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Graham Abbey as Iago and Dion Johnstone as Othello in the 2013 Stratford Festival production of Othello.

Michael Cooper/Handout

Top stage talents Seana McKenna and Dion Johnstone, author Margaret Atwood and former governor-general and broadcaster Adrienne Clarkson are among the many Canadian cultural figures rallying around a new theatre mentorship website called GhostLight.

Set to officially launch in May, the online venture will provide free training to theatre artists while the country’s theatres are shut because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as glimpses behind the curtain to curious theatregoers.

Graham Abbey, a Stratford Festival star who co-founded the site with fellow actor Dylan Trowbridge, likens GhostLight to a cross between Masterclass.com and the TV talk show Inside the Actors Studio.

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“You’ve got a number of amazing veteran artists and you’ve got young or mid-career actors sitting at home – and you have this down time,” says Abbey, who also is artistic director of Toronto’s Groundling Theatre Company and Festival Players of Prince Edward County. “At the base of it is this idea of connecting the community … and keeping the light on and the energy burning in our industry." (A “ghost light” is a light left illuminated on the stage of a theatre while it is closed overnight.)

On Friday, GhostLight’s first slate of classes, which will begin the week of May 11 over video conferencing, became open to registration for theatre artists anywhere in Canada (or the world).

McKenna, a long-time Stratford star, will teach a course on speaking Shakespearean language, while Johnstone, who has performed the Bard on Broadway and at Stratford, will teach another on argument and rhetoric in acting.

E.B. Smith, another Stratford company member, will run a class about the African-American playwright August Wilson, while Governor General’s Award winning dramatist Erin Shields (Paradise Lost, If We Were Birds) will conduct a course on playwriting.

Filmmaker Atom Egoyan and playwrights Michael Healey and Kat Sandler are among the others slated to join the site as mentors or teachers down the line.

For now, GhostLight’s instructors are volunteering their time – and the classes have no fee (though there is a cap on enrolment). Abbey and Trowbridge’s site does have a GoFundMe page accepting donations – half of which will go to the AFC, a charity that helps artists who have fallen on hard times, the other half to covering operating costs.

“I want to get this out there and make accessible to everyone right now, I think it’s important,” says Abbey, who is exploring sponsorship to pay stipends to instructors down the line.

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GhostLight plans to eventually unveil summer camps for youth and classes aimed at laypeople with a more casual interest in theatre. For now, its main offerings for non-professionals will be morning coffee sessions where performers such as Broadway star Chilina Kennedy and improviser Colin Mochrie will talk about their craft – and a weekly program called Friday Night at the GhostLight.

Friday Night will officially launch the site on May 8 – with a livestream on YouTube featuring Atwood and Clarkson, noted theatre fans both, in conversation. Comedians Debra McGrath and Mochrie will also appear as part of that official launch event, with Stars front man and theatrical dynasty scion Torquil Campbell performing a set as well.

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