To return to the Grand Theatre after all these years is quite the surreal experience, one that I recommend to anyone and everyone if they have the opportunity. It was the first large-scale interaction of my life with live theatre that I can remember, well, one that I went on my own accord. I must have been in my teens. Not even sure I even had my driver’s license yet, but maybe I did. It was a long time ago, but I can still visualize it in my mind. The show was She Loves Me, that sweet jewel-box of a musical about love and pen pal letter writing, that I later saw once again at the Roundabout’s Studio 54 Theatre. It was delicious, they both were, and as tasty a treat as one could dream of for your first live musical.
I had seen other productions prior to that show, probably at the phenomenal Stratford Shakespeare Festival (as it was called back in the day – now, just the Stratford Festival), but those were high school trips, and they don’t really count. Or do they? I’m not sure. I do remember seeing Maggie Smith (I know, right!) on that Stratford stage in Taming of the Shrew, and Peter Ustinov in King Lear wildly standing in a true-blue inside rainstorm. Both phenomenal memories. They certainly dazzled me, informed me, and memorized me. That is the truth, but it was at the Grand that I went, purposefully, to the box office and bought my own ticket. Front row of the front mezz. Naturally. I believe it was a full subscription that I bought and paid for with my own hard-earned money, so the action felt intentional, and far more transformational. At least when I look back to this space this year, after this complicated year and a half. The roots or seeds of it all. My seeds of self, in a way. It all felt so meaningful and important, at least it did to me.
I can still see the jewel box set for that first staged musical on that very pretty stage and in that theatre back in, let’s say, 1980, give or take. I felt very ‘adult’ back then for a teen, and that particular image floated generously through my head a few weeks ago when I was invited to one of the four Re:Opening productions at the Grand Theatre about 40 years later. That nasty pandemic brought performances in this regional theatre to a screeching halt, as it basically did everywhere. I had been back in Canada since the beginning of 2020, sharing my time between a newly started practice in Toronto all the while attempting to maintain my practice and my connection to NYC. Family was what brought me back, but little did I know just how much. A lockdown literally locked me down here, for the most part, back in this Grand old familial town, the one I was born and raised in, but also the one that brought theatre so dramatically and musically into my life. So when the invite came, I accepted. I was curious and I also wanted to do exactly what I’m doing now; to write about how much the Grand Theatre affected me, altered me, and lead me into being the person I am today. It’s an honor to have the ability to write about this place and have it published for all to see, but I have to admit that I wasn’t prepared for the connection to a different part of my past, a more tumultuous part that came flooding back inside my heart as I took in Mark Uhre’s contribution to the Grand Theatre’s Re:Opening Celebration.
Our first instruction, after entering into the beautifully renovated lobby, was to make our way into the redesigned Auburn Stage for what would be the first of three acts, celebrating our connection to the Grand, to artistic experimentation, and at least for this London homegrown boy, to our younger teenage gay self. That third was the part I wasn’t really prepared for.
After a touching speech by the Artistic Director Dennis Garnhum, a man in a “King and I“-inspired gown slips onto the raised and framed theatrical canvas in the center of the room. He’s both ‘child’ and ‘adult’ in the same exact moment. With a similarly blank canvas hanging behind, the figure dances and twirls around with a wild freeing abandonment, singing and embracing the true equalizer of all; love and childlike transformational energy. It’s a glorious moment, registering in the air as sweet unadulterated acceptance. There are some giggles in the crowd, which made me stop and wonder. What’s so funny about this visual? Is it intentionally comical? Am I missing the humor? Should I be giggling with the others? Or is the idea of a physical non-gender-specific expression of freedom and fun something so complicated to the senses that it has abandoned any connection to laughter? All are problematic conclusions in a way, and as I tumbled around that complex internal terrain trying to understand myself, the harshest of reactions begin to fill the air. It’s a degrading afront, thrown out into the space and degrading the expression, making the moment much more complicated and dark than I even realized. It reverberated throughout the room, triggering a past trauma within – one that isn’t exactly mine but is definitely a shared communal tension. It ricocheted down my spine and unearthed an age-old fear; one of judgment, of ridicule, of homophobic hate, that even though I never really experienced that kind of harsh laughter or that one particular word being thrown in my direction as a child and teenager growing up in London, Ontario (a fact I can’t really explain why that insult was never flung in my direction in the hallways of my school), the weight of that moment, and the fear that is still attached to it, surprisingly, continues to have a home in my cellular structure. It lives and breathes there still. Its name is Shame. Attached most tightly to an unconscious fear of the loss of love, especially attachment or familial love. And it’s debilitating, historically, honestly, unless work is done to understand and unpack it, and find our unique true authentic self within. That, I’m telling you as a psychotherapist, is not easy.
