The moment Andrew Davidson walked into the empty theatre on Ellice Avenue in 2019, he could see it needed a lot of love. He also could feel something eerie in there. A spirit, some might say, that needed a steward or guardian to bring it back, if not from the dead, than from a lengthy hibernation.
"I could feel 100 years of theatre ghosts in these walls," says the Pinawa-born author, whose 2008 debut novel The Gargoyle was a New York Times bestseller.
Davidson, apparently, is not afraid of ghosts. He likes them. So much so that two Augusts ago, which might as well be 10 years ago, he took a large personal risk, purchasing the building at 585 Ellice Ave. — which had been a theatre in one capacity or another since 1913 — as a personal and artistic experiment.
A longtime enthusiast of the stage in addition to the page, Davidson wanted to start a workshop theatre, where emerging local creative types would have the space to try, fail, succeed, experiment, learn and grow, sharing untested material with an audience looking to witness the new, the sharp, the dangerous and the edgy — the stuff that sometimes sits in drawers for decades because it had nowhere to be realized.
How many potentially great pieces of theatre never see the light of day for that reason, wondered Davidson, who hit his head against the wall more times than he’d like to admit trying to get a work staged. How many writers, directors, actors, or choreographers have the ideas, but not the space to explore them? How many audiences think the theatre is for blockbuster productions and not independent thoughts? Why not try to do something about it?
Pushing his chips to the centre of the table, he took possession on Aug. 1, 2019, and the Gargoyle Theatre came to life.
"My plan was to open in the fall of 2020," says the writer, who tends to speak like one. "Before god laughed."
This laughter was unanticipated and unappreciated. All artistic endeavours involve risk, but this one involved a great deal of financial and personal stake, and a pandemic was not a part of the initial business plan. When the Free Press first heard about Davidson’s idea for the Gargoyle, it was early in the winter of 2020. A reporter got in touch with Davidson, but he said it was too early to do a story; he would touch base in a few weeks or months once opening was on the horizon.
Ha. Davidson politely explained for reasons that didn’t need much explanation that things would be delayed. He’d contact the paper when, knock on wood again, the opening was on the horizon.
A year-and-a-half later, the sign on the Gargoyle went up — a landmark moment for any new business, declaring to the world that it’s actually on its way — and Davidson ecstatically extended an invitation to see the fruits of his labour.
Throughout the pandemic, Davidson and company, including technical advisor Scott Henderson and venue technician Rebecca Driedger, chipped back the layers of the theatre’s building in trying to reinvent it.
In recent years, it played host to the Dramatic Arts Centre, the Bandwidth Theatre, the Ellice Theatre movie venue, and the operations of New Life Ministries under the leadership of the late Rev. Harry Lehotsky. For a time, actor Adam Beach ran a film institute on site.
But the roots of the building as a theatre first grew in 1913, when the property, part of what’s known as Mac’s Building, was built. Mac’s Theatre showed silent movies, because talkies didn’t exist yet. Musical recitals and lectures were also hosted there, and an early iteration of the Winnipeg Motorcycle Club held meetings above the theatre. Mac’s Theatre had the slogan, "Always — A Good Show — All Ways."
In the 1930s, talking pictures were shown there, and in the 1960s, a projectionist named Nestor Holunga, who with his brother Ed built the Sundown Theatre in Inglis, was part of a group that reimagined the Mac’s as Cinema 3, which became Winnipeg’s foremost cinema of foreign and experimental film, catering to a burgeoning audience of immigrants in the West End by showing movies in their mother tongues and frequently filling its 300 seats, even on weeknights.
With all those theatrical iterations came layer upon layer of paint and panelling, which Davidson and company worked tirelessly to strip back to the original.
The team excavated the original brick interior walls, closing them off in massive frames that were a remnant of an earlier theatre and painting those giant rectangles in gold. The walls are painted a mossy green, the ceilings have been covered with grand tiles, giving the feel of different era. Tiny gargoyles are perched on corbels along the walls, stone-faced voyeurs watching along with the audience.
"Every drop of paint in here was put there by us," Davidson says proudly, a few minutes before standing in the ticket booth that will greet guests coming in from Ellice Avenue.
Every drop, that is, except for a western-themed mural lining the bottom of the projectionist’s room. It was revealed when boards were removed from the wall and likely dates back to the days of the Mac’s Theatre.
There’s still some work to be done — a mingling area has yet to commingle, shall we say. But the bones are set and now, the real fun is set to begin. On Sept. 1, the theatre’s website launched. Next month it will host a pair of open houses, abiding by public health orders, on Oct. 15 and 16, to introduce itself to the community and to announce the first play. That production will debut in November, barring any laughing deities.
And with the theatre’s opening will come the materialization of Davidson’s dream: the opportunity for emerging works to find their place on the Gargoyle stage. In December, the Gargoyle will host the first public pitch day, where local creators can share their concepts for feedback and possible approval.
In an ideal world, the website says, the Gargoyle will be able to say yes to three shows, to be produced in the months of February, April and June 2022. Successful pitchers will be offered a month of access to the theatre, enough for three weeks of rehearsal and technical work, plus a six-show run over a five-day stretch.
Details are on the website, but one thing Davidson emphasizes is that prior experience is not necessarily a prerequisite: what is required is that the work is original, and even better, "provocative, subversive, or something we’ve never seen before." The theatre’s MO is not to compete with, but to complement the existing theatre infrastructure, growing very much into its own thing.
During an afternoon tour of the facility, Davidson and Driedger, who majored in drama and visual art at Brandon University and specialized in media production in Red River College’s creative communications program, could hardly contain their enthusiasm.
The laughter of the pandemic has hardly sapped their sense of optimism that the theatre will find a niche in the burgeoning cultural environment of the city’s West End, an area with a rich history of writing, performing and creating.
"Theatre has been around for thousands of years. People will come back," Davidson says. "It’s survived every other pandemic. It will survive this one too."
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.