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Artistic director Dennis Garnhum and executive director Deb Harvey of the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., on March 2.Geoff Robins/The Globe and Mail

There’s a certain dramatic irony in the Grand Theatre opening its doors again this month with one of the world’s best-known stories about confinement.

Room, an unorthodox musical based on local author Emma Donoghue’s acclaimed novel about a child held captive with his mother, will bring London’s liberated audiences back in earnest to the Ontario regional theatre that used the pandemic downtime to undergo a revivifying $9.5-million renovation.

The third time may be the charm for this international collaboration, which heads next to Mirvish Productions and the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto.

The newly renovated box office awaits patrons at the Grand Theatre.Geoff Robins/The Globe and Mail

Room 1.0, as Grand artistic director Dennis Garnhum calls it, was shut down just hours before opening night in March, 2020.

Room 2.0 was then supposed to open in January – until the Omicron lockdown came on the day of its dress rehearsal. “The truck was coming down the street to load in the set that had been stored for two years,” Garnhum recalls, while giving a tour of the behind-the-scenes aspects of the Grand’s renovations, which have improved everything from the lighting grid to the costume shop.

Just as Room was repeatedly interrupted by the pandemic, so too was a real-life story about reemergence – the Grand’s own return to being a theatre company of national interest.

London is booming – the Southern Ontario city’s metropolitan area is the fasting growing in the country east of British Columbia, according to the latest census numbers – and its professional theatre company has been as well.

The London Proud Lounge.Geoff Robins/The Globe and Mail

Donoghue may be a biased observer, but her initial impression of the local theatre company upon moving to London in 1998 was that it was one with “stuffy” main-stage programming. Approaching a previous artistic director with her plays, the Irish-Canadian author and playwright says she was told, “Oh no, there’s no audience for work like yours here; you’d have to go to Toronto.”

But since Garnhum took over in 2016, the Grand has shifted gears from producing safe, predictable fare to having the new and unexpected regularly take centre stage. The theatre company was unaccustomed to developing or premiering large-scale new work until Garnhum started what’s called the Compass New Play Development Program.

“There was a kind of defeatist attitude about what Londoners will go see,” Donoghue says. “Dennis charged in here and has the highest possible expectations for London.”

His programming first caught my eye when he started bringing in international work no one else was (the Grand was the sole Canadian stop for Britain’s National Theatre hit Barber Shop Chronicles) and sending original shows out into the world (such as Silence, Trina Davies’s play about Alexander Graham Bell that moved to Canada’s National Arts Centre).

The bar glows in the newly renovated Grand Theatre.Geoff Robins/The Globe and Mail

Indeed, The Grand had just announced its first-ever national tour – of Garnhum’s own immersive production of Cabaret – when COVID-19 arrived.

Notable shows now again on the horizon include a brand-new musical called Grow, about Amish teenagers who get mixed up in the cannabis trade, assembled in consultation with Come From Away producer Michael Rubinoff and backed by a group of private investors; Fall on Your Knees, playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s two-part adaptation of the Ann-Marie MacDonald novel, also playing in Ottawa, Halifax and Toronto in 2023; and the Ontario premiere of Controlled Damage, London playwright Andrea Scott’s drama about Viola Desmond, the civil-rights hero on the $10 bill.

But the Grand’s new motto under Garnhum – “World Curious, London Proud” – is perhaps best represented by Room, a collaboration between Donoghue and a pair of Scottish artists, director Cora Bissett and singer-songwriter Kathryn Joseph. The musical has been further developed in London, Ont., since its 2017 premiere in Scotland, England and Ireland.

Garnhum’s great expectations for the Grand and of its audiences come from the simple fact that he is from the city – he began his acting career there at age 13 and knew what the local theatre was capable of. Its past heydays have tended to be under the direction of luminaries from the nearby Stratford Festival: William Hutt was artistic director in the late 1970s, while Martha Henry ran it from 1988 to 1995. Garnhum had seen work that he felt was undeniably top-notch. “I was 17 watching [future Tony Award-winner] Brent Carver play Hamlet,” he recalls.

Garnhum and Harvey watch a rehearsal in the newly renovated theatre.Geoff Robins/The Globe and Mail

That production, which made a big impact on him, came during the season that former Stratford artistic director Robin Phillips tried to transform it into a repertory company.

But while Phillips’s brief reign garnered national attention for the Grand, it was damaging to the theatre. He destroyed a highly successful subscription model and alienated local supporters, and a million-dollar deficit left the company financially wobbly for the rest of the 20th century.

If Garnhum is supplying the artistic vision behind the Grand’s current renaissance, the foundation that allows it to be fulfilled in a sustainable fashion was built by executive director Deb Harvey, who is now preparing to retire after 22 years with the company.

Originally from Nova Scotia, Harvey came to the Grand as a consultant and interim manager in 2000 to do an organizational assessment when the company had once again landed $1-million in the red (on what was then a budget of $4-million).

The Grand Theatre used the pandemic downtime to undergo a revivifying $9.5-million renovation.Geoff Robins/The Globe and Mail

Harvey then took over as executive director and turned the theatre company around. She helped it run 20 consecutive surpluses (most of those during the 15-year tenure of Susan Ferley, who was Garnhum’s predecessor) until it finally ran a small deficit in 2021, a choice made over laying off any staff.

One example of Harvey’s uncommon foresight: The Grand already had major gifts lined up to cover the full $9.5-million renovation costs when the project was publicly announced. The money was therefore already in hand for the work to be able go ahead during COVID closures.

Another example: In November, 2019, while reassessing risk, Harvey decided to take out an extra layer of performance disruption insurance for $13,000. That investment has paid back $1.5-million to date during the pandemic, and it’s why – along with the federal wage subsidy – the Grand was able to get through without layoffs and was prepared to come back full-blast this spring.

I travelled to London for the first time in 2019, attracted by the new artistic ambition and intrigued by – if slightly skeptical of – the high-energy leadership of Garnhum, who has never been afraid to pitch his endeavours in London or at Theatre Calgary (which he ran from 2005 to 2016) as worthy of wider notice.

Revisiting the Grand to update my story in 2022, I found Garnhum to have a quieter demeanour.

He confessed that he had what he calls a breakdown in the summer of 2021 after a year and a half spent un-hiring artists and un-producing shows (including his still in-limbo tour of Cabaret).

Since Garnhum took over in 2016, the Grand Theatre has shifted gears from producing safe, predictable fare to having the new and unexpected regularly take centre stage.Geoff Robins/The Globe and Mail

Garnhum asked for a short sabbatical from his job and decided to walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain. “I went by myself – I left my kid and my husband behind,” he says. “They said to go because I was pretty lost and hurt.”

Hiking the Camino’s 830 kilometres over 32 days, Garnhum pondered leaving his job behind permanently. But he came back to Canada with renewed focus and as more of a listener, he says. Refreshed, he was able to remain fairly calm during the most recent January shutdown of the Grand – a month which, for many artistic directors running fall-to-spring Ontario theatre companies, has been the hardest, as the timing nipped relaunches in the bud.

More challenges lie ahead, of course, beyond those of the pandemic. London’s population growth – which has led to huge residential towers going up within walking distance of the Grand – means a bigger potential audience, but rising property values have made it more expensive to house artists. Production budgets are ballooning owing to the cost of raw materials and new staff hired to focus on the important areas of equity, diversity and inclusion have also impacted the theatre’s bottom line.

Despite all that, Garnhum continues to dream big for the Grand’s audience. His plans for an ambitious 2022/2023 season were green-lit at a recent board meeting, instead of a safer, smaller plan B. “We’re going to keep doing the work we believe in,” he says.

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