In his coming-of-age play, Seeds of Self, accomplished actor, singer, dancer, and visual artist Mark Uhre takes us on an intimate, most touching personal journey that explores his own experience growing up as a young, gay person in London, Ontario. Something that I can definitely relate to. Utilizing the four seasons as his storytelling anchor, Uhre’s play leads viewers on an emotive passage, navigating themes of joy and love, as well as oppression and exclusion. Planting seeds of thought and introspection throughout his journey, the audience are invited into a “garden” coming to life through wild paint strokes. He works through his stunning and intimate storytelling, using music and his inner child, to create on the fly with his musical co-conspirator Wayne Gwillim at his side to fuel his fancy. He makes his mark, not just under the coffee table, hidden from view, but upfront and framed in black. It’s an improvised paint ballet to music, structured to confront the harsh words, and expand and deepen self-love and acceptance by bringing freedom and energy into our little box called life, and make it grow up wild and colorful.
After that mind-expanding experience, we followed your guide to the main Spriet Stage, a space as glorious as I remember, for an immersive artistic encounter, egged on by Uhre and his musical accompanist, Noelle Frances. He invites us in to co-create an adventure, and find expression under his kind watchful eyes.
The afternoon came to a close in the Drewlo Lounge where a documentary was presented with further reflection and self-discovery encouraged. He spoke, most compassionately about the idea of Hating London, while never for once giving us reason to believe him, or disbelieve him, all at the same time. I hated London when I left for university in Toronto way back in the day, vowing to never live there again. But the emotional threat was not real, in a sense. London is and was glorious to me. I found acceptance, oddly enough, in the theatre, and surprisingly, in the halls of my high school, as the one and only out gay kid in class. I’m not sure why they did not harass me, ridicule me, judge me, or hate me. I thoroughly expected them to, but they didn’t. So yes, Mr. Uhre, I get what you mean, because I love London, always did, even when I hated it.
This presentation is now available for streaming until Nov. 29th on the Grand Theatre website for no charge. Another thing that shows us just how Grand London can be.
FROM THE GRAND THEATRE:
November 18, 2021 – London ON – Following a successful four-week engagement that played to intimate audience sizes, the Grand Theatre is thrilled to launch digital versions of the Grand Re:Opening Festival at no cost to online audiences – beginning at 5 p.m. on November 18, 2021.
“In early 2021, as our renovation neared completion and as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions slowly began to lift, there was a palpable shift in energy at the Grand,” says Dennis Garnhum, Grand Theatre Artistic Director. “Although there was still much uncertainty about capacity limits, as a company, we knew that we needed to do something to celebrate our outstanding renovation and to bring live theatre – and the healing joy of the arts – back to London. So, in came the idea of the Re:Opening Festival.”
“It became evident very early on in the process that we knew what was being created was unique, inspiring, and magical and needed to be shared as far and wide as possible – with as many audience members as possible. The response from the audience members that were able to experience each show in-person confirmed this for us. We quickly partnered with professional videography company web.isod.es to then film each festival performance,” explains Garnhum.
Directed and led by Artistic Associate, Megan Watson, the Grand Re:Opening Festival “handed the keys” to the newly renovated Grand Theatre to four local artists for the purpose of creating and staging bold new work. With few defined parameters, the artists were empowered to: utilize any space within the theatre as a stage; to explore any theme, and to invite other local artists to join their experience. The four host artists are: lead activist for Black Lives Matter London, founding member of Black London Network, and artist Alexandra Kane; accomplished actor, singer, dancer, and visual artist Mark Uhre; local singer, songwriter, and band frontman Richard Gracious, and proud Anishinaabe storyteller, curator, and teacher Summer Bressette.
