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Coal Mine Theatre co-founders Diana Bentley and Ted Dykstra in their new venue at 2076 Danforth Avenue, in Toronto.Eng. C Lau/Handout

Get ready to rock out on the Danforth.

For eight seasons now, Toronto’s intimate Coal Mine Theatre has been a place for discerning theatregoers to catch smart productions of off-off-Broadway style shows such as The Father (before the Oscar-winning film came out), Superior Donuts (before the sitcom came out) and Between Riverside and Crazy (before last year’s Broadway production).

Now it’s adding a world premiere musical to that mix. DION: A Rock Opera will premiere at the east-end company’s space next February as part of its four-show 2023/2024 season. Besides being a global debut, it also marks the first time a show has been developed at the company.

“Creating and developing new works has always been where we wanted to go, but it hasn’t always been possible,” says Coal Mine’s co-founder Ted Dykstra, who credits a grant from the Canada Council and money from the Slaight Family Foundation for providing the support to work on the piece.

Dion is based on Euripides’s The Bacchae, a play Dykstra knows well, having starred in a Stratford production decades ago with Colm Feore.

In this version, penned by Dykstra and the PEI-based writer Steven Mayoff, the Dionysus figure – played by Jacob MacInnis – is a non-binary, self-proclaimed demi-God who has attracted many disenfranchised people to their home in the hills. This upsets conservative right-wing leader Pentheus.

Dykstra says the entirely-sung-through show feels especially topical, and he’s thrilled to have MacInnis, who is a non-binary performer, in the lead role.

“There’s recently been a move to represent different experiences on stages, and I think a lot of the time people are trying to put square pegs in round holes. But this is a show about freedom and was created with a non-binary character in mind. Having MacInnis play Dion is wonderful; as they’ve said themselves, it’s the role of a lifetime because they’re not trying to be anyone other than who they are.”

The cast, directed by queer provocateur Peter Hinton-Davis, also includes James Daly, Allan Louis, Sate, Max Borowski, Saccha Dennis, Taurian Teelucksingh and Kelsey Verzotti, with Come From Away’s Bob Foster doing the musical direction.

Coal Mine’s season launches this September with the Canadian premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s comedy-drama Appropriate, which won an Obie Award for best new American play back in 2015 and is getting a Broadway staging in November.

The cast includes Alison Beckwith, Raquel Duffy, Amy Lee, Hannah Levinson, Gray Powell, Andy Trithardt and Mackenzie Wojcik.

The season’s other world premiere arrives next May with a female-led version of Ibsen’s classic Hedda Gabler. Liisa Repo-Martell, whose version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya for Crow’s Theatre was one of the jewels of last season, is penning a new adaptation of this feminist classic, with Moya O’Connell directing, Metric’s Emily Haines writing an original score and Coal Mine co-founder Diana Bentley playing the title role. The ensemble cast includes Andrew Chown, Shawn Doyle, Qasim Khan and Nancy Palk.

“Before the pandemic, my acting mentor, Lindy Davies, told me I needed to play Hedda, and if I did she would come from Australia and direct me in it,” explains Bentley, who’s married to Dykstra. “But that fell apart during the pandemic. So I decided to direct it. When I asked Liisa if she’d write a new adaptation, she said, ‘I don’t understand why you aren’t playing Hedda,’ and I told her I was directing. But her words stuck with me – why didn’t I want to act in it? And I think it was because I didn’t know who my collaborator was going to be. It’s such a specific text and world, and I knew I wanted to work with a woman.”

Then, a couple of months ago, when Coal Mine was rehearsing The Sound Inside starring O’Connell, the two began talking about Ibsen’s play, which O’Connell had famously starred in at the Shaw Festival and recently directed in Vancouver.

“I remember saying to Ted, ‘Wow, is Moya the person to direct this play?’ And he said, ‘She’s 100 per cent your person.’”

Jani Lauzon’s Prophecy Fog will take over the Coal Mine stage for a month beginning in mid-November. That transcendent show, which made several top 10 lists (including my own) after its brief run at the Theatre Centre in 2019 and has since toured the country, was supposed to be mounted as part of Coal Mine’s season last fall, but had to be cancelled after a fire destroyed the theatre’s performance space.

Coal Mine’s rise from the ashes – and its move east along the Danforth to its new home at Woodbine from its space at Coxwell – is one of the Toronto theatre community’s most inspiring stories itself.

“Some 700 people donated everything from $5 to $50,000,” Dykstra said. “We raised about $450,000 in six months. Heritage Canada also helped us with the building. All of that is the reason why we’re sitting here today.”

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