CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre Transformation

CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre, soon to be the home of the Canadian premiere production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, has been buzzing with activity.

photo credit: courtesy of mirvish productions
interior ceiling of ed mirvish theatre

Although all of Toronto’s theatres have been dormant for the last two years, the CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre, soon to be the home of the Canadian premiere production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, has been buzzing with activity. Since November 2021, an army of artisans, technicians and carpenters has been transforming the interior of this 102-year-old heritage theatre, once the largest in Canada, into a magical space worthy of the Wizarding World.

While each new show that plays at a theatre alters the stage to fit the play’s needs, never before has a show also altered the theatre’s lobbies and auditorium. That’s exactly what this army of theatre workers has been doing for these last many months.

First, they stripped the auditorium bare of all the seats, carpets and other furnishings to create an enormous empty space of over 19,000 square feet (1,765 square meters) with a height of over 60 feet (18 meters), the equivalent of six stories. This was the blank canvas, if you will, for the artisans to work on.

Next, a building within the building was erected: a sky-high edifice of scaffolding so that the artisans would have easy access to the auditorium’s ceiling. For more than two months, they meticulously painted the elaborate ceiling and dome in Witchcraft, a custom colour by Pittsburgh Paints which they describe as “a dark, cool, stormy black with a navy undertone.”

This colour was chosen by the production’s scenic designers. In essence, this colour allows them to extend the world of the show on stage into the audience areas. 

It wasn’t an easy job to paint a ceiling of this size, especially as all its design flourishes, created in plaster reliefs painted gold, had to be spared the painter’s brush. The result is a lush and rich look, almost like a night sky punctuated by the gold of the plaster reliefs, which act as a kind of galaxy of stars. This new colour pallet of the auditorium’s surfaces  creates a truly magical environment that will only be enhanced by the production’s lighting and other effects.
 
A similar treatment has been done to the theatre’s lobby so that magical environment will begin from the moment the audience enters the building.
 
Still to come in the next few weeks is the erection of new walls, which have been manufactured offsite and will be assembled in the auditorium. These walls will continue the colour palette and motifs of the ceiling, but more importantly will envelop the auditorium, in essence cocooning the audience in Harry Potter’s world. They will also reduce the space’s square footage and the number of seats.
 
In all, the capacity of the auditorium will go from 2,300 seats to just over 1,600. This will provide the intimacy needed for this latest chapter in the Harry Potter saga to be powerfully told. 
 
This isn’t a small project. The budget for the theatre remodelling alone is over $5m. The cost of the production itself is many times that amount.
 
Suffice it to say, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is unlike anything Toronto has seen before.

 

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CAA Ed Mirvish theatre transforms for Harry Potter

By J. Kelly Nestruck
The Globe & Mail • February 12, 2022

Harry Potter has a lot of tricks up his sleeve but can the boy wizard pull this off: transforming the massive CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre into an intimate theatre?

Right now, the stage is not where the magic is happening. For the Ed Mirvish Theatre, $5-million renovations are underway to ensure that audiences can handle the enchantment of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child when it finally comes to Toronto on May 31.

While the Ed Mirvish Theatre is closed to audiences through April, it has been cleared out, with seats in storage and carpet removed. The transformation is designed to create an immersive environment for an open-ended run of the Tony-winning Potter play. With new walls, seating and built-in fantasy, the venue will be reduced from a prepandemic seat count of around 2,200, which is bigger than any of the Broadway theatres in New York, to just 1,600.

“The audience is going to inhabit the Potter environment; it’s going to be a fully physical experience,” says Toronto-based architect and theatre consultant Athos Zaghi who is leading this latest rethink of the theatre.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which first opened in 2016 in London’s West End, has gone on to spawn productions in New York, San Francisco, Melbourne and Hamburg – and will come to Toronto and Tokyo in 2022.

Penned by Jack Thorne, it is a stage-only sequel to J.K. Rowling’s bestselling series of books and focuses on a grown-up Potter and his son, Albus. Originally devised to take place over two performances (and still performed as such in London), it was rewritten to be consumed in a single sitting during the pandemic. That shortened version – which (re)opened to rave reviews in New York in December – will be performed in Toronto by an all-Canadian cast.

Zaghi, who also worked with Mirvish Productions on the restoration of the Royal Alexandra Theatre in 2016 and, at Lett/Smith Architects, during the construction of the Princess of Wales in 1993, says that while the on-stage set of the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (created by long-in-demand Montreal-raised designer Christine Jones) is the same wherever you see it, the physical environment that envelopes the audience is not.