“Our four host artists were asked in February this year if they wanted to ‘come play’ at the Grand, and were ultimately tasked with the important responsibility of helping us to reopen after over a year of closed doors. And, did they ever deliver,” remarks Watson. She goes on to say, “Our host artists have each created something completely unique and yet relevant at the same time. While different, each offering really has a beautiful through line – re-emergence. I hope that this exploration of re-emergence is experienced right through the screen and really inspires the hearts and minds of our virtual audiences.”
The four Grand Re:Opening Festival videos will each run 45 minutes to approximately one hour. Combined, this immersive online experience features the four host artists, 55 local performers, and 12 bold theatrical experiences – all originally staged in different spaces within the newly renovated Grand Theatre.
Beginning at 5 p.m. on Thursday, November 18, theatre, music, and art lovers from anywhere in the world will be able to view all Festival performances at no cost, thanks to the generous support of Canada Life. The videos will be available to view online through to midnight on November 29. Viewers are asked to register online at grandtheatre.com, after which a link to view the production will be forwarded by email. Separate registrations will be required to view each unique offering, but once viewers receive the link to view, they may watch on any day, at any time, and as many times as they wish until midnight on November 29.
THE FOUR GRAND RE:OPENING FESTIVAL OFFERINGS INCLUDE:
Alexandra Kane | Finding Black Joy
What is Black Joy?
How can there possibly be such a thing as Black joy, when racism, specifically anti-Black racism, exists in systems and people? How do we find peace and joy when there is so much stacked against us? As the world uncovers systemic oppression and violence and what that means to Black people, we are invited to take a critical look at our own selves and how we have helped shaped these experiences for others.
Lead activist for Black Lives Matter London, Founding member of Black London Network, and artist Alexandra Kane has curated a truth-telling piece in Finding Black Joy. Using song, text, and multimedia to shine a light on the raw truth and consequences of anti-Black racism, Alexandra presents racism in an unavoidable way and defines the strength, resilience, peace, and love that is Black Joy.
The Auburn Stage and main lobby will set the tone for this powerful evening of racial truth and honest discourse. Interactive film installation, A Grave and A Mirror will unfold on the Auburn Stage, and a spoken word poetry reading by 19-year-old Nigerian-Canadian slam poet and author, Fauzia Agbonhin will transpire in the main lobby. Audiences will then move to the Spriet Stage, where Kane and a troupe of performers will dynamically stage pre-existing music and original text in Finding Black Joy. The evening will close with an intimate speakeasy and Q & A period with host artist, Alexandra Kane.
Mark Uhre | Seeds of Self
Do you remember who you were before you grew up? Do you recall the passions you held and the moments that you would give anything to experience once more – or, perhaps, to never remember again? If you could reach back in time, and hold the hand of the child you once were, what would you tell them?
In his coming-of-age memory play, Seeds of Self, accomplished actor, singer, dancer, and visual artist Mark Uhre will take audiences on an intimate, personal journey that will explore Uhre’s experience growing up, as a young gay boy in London, Ontario. Uhre’s play will lead audiences on an emotive and colourful passage – navigating themes of oppression and exclusion as well as unbridled joy and self-love. Connecting to the seasons and nature throughout his journey, audiences will experience the Auburn theatre magically transforming. Uhre shares his story through movement, text, and art-making, combined with thrilling original music composed by Wayne Gwillim, and paired with songs from the ‘golden age.’
Gathering at the Auburn Stage, audiences will begin their experience with Uhre’s original play, Seeds of Self. They will then continue their journey to the Spriet Stage for an immersive artistic encounter, combined with live music by singer songwriter, Noelle Francis. Like flowers from a garden, the evening will come to a close in an array of colour in The Drewlo Lounge, where a documentary presentation and a visual arts gallery will encourage further reflection, conversation and self-discovery.
Richard Gracious | One Year
“I think you’re on mute.”
“What do you mean you are out of toilet paper?”
