Home Sports Climbing in the old Papineau Theatre

Climbing in the old Papineau Theatre

by Matthew Lapierre March 8, 2016
Climbing in the old Papineau Theatre

Zero Gravité’s building is a large piece of the Plateau’s trendy history

On Papineau Avenue. in the Plateau, things are not as they once were. Factories are now cafés, working-class apartments have turned into trendy condos and an old theatre is now a rock-climbing gym.

Anxious rock-climbers look up and get ready to climb the wall. Photos by Melissa Martella.

Anxious rock-climbers look up and get ready to climb the wall. Photos by Melissa Martella.

The rock climbing gym features a wide, white, western style façade. It towers over a street which in eras past used to be filled with suited gentlemen and fashionable ladies looking for a cool night out. The long extinct crowds were attracted to the tall building by a bright backlit marquee which promised entertainment in the form of performance art. That same marquee which once projected movie titles and superstars’ names now reads: “Zero Gravité: Escalade et Yoga.”

Inside, Rose Riley works the cash. Riley is more than just a cashier: she is an experienced climber who has rock-climbed as far away as Thailand. She has only been working at Zero Gravité for nine months but loves it. Who wouldn’t? It has a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere. The walls are being mounted by climbers who are locked into intense mental struggles as they desperately cling to small plastic climbing holds high above the ground, yet can’t be seen by those reclining below.

Cool reggae floats around the main room, emanating from speakers embedded in a high ceiling embossed with carvings of gods and mythical beasts—the only vestige of the golden-era theatre it once was.

Despite taking up rock climbing less than a decade ago, Riley already has more experience on the hot end of a rope than most life-long climbers. As an employee, she enjoys climbing for free on Zero Gravité’s 120 climbing routes, which vary in difficulty from beginner to advanced, all of which, is inside a building that is almost 100 years old.

The walls are covered in plastic “rocks” and lined with ropes. Photos by Melissa Martella.

The walls are covered in plastic “rocks” and lined with ropes. Photos by Melissa Martella.

Originally built in 1921 as the Papineau theatre, Zero Gravité was first an auditorium, then a porn theatre and then a bingo hall. In 2012 it became what it is today thanks to the dream of Riley’s bosses: Eric Aubut and Patrick Lévesque, two Quebec-based climbers with a vision of completely transforming the old theatre into a facility dedicated to climbing. The building itself hasn’t changed on the outside. Inside however, it is entirely different. Where there was once a ticket desk there is now a snack bar. Where there was a lounge there is now a yoga studio. Where there was a balcony there is now a bouldering wall. Where the stage once stood, there is now a 37-foot high wall covered in tattooed climbers, artfully ascending a colourful plastic façade.

A climber makes their way up the wall. Photos by Melissa Martella.

A climber makes their way up the wall. Photos by Melissa Martella.

Community is important at Zero Gravité, as it is in many climbing gyms, according to Riley. They host frequent events ranging from competitions to parties. The community of climbers always turn out to make these events successful but still Riley doesn’t think Zero Gravité is unique: “It’s the same feeling of comradery and community you see around any climbing gym,” she said.

Zero Gravité’s building is a large part of Le Plateau’s history. Photos by Melissa Martella.

Zero Gravité’s building is a large part of Le Plateau’s history. Photos by Melissa Martella.

However, Zero Gravité is not just any climbing gym. On the walls, in the same spot where years ago a stage displayed the finest performing art of the era, a thin climber with a ghostly forest tattoo on her back maneuvers her way beautifully up a brightly coloured route. The inked images appear to shift and move with her muscles as if the trees are being shaken by a strong winter wind. Zero Gravité is special. Performance art is still being displayed here, but now in the form of climbing. Though the actors have changed, the purpose of the old theatre has not. In the historic Papineau Theatre, things have changed, but in a way they are just as they once were.

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