CityNews.ca writer Shawne McKeown highlights some of Toronto’s tiniest theatres – 100 seats, or less – in the six-part series “Shows in Small Spaces”.
Part 2 – The Alumnae Theatre, Studio, 70 Berkeley St. (90 Seats)
As I walked along the creaky floors in the lobby of the historic Alumnae Theatre and climbed the stairs to its drafty old attic on a rainy night the ghostly experiences reported in this old building didn’t seem so far-fetched.
The company’s marketing director, Tina McCulloch, led me up to the studio theatre – a dusky and snug space with old wooden beams – where actors were rehearsing for an upcoming production of Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever”, which will be mounted in the larger, main theatre downstairs in mid-January.
“The shows in the studio generally have a smaller cast and are sort of more intimate in scale,” she told CityNews.ca.
A lack of insulation in the studio defines the season up there. Alumnae stages one studio show every November and also hosts the annual New Ideas Festival – a three-week showcase of short, new plays – in March. The space is rented out to various companies the rest of the year.
The performance space is dedicated to the company’s former president and actor, Elizabeth Mascall, who died just before Alumnae officially made the building at 70 Berkeley St. its permanent home.
“We lease it from the city. We’re one of the few non-professional theatre companies who actually have their own space,” McCulloch explained. “Most of the other [theatre companies] rent space and then they move in a week before the show opens, where, this is our home.”
And it’s an interesting old home. The building is a converted fire hall erected in 1900, with several neat features, including the creepy basement (at least it was at night) that houses the theatre’s main dressing room, set workshop and costume department; the lobby that features antique wooden firemen’s lockers now used as coat checks and bar supply stations (see below); the old firemen’s pole in the box office area, and, of course, its ghosts.
Two other-worldly beings are said to live in the building. The spirit of a deceased Alumnae lighting designer named Tom has actually been seen, as the story goes, and the presence of a dead firefighter is often felt in several rooms.
Tom inhabits the studio theatre. Two actors spotted him when they were rehearsing a New Ideas show late one night. They were the last ones in the building and were heading out the door when they heard a noise coming from the attic.
“So they went upstairs and they saw a guy up a ladder and said ‘we were just about to leave, do you want us to lock up?’ and he said ‘no it’s okay, I’ll do it’,” McCulloch said.
McCulloch said the presence of the fireman has been felt, not surprisingly, in the basement, in the main stairwell and he’s apparently responsible for some unexplained noises in the studio.
“Every night when I leave, if I’m the last one in the building, I close the door, turn out the lights, and say ‘Goodnight!’” she admitted.
The building’s neat history is matched by the past of the theatre company that has inhabited the space since 1973.
Alumnae Theatre was born in 1919, founded by female graduates of the University of Toronto who were “cheesed off” that the U of T men wouldn’t let them join Hart House, McCulloch said.
The young women decided to form their own company to stage plays. Back then they called themselves the University Alumnae Dramatic Club and performed at various venues around the city.
The company, run entirely by volunteers, no longer has an official affiliation with the university, but continues to maintain its original mandate of providing plum roles for women in all aspects of theatre. While men participate in Alumnae activities as guest artists, membership is still limited to ladies only.
Click here for more information on the Alumnae Theatre and its upcoming shows.