At 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 2, 2019 — it was dark and cloudy in London, Ont., with the temperature just below freezing — Grand Theatre artistic director Dennis Garnhum summoned donors and patrons to the Spriet stage. With the house lights low and a single ghost light onstage, Garnhum announced that Grand Ghosts, a new play by Canadian playwright Trina Davies, would launch the theatre’s 2021-22 season.
The date of the Grand’s announcement was symbolic: It had been on Dec. 2, 1919 — exactly 100 years earlier — that Canadian entertainment magnate Ambrose Small sold his chain of theatres for $1.7 million, deposited the money at a bank and then disappeared, never to be seen again. At least, never to be seen in the flesh again. In the 100-plus years since Small’s disappearance, his ghostly manifestations in and around his once-favourite theatre have been some of the most persistent (and saleable) tales at the city’s venerable arts institution.
According to the Grand, Small was “a ruthless businessman with a fondness for gambling and women; qualities that did not endear him to his employees, his business partners, his gambling rivals or the ladies of his life.” The Davies commission, financed through the COMPASS new play development program with additional funding from Tourism London, would explore one of the city’s most lingering mysteries.
To add import to the occasion on that night in 2019, the Grand invited journalist and author Katie Daubs, who three months earlier had published The Missing Millionaire: The True Story of Ambrose Small and the City Obsessed With Finding Him. Daubs shared some fascinating stories drawn from her new book. Davies, meanwhile, appeared via a video link from Vancouver. In describing the development of the new play, Davies said that, with Grand Ghosts, “audiences will be invited on a ghost hunt to experience the Grand in a way they never have before. Areas of the theatre that have been previously unseen by the general public will be exposed, along with the stories that are held within the building’s 1901 bricks and mortar. This hunt may open up something that has long been hidden within the theatre: the story of Ambrose Small, his disappearance, and all those around him that felt entitled to a piece of the action.”
Fast forward one pandemic, a building renovation and nearly three years later, and Grand Ghosts, in its new incarnation, is a dramatically different show than the apparition Davies had conjured. Gone are the suggestions that audiences would explore the theatre’s haunted spots, even entering the building via a shadowy, circuitous route. Instead, the show has gone vaudeville.
“The Grand started as a vaudeville theatre and would regularly have travelling acts cross its stage,” Davies says in the theatre’s latest press release. “Bringing the theatre back to its roots, over 100 years later, is truly exciting.” What she has produced, the theatre’s release says, “is a ghostly spectacle bursting with music, dancing and spectacular vaudeville acts.” In the show, the ghosts who haunt the Grand (yes, there are others) return to relive “what actually happened on that fateful day.”
“This has been quite a process — unlike any other than I’ve been a part of,” Davies said when I spoke with her earlier today. ” The first draft of this play — probably mid-2019 — was over 200 pages long and did exactly what we’d talked about early on. It was an experience where the audience would come in through a non-traditional entrance (not through the front doors) and there were going to be scenes and experiences backstage, all around the lobby, things that would travel. And then there would be a main-stage show. The intermission would involve more of those kinds of experiences and then you’d come back for the end of the main-stage show. That was the concept at the time.”
All along, however, Davies was concerned about how the site-specific show would work in a theatre as big as the Grand, with as many as 800 patrons at a time. “It was a bit of a mind puzzle,” she said.
When former executive director Deb Harvey heard about the plan in May 2019, she was taken aback.
“Deb said, ‘You want to do WHAT?'” Davies remembers. There were all kinds of emergency exit issues, along with logistics and safety concerns.
“It was all very challenging that way. And then, of course, COVID happened. That added a whole other layer to it. And the idea that we had to go into all these spaces kind of got dropped — which was actually a huge gift for me, because that was really stressful…. So then it became a more traditional stage play. I call it a play with singing, dancing and vaudeville acts. It’s not strictly a musical, but there is a lot of music in it now.
“Thankfully, Allen Cole, the composer, came on this year. He’s amazing; he’s done beautiful work. And he actually agreed, at the last minute, to be onstage as the pianist, so he’s right there, every night,” Davis said. The lyrics and music ended up being a collaboration between the two.
“It was a learning process for me. I’m really happy with how things have turned out, although I don’t know, if I were to go back to myself five years ago, that I would take it on again.”
Audiences during the show’s previews this week have responded enthusiastically, “right off the hop,” Davies says.
“I do feel a special connection to London,” she adds. “When I came for Silence, I stayed here for a month. I was at rehearsal every day, living and working here, digging into the fantastic resources of the London Public Library. This time, too, it feels a little bit like home. I feel like I have my neighbourhood when I’m here and I just really love working in London and working at the Grand…. I hope to return and work at the Grand and be in London again.”
Meanwhile, patrons will be left to decide what happened to Small — and whether the radical pivot from the audience-interactive mode to the vaudeville format tells the story effectively.
(Additional images from the Grand Theatre’s production of Grand Ghosts can be found in a Facebook post by London photographer Morris Lamont. London Free Press entertainment writer Joe Belanger’s adoring review is here.)
World Premiere of
By Trina Davies
Directed by Jillian Keiley
Musical director, composer and pianist: Allen Cole
The Grand Theatre, London, Ont.
October 18-November 5, 2022
Cast: Tess Benger, Jesse Gervais, Cyrus Lane, Katelyn McCulloch, Christian Murray, Andrew Prashad, Jan Alexandra Smith, Tahirih Vejdani and Anthony Raymond Yu
Buy tickets here.