Great Canadian Theatre Company – Ottawa Ontario

The people who helped build the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa worked hard, dreamt big, and waited years to make the move from a converted truck repair garage with bad chairs to a true theatre with some of the best seats and production values in town. “The old theatre was built in 1981 at 910 Gladstone Avenue, and the new capital project, the new theatre, started about a week later,” laughs Building Project Manager Arthur Milner, who has worn many hats with the company including actor, playwright-in-residence, member of the board of directors, and artistic director. Serious talks about a new building started in 2001, when architectural and fundraising feasibility studies were conducted. Eventually GCTC launched a funding campaign, prompting generous donations from the Irving Greenberg family, municipal, provincial and federal governments as well as other donors. Next, the theatre company invited people from a number of organizations to play a role in moving the project forward, including representatives from the Windmill Development Group, Griffiths Rankin Cook Architects, AECON Buildings, Martin Conboy Lighting Design and Christie Lites Sales.

The journey that began at a tiny garage at 910 Gladstone in 1981 officially reached its summit 26 years later on September 6, 2007, when the doors to the grand Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre at 1233 Wellington Street West (at Holland Avenue) were officially opened. Over 3000 people attended the cultural centre’s grand opening events, which included the Gala, and guided tours of the new venue at open houses on September 8th & 9th.

GCTC Artistic Director Lise Ann Johnson sees some similarities in the number of seats and intimacy of layout, as well as a measurable contrast between the old and the new theatres: “At the old theatre space, the seats were uncomfortable and there was very little leg room. There were only a handful of washroom stalls and the lobby was miniscule. There was no room to build sets, props or costumes, let alone store them. We had a single dressing room that doubled, tripled and quadrupled as green room, meeting room and storage room. And our administration office was about the size of my living room – so, it was a challenge to accommodate a staff of 14 people! The lack of space created a sense of community, but the working conditions were very poor for our artists, craftspeople and staff. The new home, in contrast, is luxurious beyond the imagination.”

At GCTC’s new home at the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre, there is 1,854 square meters of space that includes two theatres, two lobbies, a café, a visual arts exhibition space and more washroom facilities. Backstage improvements include a costume shop, a props room, catwalks in the main stage theatre, separate dressing rooms for men and women, a green room, and more office space, including a board room. Of the two theatres, the main one is the Irving Greenberg Theatre, which has 262 seats, ample leg room and fully up-to-date sound and lighting systems. The second is the Studio Theatre, a black box rehearsal and performance studio with flexible seating for up to 80 people. It also has its own sound and lighting systems and is appropriate for intimate theatrical presentations as well as workshops.

The new complex, developed by Windmill Development Group, is made up of the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre and the Currents residential tower. The facility is the first Gold-certified commercial/residential project in Canada under the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Program. The building uses high-efficiency thermal glass windows, toilets designed to save water, a cistern for storm water recycling, as well as many other systems and products all designed to result in 50% less greenhouse gas emissions and 60% less potable water drawn from municipal water supplies. The Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre was designed by Griffiths Rankin Cook Architects, and built by AECON Buildings Ottawa.

GCTC’s ability to enjoy vibrant growth while staying true to its original artistic vision is something its members are proud of. Back in 1975, five professors and students at Carleton University joined together with an idea to produce Canadian plays. For several years in the beginning, GCTC was an entirely voluntary theatre, performing wherever space allowed. Then in 1981, the Company claimed its own home at 910 Gladstone Avenue. The new theatre opened with the premiere of Sandinista!, a large-scale production that toured nationally and won international recognition. After 35 years, GCTC’s mandate “to foster, produce and promote excellent theatre that provokes examination of Canadian life and our place in the world” continues to guide and inspire the company. The Man from the Capital, GCTC’s inaugural show in the new theatre, officially opened on October 11, 2007, marking the next exciting stage in GCTC’s development.

“The company has built its history and reputation on works by Canadian playwrights,” states Johnson, “It has produced and presented a ‘Who’s Who of Canadian Writers’ over three decades, and has been remarkably true to its core identity. Since 1975, GCTC has produced approximately 200 plays, a third of which are new works. The 2007/2008 season, the first in the new Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre, has a specific emphasis in that all five of the plays are entirely Ottawa based.” Named CAPITAL LETTERS, it is GCTC’s love letter to the National Capital Region and Johnson’s second season as Artistic Director with GCTC. “All of the plays are either penned by writers from Ottawa, or feature a connection to our nation’s capital. The collection of five plays features music, comedy, political satire, and great Canadian lives.”

Martin Conboy, of Martin Conboy Lighting Design (MCLD), has worked on many GCTC productions, and served as the Head Technical Consultant for the new building project. “Sandinista! was the first show I worked on at GCTC as a technician and that was in 1982. 1983 was my first lighting design and I have completed forty shows at GCTC since then,” Conboy reveals. He helped build their first dimming system from scratch. In conjunction with a business partner, he built all of GCTC’s sets for three years in the late 80’s. He sat on the Board of Directors for eight years and acted as both President and Vice President. He has been on the hiring committee for three Artistic Directors (including the current one), two General Managers and four Production Managers: “Without being maudlin, the old space was my laboratory, my workshop. I developed my palette there and was allowed to succeed on my own terms and on occasion fail miserably without being punished. I learned how important to great theatre lighting can be.” His award-winning company, now generally referred to as MCLD, is enjoying success in interior, exterior and exhibit lighting designs, theatrical and special events designs as well as providing services in theatre consulting.

Peter Eady’s history with GCTC goes almost as far back as Conboy’s, and it put him, as a Christie Lites Sales representative, in a good position to provide the half million dollar fit-up for the new Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre on time and on budget, with turn-key serviceability. Eady was a young volunteer hanging focuses at 910 Gladstone back in the early 1980’s when he first met long-termers Arthur Milner, Martin Conboy and Jon Alexander, who is GCTC’s current Technical Director. “Peter is a great asset to Christie Lites Sales, and a well known theatre guy who’s been involved in everything in town,” says Alexander, “Peter brought a sense of trust, familiarity and accountability with him that helped the fit up process. For me, the actual technical fit up was virtually painless. This was largely because Christie Lites Sales said they were going to be finished by day x, and they were finished by day x, despite other things that were beyond all of our control that slowed down the big picture.”

“Christie Lites Sales sold GCTC on its serviceability and this company anti-ed up,” says GCTC’s Rachel Fancy. “From a production manager’s standpoint, the ability to call somebody and say ‘help, please fix this’ and have it happen right away is paramount, and Christie Lites Sales has been great at doing that. I’d join the Peter Eady Fan Club if there was one,” she laughs. The turn-key aspect of Christie Lites Sales is one appreciated by both GCTC and Martin Conboy Lighting Design. Says Conboy, “The complete system integration solved so many logistical problems. No problem that Christie Lites Sales encountered that the company hasn’t been able to solve.”

GCTC’s journey from its infancy in a truck garage to its full-grown status in the luxurious Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre took over 25 years, millions of dollars, and extraordinary levels of expertise. There are a handful of people with this expertise who have been involved with the professional theatre company since its beginning, including Arthur Milner, Martin Conboy, Jon Alexander and Peter Eady, who literally grew up with GCTC and who are equally proud to be involved in its coming of age. Perhaps Conboy sums it up best, when he says,” I’m very proud to know I had such a significant hand in GCTC’s growth”

The Theatre aptly celebrates its 34th season in 2008-2009 with Stages, a dramatic presentation of the cycle of a human life and all its rites and passage and metamorphoses. How wonderfully appropriate!