Connecting the artistic community, diverse programming, engagement and education.
With strong roots in Kingston’s arts and entertainment scene going back almost 150 years, countless stirring performances have come to life downtown at the Kingston Grand Theatre; their echoes tangling around seats, drifting down from the rafters, and filling the versatile spaces with laughter, tears, triumph and tragedy. The Grand is intricately woven into the fabric of the city, continuing to enrich audiences as a beacon on the arts landscape. Building on that robust heritage, the Kingston Grand Theatre is poised to carry on thought-provoking and downright entertaining programming for years to come – and to foster lasting community connections along the way.
A Look Back In Time
The Kingston Grand Theatre started out as Martin’s Opera House in 1879 and has been a fixture of the Kingston community ever since. During that time, it has presented opera, music, vaudeville and movies. It was threatened with demolition in the 1960s but was saved by a concerned group of Kingston residents who convinced the City of Kingston to take over its ownership. Since then, the facility has been renovated multiple times with the most recent renovation completed in 2008. It includes two performance spaces — the Regina Rosen Auditorium which seats 775 people and the Baby Grand Theatre which can accommodate up to 100 people depending upon how it gets configured. The theatre also includes a number of gathering spaces and is used as a performance space and a venue for meetings, festivals, weddings and celebrations of life. There may also be a deliciously eerie side to the theatre: staff say some people believe the Kingston Grand Theatre is haunted by the ghost of Ambrose Small, a self-made millionaire and theatre magnate, who owned the building around the turn of the 20th century and who disappeared under mysterious circumstances after selling off all his properties in 1919.
Moving Through The Pandemic
The Kingston Grand Theatre was forced to close in March 2020. Staff members note it had never been busier than it was in the lead up to the pandemic and hosted performances presented by a mix of community groups, commercial presenters, and the City of Kingston itself. The facility opened again briefly in the fall of 2021 but closed again as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 swept around the works. The city took this opportunity to refresh the Kingston Grand Theatre brand, as well as the building, in an effort to make it more welcoming once it reopened. Fast forward to March 2022 when reopening saw the demand for rentals explode as community groups and commercial promoters clamoured to get back into the building. While the building was shuttered, the City of Kingston’s own Grand OnStage program shifted to being delivered online, but there is no doubt that patrons and artists have been eager to return to live, in-person shows.
Grand OnStage Celebrates 15 Years
In the same vein, the Grand OnStage program is now celebrating 15 years this season and staff is excited to welcome the community back in person to enjoy the variety and diversity of programming Grand OnStage offers. Grand OnStage is presented by the City of Kingston and offers an annual, curated series of performing arts presentations from across Canada and around the world. The mandate is to offer Kingston audiences access to artists and performances they might not see otherwise. This fall, Grand OnStage features performances from across a variety of genres, including music, theatre, comedy, circus, dance and family programming.
Some of the highlights include Grammy award winner and blues guitar legend Robert Cray; Canadian multi-Juno award winner Serena Ryder; holiday favourites Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy, and a very special family performance of Alice in Wonderland by Tout à Trac Theatre. Grand OnStage also provides a platform for presenting work by an increasingly diverse range of artists whose work deserves to be seen, including Indigenous, racialized, and mixed abilities artists. The City also works to remove financial barriers for audiences by offering a range of discount programs.
The Magic Of The Kingston Grand Theatre
The Theatre has been an integral part of the city for so long that it’s recognized as a place to experience an incredible range of in-person performances and events. It has also been widely used by the community over the past 50 years and that means there are a number of people who have not only attended performances and events at the Kingston Grand Theatre but they have also had the opportunity to be on stage as well. The facility has also been home for decades to organizations like the Kingston Symphony and is the preferred venue for many students’ groups associated with Queen’s University who embrace the opportunity to host performances and events inside a building with such history. The diversity of programming — community, commercial and curated — also means there’s always something to appeal to a vast diversity of tastes and interests across a range of ages.
Outreach And Education
Grand OnStage offers a variety of engagement programs for patrons including pre–show conversations, post-performance “talkbacks”, workshops, master classes, lectures, and more. These bespoke programs provide patrons and community members with unique opportunities to connect directly with visiting and local artists, explore the art form in greater detail, and learn from professionals in their field. Staff said they were thrilled to present a free singer-songwriter workshop for youth with Kingston’s own Miss Emily in the lead-up to her recent Grand OnStage 2022-23 season opener performance. Upcoming engagement highlights include a series of post-show talkbacks with Vivek Shraya of How to Fail as a Popstar hosted by Aara Macauley, Artistic Director, Kingston WritersFest and Jermaine Marshall, Inclusion and Anti-Racism Advisor, Queen’s University Human Rights & Equity Office.
City staff members also noted they were excited to see the return of educators and students to the theatre as the Grand OnStage education performance season kicks off on October 18 with a sold-out school performance (and community partner workshop) from Ill-Abilities International Dance Crew. The Theatre offers curriculum-rich study guides with most of its education performances, so educators can extend the learning with their students when they return to school
Shifted Focus, New Programs Born
During the pandemic, when the venue was closed and there was no live performance, the theatre shifted focus to invest in local artist development and provide opportunities for performing artists in the community. Some of the programs initiated during that time are continuing today, and the staff is particularly proud of the Local Arts Residency program. The Residency provides space and support to Kingston artists to explore ideas, and create and nurture new directions in their work. It’s now an annual summer program with 13 residencies hosted so far. The program aims to enhance the Kingston Grand Theatre as an artistic community hub that local artists are connected to, showcased through videos that are created to highlight each residency.
The Kingston Grand Theatre is also proud to be continuing its relationship with Grandmother Kathy Brant who is the Elder-in-Residence for Grand OnStage. This position was introduced back in 2018 as part of moving forward on a shared path of reconciliation and providing additional learning opportunities to patrons and artists, alongside Indigenous programming and performances that are part of the Grand OnStage season.
Grandmother Kathy is Mohawk of the Haudenosaunee Six Nations Confederacy and has worked with Indigenous communities for close to 25 years. In her role as Elder-in-Residence, Grandmother Kathy developed a land acknowledgement that is read at shows and available on the website for patrons to read and reflect on. She attends Grand OnStage events where she shares her knowledge and traditional teachings, provides traditional medicine to patrons and artists and increases awareness of Indigenous culture.
For more information about the Kingston Grand Theatre or for tickets, please visit www.kingstongrand.ca, call the box office at 613-530-2050 or find the theatre on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.
For this piece, South Eastern Ontario connected with staff as part of the Arts & Culture Services at the City of Kingston, who manage and run the Kingston Grand Theatre, present the Grand OnStage season and provide local artists development opportunities at the venue. These staff members include Colin Wiginton, Director, Arts & Culture Services; Dianne Zemba, Manager, Kingston Grand Theatre; Danika Lochhead, Manager, Arts & Sector Development; Jayson Duggan, Performing Arts Manager, as well as Jenny Pedler, Program Coordinator.