By Charlotte Prong Parkhill
Kitchener Post staff
At the moment that her grandfather died, Rachel Behling was appearing on stage for the first time in several years.
Edmund Kaufman was born and raised here, a fixture in Waterloo Region for his entire 96 years. And right up until he died, he owned and worked at his auto shop on Queen Street near Charles.
So when Behling finished her performance that night on the stage at Kaufman Arts Studio and heard the devastating news, she did just what her grandfather would have expected her to do — she kept working.
“I was here by myself after everyone had left, and I just said, ‘Papa, I have a rental tomorrow so I have to vacuum.’ That’s the Kaufman work ethic,” she says.
Behling, an actor, director and writer, opened the Kaufman Arts Studio in February 2011 in space that was formerly used as the parts department for Schlicter’s Automotive, the shop owned by her grandfather.
She had just returned to Kitchener with her daughter Brontë and was living with her grandfather when he first showed her the space.
“I started crying when I saw it. We have roots here. Our blood is in this soil,” she says.
With ‘Papa’ and Brontë, they started renovating the former parts department in the heart of downtown Kitchener into the collaborative arts space Behling had imagined.
Everything got a fresh coat of paint. They built washrooms and a greenroom. There’s a huge rehearsal and performing space with patchwork curtains that she made herself.
Behling also thought it was important to create a large lobby space, a spot where people could gather to network, share ideas and support each other. There are comfortable couches and shelves of books. The walls are covered with art, and there’s a kitchen to make snacks or tea.
But there’s no Internet connection.
“I did that on purpose, so people have to talk to each other,” Behling says.
“There was a need in the community for affordable rehearsal space that was for youth and their parents. A lot of spaces weren’t conducive to families.”
Then she opened the doors and started renting the space out to community theatre groups, indie folk artists and dancers. And over the months, without any grants or funds, the Kaufman Arts Studio began to evolve into a hub for grassroots artists.
“We’re kind of like the Working Centre, but for the arts,” she says.
Behling was at the centre of it all, acting as a facilitator and mentor for many of the young artists who started coming through the doors.
She listened to people’s ideas and helped connect them with other artists. She held a four-day event to raise scholarships for arts students.
“We were hoping it would fly and it did,” she says.
Then, just one month ago, her grandfather died. The building he owned is changing hands, and Behling will be closing down her beloved studio as of Dec. 31.
“I’m heartbroken. I’m absolutely heartbroken. I don’t have a choice,” she says.
“With death comes change.”
The final events later this year include a production by KW Youth Theatre, and, she hopes, a New Year’s Eve ceilidh. She’s starting to pack up now, with no real idea of what comes next.
For actor Jennifer Cornish, who has performed and led workshops at the Kaufman Arts Studio as well as attending plenty of performances by other artists, the loss is immeasurable.
“There was an enormous number of youth artists there, and more and more artists over the age of 18 were beginning to fall in love with and utilize the space,” she said.
“It was certainly integral in my meeting up with other members of the theatre and arts community that I had not had the pleasure to bump into.”
Cornish is one of many people in the community who are hoping that Behling finds a way to continue her work.
“What I want to see continue, and I can’t imagine it not, is enough support for Rachel to help her continue doing that thing she does: creating a safe space and bringing people together who need to meet each other.”
Behling is hoping for, at the least, a small space with a couch where she can continue to mentor youth in the arts community.
“I can’t afford not to do what I’m doing — for myself, and because the kids need it. I sleep with my phone, because we’re a family here,” she says.
“I hope even if there isn’t a space the work that goes on here will continue.”
But whatever happens next, she knows she would have the support of her grandfather.
In the weeks after he died, Behling and her father cleaned out her grandfather’s wardrobe. Because he had worked right up until his death, Kaufman kept his business cards in the pocket of his suit jackets.
He also kept a stack of Behling’s business cards from the Kaufman Arts Studio.
“He didn’t understand the arts, but he trusted me.”
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Kaufman Arts Studio
132 Queen St. S.
Leading up to the closing date of Dec. 31, Rachel Behling is selling furnishings, books, costumes and props from the Kaufman Arts Studio.
She is also looking for ideas and assistance to continue the studio. To contact her, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.