With the coronavirus pandemic still in full swing, and with a major multi-million-dollar renovation project underway, London’s Grand Theatre is launching several free virtual initiatives to fill the void left by the cancellation of its 2020/21 season and High School Project.
Announced on Thursday, the programming, seen as an intermission of sorts, will be comprised of a new podcast, online lessons for high school students, and a virtual “Un-Opening” event on what would have been the start of the theatre’s upcoming season.
In June, the theatre shelved its 2020/21 season three weeks after its unveiling, cancelled its High School Project production of Barnum, and also put on pause a major cross-country tour of Cabaret. The pandemic also halted work on a significant $9-million renovation project to modernize the theatre’s box office and lobbies, update its sound and lighting systems, and expand backstage areas.
Work on the renovation, the largest the Grand’s seen in 40 years, resumed again over the summer, meaning the theatre “can’t even bring you in if we wanted to,” said Artistic Director Dennis Garnhum.
“So we’re going to come out to you.”
One of the theatre’s first online offerings, set to begin on Saturday, will be a weekly podcast hosted by the Grand’s technical director, Daniel Bennett.
The free podcast, Grand Walks, will see Bennett joined by a different guest each week who will take listeners on a journey through different parts of the city. Six episodes are initially planned, and a map of each episode’s route will be available for download.
“We talk about being world curious and London proud. This one is very, very London proud,” Garnhum said of the podcast during an interview Thursday with 980 CFPL’s Jess Brady.
Three guests have already been announced, including local restaurateur Marie Williams of Reggae’s Caribbean Restaurant who will focus on Kipps Lane, Ed Blake Park and the city’s Jamaican community, and Western University President Dr. Alan Shepard who will “stroll along the Thames” with his dog.
The first guest, renowned author Emma Donahue, will take listeners to her favourite Wortley Village spots, according to the theatre. A stage adaptation of Donahue’s book, Room, was in the midst of production at the Grand when the theatre’s doors closed in March.
The second online offering will be an revamped, online version of the theatre’s long-running High School Project.
In pre-pandemic and pre-renovation times, the project would see high schoolers from across the region come to the Grand to act or work behind the scenes on a production that would then be performed in front of an audience on the main stage.
“This time of the year… we should be doing a show. We’re not. So instead, we’re going online,” Garnhum said.
“We’re not going to put a musical online. Instead, we’re gonna use this as a great opportunity to switch and pivot and ask the students what they think we should be doing with the High School Project, and also teaching them and going deep into the idea of ‘how do we put musicals together?'”
The Grand Theatre website says the program will “empower students to develop and pitch a show concept to the Grand Theatre’s team. You’ll learn how to envision a musical from start to finish with the help of an expert line-up of theatre staff and guest artists.”
The free online High School Project will begin the week of Oct. 19 with students working in groups for 90 minutes twice a week via Zoom. It will finish four weeks later with a virtual parent presentation event of show pitches. Registration begins Oct. 9.
Last but not least, with the theatre’s planned Oct. 22 season opening scrapped, Garnum says they have a virtual plan for that as well: an “Un-Opening Night” that will be held by online video chat.
“I love an opening night and we’re going to have one for the Grand this year,” he said.
“We’re going to talk about the renovation, we’re going to talk about the things we’re doing, we have some surprise guests come, and we’re going to make sure people know we are here and alive.”
The free event will begin at 7 p.m. and will be available to watch until Oct. 30.
The Grand says it’s particularly aware of the impact the pandemic has had on nearby businesses, including the many restaurants who would have been humming on opening night with audience members getting pre-show dinners or post-show drinks.
With that in mind, those planning on watching the “Un-Opening Night” are being encouraged to get take-out or delivery from some of the theatre’s downtown dining partners beforehand.
“What if, on the night… you’re gonna go downtown, you’re going to pick up your dinner from one of our great colleagues, you’re gonna go home, you’re going to have that dinner in front of the computer while we celebrate with you, and feel like you had the night out?” Garnhum said.
“It’ll just be a little different kind of night out, but you’ll also be supporting the great restaurants in the downtown core.”
Registration for the event begins Oct. 15 on the Grand’s website.
“When you walk by the Grand right now, don’t feel sad for us that it’s all dark and nothing’s happening. Go online. Let’s do theatre in a different way in our city, and let’s make it a year to show that we can do great things no matter what,” Garnhum said.