“They want every venue to have a different experience,” Zaghi explained, on a recent hard-hat tour of the renovations, which began in November and are set to be completed in April.

Currently, the parabolic rake of the floor below the orchestra seats, designed to make sure all audience members have the same focal point on the stage, is exposed. Lines carved into the concrete show where seats will eventually be reinstalled – as well as where a new centre aisle will be positioned. (A pathway through the audience is required for the staging as envisaged by English director John Tiffany and his frequent choreographic collaborator Steven Hoggett.) About three metres are being sealed off on each side of this level by new walls that are, in a way, an extension of the show’s set and will be installed next month. These will also hide the private boxes that currently sandwich the stage

This narrowing of the auditorium is in part to make sure sightlines are optimal for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. “There are certain things within the show they want the entire audience to see,” says Zaghi, “It’s packed with illusions – and part of them means that you have very, very specific staging that has to be spot on.”

Much of the seating being lost in the renovation comes from the theatre’s single, deep balcony – which will also be shortened, eliminating a number of rows as well as the “standing room” stools at the very back.
 
The Ed Mirvish Theatre – the venue’s name only since 2011 – first opened as a combination vaudeville palace/cinema called the Pantages in 1920. It has been through numerous owners, names and configurations in the century since, because it was built for a very particular era that, ultimately, was quite short-lived: the time before “talkies” when live vaudeville acts and silent-film screenings dominated entertainment and coexisted in the same venues.

Designed by architect Thomas W. Lamb for the entertainment mogul and founder of Famous Players, Nathan Nathanson, it got its first name from original operator Alexander Pantages, of the once pervasive vaudeville and movie circuit.

When it opened with more than 3,600 seats, the Pantages was second in size only to New York’s Capitol Theatre among vaudeville palaces, according to Constance Olsheski’s 1989 book about the theatre; it was the costliest in Toronto with a budget somewhere between $600,000 and $1-million.

But when sound came to the movies later that decade, the vaudeville era quickly went down. Renamed the Imperial Theatre in 1930, it became simply a cinema in time, and in the 1970s, was carved up into a six-room multiplex. Eventually, the building would fall into the hands of upstart Toronto producer Garth Drabinsky, however – and history would be reversed.

In 1989, his Livent company reopened the painstakingly restored space for live performance with around 2,200 seats; it was once again known as the Pantages – and, once again, would only keep the name for a decade. After Drabinsky was convicted of fraud and forgery related to the operations of Livent, the theatre was sold from that bankrupt company to Clear Channel Entertainment in 1999. Ownership passed through a couple of other companies until Mirvish Productions purchased it in 2008.

While the Toronto production of the Harry Potter play involves, viewed from one angle, building a theatre within a theatre, it does allow some of the features of the Drabinsky-initiated restoration of Lamb’s original vision of the vaudeville palace to shine in a new way.

The walls and ceiling in the theatre, formerly a butterscotch cream, are in the process of being repainted a colour called “witchcraft” – described by Pittsburgh Paints as “a dark, cool, stormy black with a navy undertone.”

Though chosen to fit in with the Harry Potter motif, Zaghi notes that the colour has made details and decorations on columns and trims pop in a way they did not previously. “The dome used to read like a flat pancake,” he says, pointing to the spot from which the chandelier in The Phantom of the Opera used to fall.

That thrilling moment conceived for director Hal Prince’s production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical was immersive theatre before that term was coined. So as much as the current Ed Mirvish Theatre renovation will take the ever-evolving building in a brand new direction, there is continuity too in this space haunted by fascinating history.

“The walls and ceiling in the theatre, formerly a butterscotch cream, are in the process of being repainted a colour called “witchcraft” – described by Pittsburgh Paints as “a dark, cool, stormy black with a navy undertone.””

-Athos Zaghi, Architect

Architect Athos Zaghi stands on stage
Architect Athos Zaghi  - PHOTO CREDIT:  TORONTO STAR

Mirvish Production’s $5 million theatre transformation promises immersive magic for ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’

By Elaine Smith
The Toronto Star • February 12, 2022

Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Slytherin … and Mirvish?

Technically speaking, Toronto’s CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre isn’t one of the houses at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, home to Harry Potter and his friends. But don’t try telling that to the creative team and craftspeople who are revamping the theatre’s interior for Mirvish Productions, turning it into a magical place suitable for the upcoming run of the play, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” which opens May 31.

