Attending a show at the Rickshaw Theatre is a very unique experience. Right from the entrance, the venue feels comfortable. The staff out front seem happy to be where they are. The ground facing the stage is angled down very slightly, so that those who are in front are lowest, and those in the back of the audience area are higher. There are spiral staircases leading from the carpeted main lobby to the washrooms, and there are movie theatre seats just behind the main standing area. Most unique of all, with regards to the Rickshaw, are the meticulous yet genre-defying lineups.
I spoke with Mo Tarmohamed, owner of the Rickshaw, about the venue and the experience that the place aims to provide. He had previously been an accountant, but decided to change careers for something a bit more close to his interests. The previous owner had converted the Rickshaw into a music venue and, upon Mo’s asking around about buying a music venue, offered up the theatre to purchase.
“I am always looking for new music.” Mo said, when asked about the shows he enjoyed going to, “ I never got particularly stuck in one era.” This ideology can be seen in the shows hosted at the Rickshaw. Bands range from hardcore punk and death metal to indie singer-songwriters and shoegaze artists. “I just wanted to diversify as much as possible. I wanted to make sure one night you could have Sharon Van Etten, the next night, Mayhem.” Whoever’s set to play, you can be sure that Mo supports them.
Most features of the Rickshaw can be attributed to two things: firstly, it was started as a kung-fu movie theater in 1971, and in 2009, was renovated into a live music venue. The staircase, the marquee out front — these are all relics of the time the Rickshaw was a theater. Second, the space is meant to be fully focused on the performance. Aspects such as the friendly bouncers and staff, the minimalistic bar, and the slanted standing area (a relic from when the ground was covered in theatre seats), all have the simple goal of keeping the audience’s attention on what’s happening on the stage. “Everything’s pointed towards the stage.” Mo says that he wants all aspects of interacting with the space, from bouncers to coat check to bartenders, focused on the performer and act accordingly. “Our bartenders will dim their lights during the show. Even they don’t become a distraction to what’s going on.”
“I was approached by someone who wanted to put a photo booth in the main room,” Mo recalls, “and I was really resistant to the idea. I don’t want distractions. The main distraction should be what’s on stage.” Such focus from a venue to the stage is rare. Mo runs a tight ship in regards to the Rickshaw — it’s clear that there’s little wiggle room for anything that doesn’t elevate the audience experience. This focus is often noticed by performers, especially by those unaccustomed to much attention at all. “I’ve had local artists tell me that just being on the stage and getting the lighting treatment and the great sound upped their game a little bit … it feels like a stepping stone.”
Located just east of Main and Hastings, attendees and performers alike walk through the stigmatized neighbourhood of the Downtown Eastside to get to the venue, and Mo is well aware of this. He is sympathetic to patron’s potential unease, but finds that the unease wanes with each show attended: “I can understand being uncomfortable initially coming to this area, but once [concert-goers] have been to the venue once or twice, that level of uncomfort simply dissipates.” On behalf of the Rickshaw’s role within the immediate community, Mo said, “The level of stigma is slowly evaporating and I think the Rickshaw is partially responsible for getting people out to this area. I think collectively, we need to do something about this area, but it’s not a scary area.”
All in all, the Rickshaw is both a music lover and musician’s greatest dream. The Rickshaw is a physical embodiment of devotion to the experience of musicians, dancers, artists, and audience alike. There are no guarantees on what type of performance will be happening on any given night, but you can be sure the night will be authentic.
Visit rickshawtheatre.com for upcoming Rickshaw Theatre listings.