COVID-19 uncertainty pushes Grand Theatre to delay shows until fall 2021

LONDON, Ont. – Live theatre at southern Ontario’s Grand Theatre will not return until fall 2021.

The London, Ont., venue says uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic has continually pushed timelines for a safe return, making it difficult to plan large, costly productions.

Artistic director Dennis Garnhum notes current predictions peg a possible return for January 2021, but he believes that, too, will be pushed into the future.

“What happens if the delay (extends) two more months past January? What happens then? It’s a nonstop scramble,” he said Wednesday.

“For me the light bulb moment was: ‘Let’s look at the longer view.’”

Garnhum did not suggest a specific date but a fall 2021 return extends far beyond tentative plans set by other companies.

Toronto’s Mirvish Productions said in late April it was eyeing a possible return in January 2021, while the Stratford Festival put its 2020 season on hold but suggested it might attempt fall or holiday programming if public health conditions allow.

At the Grand, the pandemic shuttered about 14 projects, including the highly anticipated adaptation of “Room,” which had been slated to run three weeks in London and then three weeks with Mirvish in Toronto.

Garnhum says the stage version of Emma Donoghue’s bestseller only managed to perform three previews before it was forced to close March 13, the day it was supposed to make its official debut.

The Grand Theatre’s announcement Wednesday spikes programming on its two stages, including its popular Jeans ‘n Classics concert series and events involving community partners who also use the venue.

The theatre had already delayed its season to October. It normally runs from September to May.

While he did not rule out the possibility of an earlier return, Garnhum notes reopening would require a significant amount of lead time — a new stage production demands five months of prep, while a one-night concert would require two months.

During the postponement, Garnhum says the theatre will examine ways to address systemic racism at the Grand — from the makeup of senior leadership, to programming and how it connects to audiences.

He says there is now an equity, diversity and inclusion committee led by actor and board member E.B. Smith.

“The goal is to identify and make change. We are committed at board level, staff level and audience level of making us a truly inclusive company,” says Garnhum.

Smith was himself the subject of an ugly racial attack in February 2016 while portraying Martin Luther King Jr. in the Grand Theatre’s production of “The Mountaintop.”

At the time, the Cleveland native was quoted in local media recounting two racial slurs lobbed at him off-stage, first by a passing motorist as he walked near the theatre, and again at a downtown pub and eatery.

“It was a really ugly and horrible thing,” says Garnhum. “So we know in our city we can do better. And we know that our company do better.”

The theatre also plans to complete its planned lobby renovations during this time. The work is expected to take six months.

Executive director Deb Harvey added in a release that the postponement will be an economic blow to the local economy, affecting businesses ranging from hotel and dining partners to retail and building supply companies.

Garnhum says a working group is also developing alternate programming to keep audiences entertained in the meantime.

“I can tell you whatever we do will be innovative, inclusive, thought-provoking, and joyful.”

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The not-for-profit venue says subscribers can receive credits and full refunds but is asking that the value of tickets be donated to the theatre.

— by Cassandra Szklarski in Toronto

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 17, 2020.

TORONTO STAR