“Don’t forget your hand sanitizer!”
“It’s time to pivot.”
“These are unprecedented times…”
“Have we flattened the curve yet?”
In March 2020, life – as many knew it – came to a dramatic halt. Barred within our homes by the wide and rapid spread of COVID-19, individuals across the globe found themselves facing uncertainty, fear, and FOMO* like never before. Fifteen months later, as hope and new life emerges, local singer, songwriter, and band frontman, Richard Gracious begins developing an original performative concept album, entitled One Year.
Showcasing Gracious’s unique musical style that combines acoustic, full-out rock and roll and everything in between, the album is centred on reflections from the past 15 months, including: the feelings and emotions many of us have gone through; questions around if and how much we have changed as a society; and the transitions many of us have made (and will continue to make) as we collectively navigate our emergence from the pandemic.
More than your typical concert experience, One Year will take audiences on a shared musical journey that will open with the debut of Gracious’s album. A delight for all the senses, theatrical elements, such as puppetry and dance, will accompany this melodious celebration of life. Audiences will then be invited to flow to the Auburn Stage, to take in more of London’s local live music scene. The evening’s final notes will play in the Drewlo Lounge, with an intimate performance by local singer and songwriter, Misha Bower.
Dust off the melancholy of the pandemic! Release the pent-up energy of isolation! And, experience music in new and unexpected ways as Richard Gracious guides you through a raucous, rock-and-roll catharsis.
*Fear of Missing Out
Summer Bressette | Love Song for the Thunderbirds
Intergenerational storytelling has been paramount in the understanding of our history and in maintaining connections to our ancestors. Whether through spoken word, dance, or song, the art of storytelling permeates across cultures and often serves as a guiding light for one’s personal morals, values, and understanding. But, what if these words were stolen? What if the very language that helped to form our existence was torn from us?
In her poignant play Love Song for the Thunderbirds, Summer Bressette confronts these questions, while embracing themes of resilience, love, kinship, transformation, and emergence. A proud Anishinaabe storyteller, curator, and teacher, Bressette employs elements of magical realism to tell the story of Jackrabbit, Nokomis, and Thunderbird in her loosely autobiographical play. Set in contemporary time, Bressette has reimagined a lullaby sung to her by her grandmother, who learned the song from her great-grandmother, a residential school survivor. The play centres on the ‘rule’ that children were forbidden to sing while at residential school, and consequently many words and stories have vanished. In a mission to find what has been lost, Jackrabbit is tasked with the imperative mission of finding the words to their Grandmother’s lullaby. Through Jackrabbit’s journey, audiences will come to understand the interconnectedness of the human experience and the power in understanding one’s own unique gifts.
Love Song for the Thunderbirds transpires at the Auburn Stage, where audiences will follow the journey of Jackrabbit in Bressette’s deeply personal piece. Afterwards, audiences will follow the sounds of traditional drumming to the Spriet Stage, where they will have the opportunity to listen to music by the Eagle Flight Singers, comprised of Gordon Sands, Vydel Sands, and Liam Sands. Hoop dancer, River White will also appear on the Spriet Stage with the Eagle Flight Singers. The experience will culminate in a live performance by the Red Skye Sisters and spoken word poetry by Awasis.
THE STREAMING OF THE GRAND RE:OPENING FESTIVAL
The Grand Re:Opening Festival was initially staged at the Theatre from October 13 – November 6, and was performed at no cost for intimate viewing audiences. Following the provincial announcement, which removed capacity limits, the theatre expanded the capacity of each show. However, to preserve the artistic integrity of the work, in-person audience sizes were still very limited.
The Festival was produced with the financial support of season sponsor, BMO Financial Group. Additional funding support was provided by the London Community Foundation and Horizon Solutions.
In lieu of a ticket fee, the Grand is asking its virtual audience members to pay tribute to the work of the participating artists by making a charitable contribution to the Grand – designated to the Festival.
To learn more about the Grand Re:Opening Festival, including full cast bios, please visit: https://www.grandtheatre.com/event/grand-reopening-fest. Additional facts, photos, and updates can also be found by following @thegrandlondon and #GrandFestival on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
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