Dennis Garnhum

Self Isolated Artist

Courtesy of Grand Theatre, London, Ontario

Joe Szekeres

The four years pursuing my undergraduate Arts Degree at King’s College, University of Western Ontario (now known as Western University) solidly shaped my personal and professional interests in the Arts. One of those areas where I still believe the city holds its appeal is in the performing arts sector. When I attended Western, Purple Patches was one of the central student theatre groups on campus which provided a creative outlet for likeminded individuals.

I also remember the extraordinary Grand Theatre where I saw some wonderful productions nearly forty years ago. When I started reviewing for On Stage, I wanted to make sure the Grand was included. I have seen some terrific world class professional theatre there recently, and I am always grateful when the invitation has been extended to me to come to London to review their opening night performance

The Current Covid pandemic has thrown the professional performing arts sector into a tailspin that has many, who hold a vested interest in it, still reeling from the devastating impact. It’s going to take an extraordinarily calm and clear-headed individual to sift through with a firm grasp and clear vision to move forward into an unknown and uncertain future. I spoke about this quality trait in an earlier profile regarding the Stratford Festival’s Director, Antoni Cimolino.

I also place The Grand Theatre’s Artistic Director, Dennis Garnhum, in this same category with Mr. Cimolino.

Mr. Garnhum became Artistic Director of the Grand in the fall of 2016. His credentials have been profoundly notable within the theatre community. Since his arrival and return home to London, Dennis has created several new programs with the Grand. He has also launched a new partnership with Sheridan College’s Canadian Music Theatre Program that now positions The Grand’s High School for its next phase of development.

Across Canada, Dennis has directed many plays, musicals, and operas with a number of companies. At the Grand Theatre, he directed Timothy Findley’s ‘The Wars’, ‘Prom Queen’ and ‘Cabaret’. He was set to direct the premiere of ‘Grow’ before it was cancelled on account of the Covid pandemic.

Dennis and I held our interview via email:

1. How have you and your family been keeping during this two-month isolation?

We have found some creative ways to fill our days: I work for the Grand in the basement, my husband’s office and broadcast studio (he’s a journalist) is the bedroom, and our daughters bedroom doubles as her school room. We started tiny school: 4 kids, 5 parents all on zoom. One class a day taught by a different parent. I teach drama and art!

2. What has been most challenging and difficult for you and your family during this time? What have you all been doing to keep yourselves busy?

The most difficult thing is to not be able to reach out and touch and play. Our daughter, Abby, is most affected by it. We always have a minimum hour of outdoor time daily and I have organized and reorganized the house a few times.

3. In your estimation and opinion, do you foresee COVID 19 and its results leaving a lasting impact on the Canadian performing arts scene and on the city of London itself?

We will refer to the time before and the time after COVID no doubt. Ultimately, I think the ultimate impact will be positive: streamlining, priorities and abundant passion. We will focus on doing less, better, and with more imagination and thrill. The City of London too will learn from these things, and I do believe prosper. People will discover London is a perfect city to live in: it has a lot more space than the larger cities, combined with great things to do: Population will rise.

4. Do you have any words of wisdom to build hope and faith in those performing artists and employees of The Grand who have been hit hard as a result of COVID 19? Any words of fatherly advice to the new graduates from Canada’s theatre schools regarding this fraught time of confusion?

First of all, I have great compassion for the loyal Grand team whose jobs and lives were interrupted with very little notice. People who work at the Grand live in London and make their lives mostly around being with us - so that is without doubt the most painful thing of this time - not being able to continue to make theatre.

My hope is that we return to work sooner than later, that we will return to a company and a city willing to enjoy live theatre. The last thing we did was to have a staff breakfast on that fateful day (March 13) and one of the first things we will do will be to sit together and share a meal again. I miss these beautiful people.

This past year the Grand Theatre’s production of GROW was workshopped at Sheridan College and at Goodspeed Opera House. Both events used incredibly talented graduating students. They are now out in the world - waiting. I can see their bright faces.

My advice is just to be clear with one thought: We’ll return. You’ve lived this dream this long - keep it in your heart - don’t focus on the dark thoughts - and think how glorious it will be when you are able to be on our stages. And you will.

5. Do you foresee anything positive stemming from COVID 19 and its influence on the Canadian performing arts scene?

Only positive things. Everything will be reconsidered. The best part, I think, is how we will appreciate what we had to a greater extent. I think it will make for extraordinary conversations.

6. I’ve spoken with some individuals who believe that online streaming and You Tube presentations destroy the theatrical impact of those who have gathered with anticipation to watch a performance. What are your thoughts and comments about the advantages and/or values of online streaming? Do you foresee this as part of the ‘new normal’ for Canadian theatre as we move forward from COVID 19?

I think online streaming was a brilliant first effort and reaction to a need. What do we have? Computers - and go! I think it’s usefulness is nearly done - and won’t play an important part in live theatre in the future. It’s film. I think it will speed up meetings and allow for some very creative shoutouts etc. But, live theatre is live theatre: people sharing stories in a room.

7. What is it about the Grand Theatre that you still adore in your role as Artistic Director?

Well, I adore everything about this role. Everything.

What I appreciate the most right now, is that it is a complete honour to be working at the Grand Theatre during this point in history - and I know my role is to be part of team who sees it through to bright, bright, better days.

With a respectful acknowledgement to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are the ten questions he used to ask his guests:

1. What is your favourite word?

Beautiful.

2. What is your least favourite word?

No.

3. What turns you on?

People.

4. What turns you off?

Long lines.

5. What sound or noise do you love?

My family laughing at the same time.

6. What sound or noise bothers you?

Car horns.

7. What is your favourite curse word?

Dang.

8. Other than your current profession now, what other profession would you have liked to attempt?

Architect.

9. What profession could you not see yourself doing?

Giving out parking tickets - too stressful.

10. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?

“I have a Muskoka chair by the lake waiting.”

To learn more about the Grand Theatre, visit www.grandtheatre.com.

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