Terra Bruce Productions, a commercial theatre company with national ambitions founded in Newfoundland and Labrador five years ago, is still terra incognito to most theatregoers in Canada.
But the growing enterprise is “aggressively” – to use chief operating officer (and Great Big Sea co-founder) Bob Hallett’s word – pursuing plans to put itself on the musical-theatre map in this country, many of which will become clear over the next 12 months.
Terra Bruce, a passion project and a start-up backed by retired Winnipeg-born, Toronto-based and Newfoundland-loving businessman Walter Schroeder, is set to premiere three new musicals this year on an east-to-west circuit. The shows, written around pre-existing songs, will play in St. John’s, Halifax and Toronto.
Additionally, Terra Bruce will open the Majestic Theatre in St. John’s this summer after an approximately $3-million renovation transforms the downtown 1918 venue – which has spent stints as a warehouse, a dance club and most recently a derelict space – into a 350-seat theatre.
But the company’s most significant investment in terms of the future of truly homegrown commercial theatre in this country is coming in 2025 to midtown Toronto.
The Regent Theatre on Mount Pleasant Road was purchased by the company in 2020. Long known as a movie house, it also played a crucial role in the development of Canadian theatre when it operated as the Crest in the 1950s and 1960s.
Terra Bruce is working on an extensive rebuild, with an estimated budget of $50-million, that will preserve some heritage elements but centres on a state-of-the-art auditorium with 600 seats. NORR Architects and Hariri Pontarini Architects, the firm behind the Stratford Festival’s new Tom Patterson Theatre, are both involved.
The space is crucial to the company’s business plan, which (for now) involves rehearsing and opening modestly budgeted new revue-sicals and jukebox musicals with eight to 12-actor casts in Newfoundland, where production costs are cheaper, before bringing them to the country’s biggest city, where they can attempt to earn their investment back.
But the redevelopment, the details of which Terra Bruce will be holding a public meeting about on April 13, would also open up a much-needed space for the creation or transfer of other shows that won’t have to be imported hits or international tours in order to turn a profit.
If Toronto’s commercial theatre scene is stunted and dominated by a single, big player (Mirvish Productions), it is partly the result of having few venues that are the size of the smaller Broadway and West End theatres, typically 500 to 800 seats.
This means producers and presenters often end up putting on shows in bigger houses here than in New York, despite smaller audiences. (An example is upstart More Entertainment’s production of Rock of Ages, currently playing at the 1,539-seat Elgin Theatre; the original Broadway production recouped at the 597-seat Helen Hayes.)
“Our hope is that because of the size and because of the infrastructure we’re putting into it, we should be able to to make this an economical space for other companies and other entities to use too,” says Hallett, over the phone from St. John’s. “We’re not going to use it ourselves for 365 days.”
The bulk of Toronto’s theatres are not-for-profit black boxes with 200 seats or less – too small to make money in. The rest are mostly 1,000 seats and up, making them useful as a road house or for the occasional Canadian-cast production of an international hit, but too risky for new work. The main privately owned theatrical venue similar in size to the proposed Regent is the CAA Theatre, a 700-seat space whose years have been numbered since Mirvish Productions sold it to developers in 2015. (It’s where Terra Bruce made its Toronto debut with No Change in the Weather in the fall of 2021.)
To get the Regent Theatre off the ground, Terra Bruce has tapped Franco Boni, who saw the Theatre Centre to a permanent home on Queen Street West during his tenure as artistic and general manager of that not-for-profit company.
Boni, who first came on as a consultant in January, 2022, and is now executive and program director, gave The Globe and Mail an exclusive tour of the Regent in its current unheated and stripped state in March.
Built in 1927 as the Belsize, the venue’s live theatrical zenith was in the 1950s and 1960s when it was the Crest, a company formed by brothers Donald and Murray Davis and Barbara Chilcott, their sister.
Though the company lasted for only 13 years, it is seen as the beginning of a local, professional theatre scene in Toronto. The likes of Jackie Burroughs, Richard Monette, Kate Reid, Francis Hyland and Gordon Pinsent graced its productions.
Indeed, before he died, Pinsent – who met his wife, Charmion King, while acting in a 1961 production of The Madwoman of Chaillot there – revisited the theatre with Terra Bruce’s leaders and reminisced about its bad sightlines and basement dressing rooms.
While the intent is to save, restore or recreate certain elements, including the crumbling zodiac-themed ceiling in the lobby, Boni says the auditorium is irredeemable for live performance. The highlight of the new facility – which is planned at three storeys and to expand onto a parking lot – will be a new one with two balconies and an orchestra pit.
The 380-seat orchestra level will be equipped with high-tech and high-priced seating from Montreal’s Gala Systems that can collapse into the floor at the push of a button, turning the theatre into an event space. (The Regent, Boni says, will be the first venue in Ontario to have this type of seating.)