“For ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,’ the show’s creative team have extended the play’s world from the stage into the auditorium and the theatre lobbies,” David Mirvish, president of Mirvish Productions, said in an email. “They want to immerse the audience in the play’s look and feel. It will be exciting to see how Toronto audiences will react to this all-encompassing form of theatre. I hope they will be as thrilled with this unique theatrical experience as I was when I attended the play in London.” 

“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is based on a short story by J.K Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany. The action takes place 19 years after the conclusion of the much-loved books and reacquaints fans with Harry and his friends, as well as the next generation of young wizards. Inevitably, magic, spells and conflict ensue.

In each city where the play is produced, the theatre reflects the magic of the script in a unique way. In Toronto, this means a $5 million transformation of the theatre’s interior to provide an immersive experience. Their aim is to create an intimate space that is a world of its own, one that allows the audience to enter more fully into the story unfolding around them.

“We want the audience to feel like they are inhabiting Harry Potter’s world,” said Athos Zaghi, the Toronto architect leading the redesign.

To do so, the theatre has been slimmed down from 2,300 seats to 1,600. In the balcony, the aisles no longer run the length of the theatre dividing the space; the audience members will be part of a whole. On both levels, there will be faux side and rear walls that, as Zaghi says, “effectively embrace the audience.”

The real visual impact, however, is in the new colour palette. Gone are the creams and butterscotch that hearkened back to the formality of the 1900s. Instead, theatregoers will walk into a room whose walls are decorated with a colour serendipitously called Witchcraft, described by PPG Paints as “a dark, cool, stormy black with navy undertones.” With gold accents, the theatre takes on a thoroughly modern look, one that is mysterious enough for a Potter production. The theatre’s signature domed ceiling really “pops,” says Zaghi.
 
Of course, painting an entire theatre is a bit different from painting the living room. One doesn’t simply throw drop cloths on the furniture and tape over the trim. It meant moving the seats out and pulling up the carpets to reveal the cement floors beneath. This allowed Mirvish Productions to add an extra feature: aisle lighting, wired through the bare floors, which will make it easier for patrons to find their seats.

Other Mirvish additions include changing all the interior lighting to energy-saving LED light and installing a catwalk system above the ceiling. The CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre, along with its other Mirvish brethren, has also had its ventilation system improved.

The theatre will also sport a number of custom-designed features that brand the interior as a Potter space: custom light fixtures; trims; special Potter paper — wallpaper with emblems that fans will easily recognize. Zaghi worked closely with the show’s production designers to reimagine the auditorium’s interior in what he calls “a symbiotic relationship.”

“The show’s production designers have remarkable imaginations and really think about the audience experience,” Zaghi said.

The transformation hasn’t happened overnight, since Zaghi, the craftspeople and the trades don’t, unfortunately, have wizarding wands at their fingertips. They have been working since November 2021 to remake the space.

Although the renovation is a financial gamble for Mirvish Productions, since the pandemic has played havoc with arts organizations and venues, the team is confident capacity limits will be loosened in time for Potter fans to soak up the experience.

“My hope is that no matter what your day was like when you enter one of our theatres ... you will be dazzled, delighted and engaged and all concerns will melt away,” said Mirvish. “You will be entering a sacred space where magical memories will be formed.”

Or, as Albus Dumbledore, the beloved Hogwarts headmaster, might suggest, “And now, Harry, let us step out into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure.”

 

“My hope is that no matter what your day was like when you enter one of our theatres ... you will be dazzled, delighted and engaged and all concerns will melt away. You will be entering a sacred space where magical memories will be formed.”

-David Mirvish

PRESS COVERAGE - VIDEO

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The CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre is getting a massive makeover
CBC news coverage

CBC News

CBC Toronto got a sneak peek of renovations now underway.

City News EMT Theatre exterior

CityNews

Adrian Ghobrial has your ticket to step inside for a special tour.

Global News EMT Theatre exterior

Global News

Melanie Zettler got a sneak peek at the transformation in progress.

FAQ

The renovation began in November of 2021.

No. Although the seating is reconfigured the seats are the same.

The theatre will be reduced from 2300 seats to 1600 seats.

 


Cover photo and gallery photos: Courtesy of Mirvish Productions

Intro: Courtesy of Mirvish Productions

CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria Street, Toronto, ON, Canada