Mirror, mirror, on the wall who is the most regional of us all?
At last count, there were three kinds of “regional theatre” in Canada. One is, geographically speaking, regional—which means “in this region, there
is one theatre.” Regina’s Globe Theatre, for instance, has no professional competition for 260 miles. Then (the two are compatible, of course) there is regional theatre, a phrase with more rich, slippery layers of meaning and nonmeaning than a piece of baklava. Regional theatre—Theatre New Brunswick in its busy touring days may be an example—works at being a vital part of the local scene. This is the kind that William Hutt, new artistic director of Theatre London in Southwestern Ontario, wants to do. But the venerable Stratford actor has added definition No. 3 and semantic wrinkle 17: regional theatre is — surprise — our national theatre.
“I think every regional theatre in this country is of national significance be-
cause the national theatre in this country is not Stratford, nor the National Arts Centre. It is the parcel of regional theatres from Victoria to St. John’s.”
Peter Coe, artistic director of Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, begs to differ. A national theatre, Coe has said, would be completely subsidized by the government and operate as a museum of the theatre. Ergo, we have no national theatre.
Piffle, Hutt replies. “In the first place, I think Peter Coe’s experience in Canada is far too limited to make that
assessment. As far as Canada is concerned I don’t think Peter Coe would recognize a national theatre if he met it in his porridge.”
Another way of putting it is, as Hamlet said, “words, words, words.” But one thing is quite concrete—after $5.5-millionworth of dental work, Theatre London, formerly the Grand Opera House, and a venue for vaudeville, film and theatre for 75 years, is grand again. The pastoral fresco on the original proscenium arch has been cleaned up and a new, 829-seat theatre has gone up around it; a smaller stage, with seating for 150 to 200 has been added. Theatre London now joins the Citadel in Edmonton and Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre as one of the country’s most expensive new cultural arenas.
But in terms of stage memories, the rest are whippersnappers compared to the Grand, which has played host, since its opening in 1901, to Bela Lugosi, John Gielgud, and the North American pre-
miere of The Importance of Being Earnest (1947). Real horses galloped across its stage in Canada’s only live production of Ben Hur. And the Grand may even have a ghost—one of its original owners, Ambrose J. Small, who, in 1919, deposited a $l-million cheque in a Toronto bank, boarded a train, and disappeared. Over the years, people have reported seeing a figure in the Grand, somebody wearing “a brown top hat.” Is Ambrose Small a “regional ghost?”'
In 1924, Famous Players Ltd. converted the Grand for films; in 1945 London Little Theatre bought the building, and it developed into the largest amateur group in Canada. From 1971 to 1976 under Heinar Piller’s artistic direction, the theatre grew up. “Heinar didn’t just do safe stuff,” says Anna Stratton, a former theatre officer of the Canada Council. “He worked with young directors, tapped local talent, and brought the theatre up into the professional ranks.” So last year, William Hutt took over what was (in the always laughable area of Canadian theatre dollars) a sturdy organization.
The new Theatre London opened Nov. 22 with the crowd-pleasing Kiss Me Kate, and on Jan. 3, Hutt will star in John A.—Himself, a world premiere for a work by 1978 Governor-General’s Award winner Timothy Findley. Hutt’s portrayal of John A. MacDonald in CBC’s The National Dream has already won him an ACTRA Award, so it promises to be a three-star combination. With other regional theatres making sure their calendars include at least one low-risk, reliable vehicle, does this mean a “safe season” for the new Theatre London? Theatre observers insist the whole debate is quite jejune; they say “just call it the Bill Hutt season.”
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