“We are recreating a brand-new theatre,” is how Boni puts it of the space, which he notes is already close to the Davisville subway station but will be just a six-minute walk from the new Eglinton Crosstown when the light-rail line opens. (Terra Bruce has filed Site Plan Approval and Committee of Adjustment applications with the city.)
While Terra Bruce’s theatrical operations are intended to be profitable, the cost of the Regent is not factored in. Boni describes the theatre as Schroeder’s “philanthropic gift” to Toronto.
Schroeder, who sold the debt ratings agency DBRS in 2014 to private equity firms for a reported US$500-million, declined an interview about Terra Bruce or its future theatres in St. John’s and Toronto. But it’s clear his involvement goes beyond being the money source.
No Change in the Weather, a musical based around Newfoundland contemporary and traditional songs that was the company’s first outing, initially credited Schroeder as co-writer when it opened at the Resource Centre for the Arts in St. John’s and then embarked on an eight-city tour in 2019.
That show concerned a family reuniting after the death of its matriarch and also went deep into the history of the Churchill Falls hydro development debacle – a subject of keen interest to Schroeder.
In a program note for the revised production that played in 2021, Schroeder – now listed as Terra Bruce’s executive producer – explained that he was impressed by the culture, resourcefulness and humour of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians “during 30-plus years that I was travelling to and involved with the credit rating of Newfoundland and Labrador” and outlined his vision of “building a company which could create a musical, one which could tell some of the true stories of Newfoundland.”
Early on-board with that vision was Hallett, who in recent years has branched out into theatre as the live-music industry has declined. He’s worked with American producers Junkyard Dog as the Newfoundland music consultant on Come From Away, as well as with Sheridan College and the Stratford Festival. “It was the right time, the right place for me,” he says of signing on in 2018 when Schroeder “now had the time to aggressively pursue this idea.”
While No Change in the Weather was not a money maker (and its critical reception was mixed), the experience of taking the show across the country and renting theatres led Schroeder and Hallett to the conclusion, as other producers have had before them, that the key to the theatre business is to own your own real estate.
“When the decision was made, okay, we’re going to become a real, functioning theatre company and we’re going to do seasons and multiple productions, obviously we needed a certain degree of infrastructure to support that,” Hallett says.
The plan is that, eventually, the Majestic in St John’s and the Regent in Toronto will have similar technological set-ups, so shows will be able to transfer from one to the other with just a little tinkering. “We’re creating software and operational systems that will operate both theatres, even though they there are in different cities 1,500 miles apart,” Hallett says.
At the moment, Terra Bruce has built up close to 20 full-time employees in St John’s to work on developing its musicals. Newfoundland and Labrador was perhaps primed to become a major centre for the art form given the international success of Come From Away – the hit Canadian musical that, though set in Gander and drawing on the sound of Atlantic Canada’s rich music scene, was created by a couple of come-from-aways based in Toronto, Irene Sankoff and David Hein.
“It’s not like musicals didn’t exist or original musicals didn’t exist here, but there’s certainly been a boom of that happening since Come From Away happened,” says Courtney Brown, artistic associate at Terra Bruce.
Most of the ideas for the company’s productions currently on tap are from concepts and ideas that Schroeder and Hallett came up with in their conversations, Brown says. “We take that and we try and spin it into a story, see what works, see what doesn’t work,” she explains.
First out of a seven-show inventory built up over the pandemic will be Let’s Dance! Featuring pop and rock ‘n’ roll songs of the early 1960s (think Petula Clark and the Seekers), the comedy is about a failed opera singer who becomes a high-school music teacher. It’s written by Victoria Wells-Smith and directed by Keith Pike, and premieres at Holy Heart Theatre in St. John’s in July, before heading to Halifax and then Toronto at the Winter Garden in August. (It was slated to be the CAA Theatre until a couple of weeks ago – driving home the venue crunch in Toronto.)
Then comes The Wild Rovers, featuring music by the Irish-Canadian band the Irish Rovers, who had a popular CBC variety show in the 1970s. It will christen the Majestic Theatre in St. John’s in August, and then have a run at the Winter Garden from Sept. 15 to Oct. 1. This fantasy about fictional counties at war has a script by Steve Cochrane and will be directed by Irish director Jason Byrne (who’s directed at the Shaw Festival and with the Company Theatre in Toronto).
Then, in January, 2024, Hymnal, a musical built around gospel and rock ’n’ roll that finds a Catholic priest having a crisis of faith in the mid-1950s, is set for a production directed by Brown, the company’s artistic associate.
While Terra Bruce’s major impact on Toronto (and its potential profitability) may still be a couple years away, the effect the company and Schroeder are having on Newfoundland is already evident, Brown says. “It’s not something I could have never imagined in my home province ... getting to come to work every day to a resident company as an artistic leader.”
Editor’s note: Rock of Ages is currently playing at the Elgin Theatre, not the Winter Garden as stated in an earlier version of this story.