristen Thomson’s I, Claudia and Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt’s 2 Pianos, 4 Hands began at the Tarragon, and for a time you could depend on seeing the latest by David French, Michel Tremblay (whose works were translated into English), Judith Thompson and Hannah Moscovitch there. Under new artistic director Mike Payette, the theatre has attempted to better represent the diversity of the city, with exciting results.

The theatre is so beloved, in fact, that the surrounding area has recently been branded Tarragon Village. Its distinguished neighbour to the north is the imposing, grand Casa Loma – a must visit for newcomers – as well as the less well known Spadina Museum. The eclectic, student-friendly Annex neighbourhood is a 10-minute walk south, and if you travel a few blocks west you’ll get to Christie Pits Park, which has enough history for a half dozen plays, as well as the delicious eateries of Koreatown.

Theatre building exterior with name royal alexandra theatre The historic Royal Alexandra Theatre opened in 1907. Photo by Blair Francey, courtesy of Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts.
Royal Alexandra Theatre
King Street West

Don’t be surprised if the elegance of this historic venue – opened in 1907, it’s the oldest continuously operating legitimate theatre in North America – upstages whatever show you’re about to see. Everyone from John Gielgud and Paul Robeson to the Marx Brothers and Edith Piaf have performed under its splendid proscenium stage. Before Canada had its own theatre industry, acts from the UK and the USA regularly performed here. They still do, of course, but some homegrown hits have also entertained audiences. Indigenous writer Tomson Highway’s Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing made history in 1991 as the first Canadian play to get a full production here. More recently, the feel-good musical Come From Away played the Royal Alex before it transferred south, where it broke records as the longest-running Canadian musical in Broadway history.

Located in the heart of the entertainment district, other well-known venues – like the Princess of Wales Theatre, the TIFF Bell Lightbox and Roy Thomson Hall – are mere steps away. So are some of the city’s most scrumptious eateries and trendy bars. You can’t go wrong with PAI Northern Thai Kitchen, just around the corner. Although for pre-show dinners, make sure you tell your server the time of your play so you don’t create any unnecessary drama.

Exterior of building with lit name Young Centre for the Performing Arts Soulpepper is located inside the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. Photo Courtesy of Young Centre for the Performing Arts
Soulpepper Theatre
Distillery District

Founded in 1998 to mount lesser-known stage classics, Soulpepper moved to its current permanent space in the Distillery District in 2005, and quickly set about changing the city’s theatre landscape. Its Academy is one of the most prestigious and successful training hubs in the country – many of its graduates have gone on to lead theatres of their own. And Soulpepper has helped develop works like Ins Choi’s Kim’s Convenience, which went on to sitcom glory, as well as a series of sold-out cabarets and concerts.

A trip to a Soulpepper show wouldn’t be complete without a stroll through the atmospheric, brick-paved Distillery District, populated by galleries, boutiques, cafes and the distilleries and brew pubs that harken back to the area’s history. Cluny Bistro & Boulangerie is located a few steps away from the theatre, making it the perfect spot for pre- or post-show dining. If you’ve got a bit more time, you can venture east and check out Corktown Common, which includes a marsh, boardwalk and off-leash dog park. Nearby is the infamous Cube House and the Underpass Skatepark, which in addition to giving skaters a place to strut their stuff also displays some of the most colourful and inventive graffiti in the city.

Your trip at a glance

This guide represents a weekend-long experience, highlighting one of the many wonderful destinations in the area. To suggest a destination for a future guide, please CONTACT US.

Ontario Culture Days thanks DESTINATION TORONTO and TORONTO ALLIANCE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS for their support and assistance with this ON Culture Guide to Toronto Theatre. All editorial decisions were made at the sole discretion of Ontario Culture Days staff.

This guide was written by GLENN SUMI.