The Grand: Breathing life into Calgary’s oldest theatre

Calgary theatre operation still trying to rebuild after nearly four years of difficulty

Calgary's The Grand on Saturday, December 11, 2021. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Calgary’s oldest downtown theatre, The Grand, has sat relatively quiet while other theatre and dance companies spring to life after more than 600 days of going dark.

They’ve gone through a CEO and an artistic director since December 2020. They sold their building. While other companies are announcing plans for the upcoming, if abridged, season, The Grand has a handful of bookings posted to their website.

The Grand’s Flanagan Theatre is the only 400-seat performance space in the city with a sprung floor, making it ideal for dance performances. It’s a gorgeous black box theatre, in the heart of downtown.

Back in 2018, The Grand underwent a series of changes. It split from Theatre Junction and artistic director Mark Lawes, who had led them for more than a decade.

The company hired Tony McGrath, who didn’t have a background in the arts but was charged as The Grand’s CEO to lead the day-to-day. The company said the Grand was under new management and making inroads with the community while managing its finances.

“At this point in time, we have no financial issues,” McGrath told LiveWire in 2019.

The Grand then sold their Lougheed Block building in February of this year. The Grand went through a nine-month process to find someone to buy the building. They have a long-term lease and a guaranteed renewal of their lease moving forward. The Grand is the only tenant for the entire building.

“We had significant debt and debt servicing fees. It was killing the organization. It was a necessary decision to sell the building. But it’s proved to be highly beneficial because we are now debt-free,” said Jenn Lofgren, board chair of The Grand.

Lofgren said the building maintenance is being handled by a company that specializes in historic buildings.

Filling the space

The Grand has always been a higher-end venue to rent out. Former artistic director Mark Lawes believed in a curated space. If the proposed work didn’t fit the artistic vision of The Grand at the time, the company was denied the rental space.

Artistic Producer of Hit & Myth Productions, Joel Cochrane remembers this quite well. His company, along with Ground Zero Theatre, produced Urinetown in 2006 and The Full Monty in 2007 at the Grand, but that was the last of the productions the company would mount in that venue.

Hit & Myth wanted to put on Spring Awakening in the space but was denied. There were also discussions about mounting Evil Dead: The Musical, but the space wasn’t made available.

“We approached them [about these productions] and were told no, in no uncertain terms,” Cochrane said.

Evil Dead the Musical later sold out its runs for Ground Zero Theatre and Hit & Myth Productions.

Since theatres and other entertainment venues were shut down due to COVID, the Grand has had little programming. Other companies went virtual, driving audience and revenue during that time where they could.

The company parted ways with McGrath in December 2020. The company hired interim artistic director Nicole Mion in January 2021 and her contract ended in July.

Erynn Lyster, an events management professional, came on as the general manager in January and is now the executive director.

Couldn’t find a shared vision: Mion

When she was hired, Mion was invited to join the organization to articulate a new artistic vision that aligned with a viable business plan. With her more than 30 years of experience as artistic director of Springboard Performance, Mion proposed a season of international, national and local works.

Still, the Board and Mion couldn’t agree on a shared vision for the organization.

“I feel I was brought on to do a certain thing, which I started to do. And then it felt like as I was there longer, there was a resistance,” Mion said.

“It seems like the organization is doing things in the old way because nothing has really changed. They are out of debt, there is new staff in its entirety, but it’s still mostly the same board.”

According to The Grand, there have been six new board members in 2021. In addition, five new members have joined since 2018. It’s a 12 member board.

Lyster and her team will focus on solidifying the relationship between The Grand and its resident companies: Springboard Performance, Making Treaty 7 and Black Radish Theatre. They’re hoping to rebuild The Grand’s reputation with other local arts organizations.

In December, A Divas Opera Christmas held a show. Dates in January and February have been locked by theatre company One Yellow Rabbit. A rock musical and a comedy tour performance are the other shows listed so far for 2022. It’s also available for private bookings.

Lyster said they want to solidify a curators-based model of arts presentation.

“We are looking at getting a number of curators that have a different artistic focus and perspectives so that we can make sure that we’re representing many different voices,” said Lyster.

The Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium is the only other venue that runs a season without an artistic director. It’s a government-run venue.

According to their website, The Grand is funded by Calgary Arts Development, the Calgary Foundation, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, the Canada Council for the Arts and the Alberta Government.

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