Former Artistic Directors
Peter Dearing (1957 - 1968)
In 1957 London Little Theatre was competing for audiences with the professional theatres in Toronto and with television. The next step in London Little Theatre’s development was to hire an artistic director; Peter Dearing was hired. Part of Dearing’s success was including in his seasons large scale musicals with big casts, such as: The Boy Friend, Oliver, West Side Story and My Fair Lady. He also programed such progressive works as the Marat/Sade. His work made London Little Theatre a viable enterprise with a strong subscription. When Dearing left London Little Theatre, no successor was hired.
Heinar Piller (1971 -1976)
After three years without an artistic director, the board hired Heinar Piller to be the artistic director in charge of transitioning London Little Theatre into the professional Theatre London. His productions included both professional and amateur actors. From the beginning Piller was committed to producing Canadian plays. His first season included George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. Piller also premiered local playwright Peter Colley’s The Donnellys in 1974. The Donnellys traveled to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. This was the time when professional theatres across the country were emerging, and Theatre London was becoming a leader in Canadian theatre.
William Hutt (1976 - 1980)
Legendary Canadian actor William Hutt served as the second artistic director of Theatre London. In his first season Hutt directed Shaw’s comedy Candida. During Hutt’s tenure he often acted in the productions at the Grand. He played John A. MacDonald in Timothy Findley’s play John A. - Himself during the 1978/79 season. Hutt brought many of Canada’s top directors to the Grand including Jean Gascon, Keith Turnbull and future Theatre London artistic director Bernard Hopkins who directed two significant new plays, now classics, Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles Soeurs and Peter Shaffer’s Equus.
William Hutt chose to leave the Grand after his fourth season in order to focus on his acting career at the Stratford Festival. Hutt is considered to have been one of Canada’s finest classical actors known especially for his performances of King Lear and Prospero in The Tempest.
Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy
In Hutt’s first season, the great acting couple of Hume Cronyn, a London native, and his wife Jessica Tandy returned to the Grand with a reading concert of selected dramatic pieces called The Many Faces of Love. This production marked the Grand’s 75th Birthday. Cronyn and Tandy had long history with the Grand. They both had performed at the Grand in 1951 in The Fourposter which they toured through Canada and the U.S. In their honour, the Grand’s rehearsal hall is called the Jessica Tandy Rehearsal Hall.
Following the 1976/77 season, the much-needed renovations of the Grand building began. The renovations included: the total rebuilding of the lobby and balcony, and the new construction of the intimate McManus Stage in the basement. The Grand renovation earned architect Peter Smith the Governor Generals Medal for Design.
During the renovations, the famous proscenium arch almost collapsed due to heavy equipment operating. The construction equipment kept breaking-down. When the crew went to investigate, they discovered only two bricks were holding up the arch. Some believe that it was the theatre’s ghost, Ambrose Small, who stopped the machinery and saved the arch.
The Grand Theatre reopened with William Hutt directing Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate in November of 1978. The building was officially completed in January 1979.
During the renovations, Theatre London presented a reduced 1977-78 season at Aeolian Hall.
Bernard Hopkins (1980 - 1983)
Bernard Hopkins served three seasons as artistic director. During Hopkins tenure he focused on increasing programming on the McManus Stage including an imaginative adaptation of Beauty and the Beast that he directed. The production was praised for its innovative stage design made out of mirrors. On the MainStage Hopkins directed the majority of the productions during his tenure. By the end of his three-year term he had directed ten MainStage productions. He concluded his tenure by directing a spectacular production of Gypsy. Hopkins, who was committed to community engagement, made both the MainStage and the McManus stage more available for local productions. Hopkins spent many years as an actor at the Stratford Festival and was a mentor to countless Canadian theatre artists.
Robin Phillips (1983 - 1984)
After seven successful seasons at Stratford, as artistic director, Robin Phillips became the new artistic director of the Grand. Phillips made sweeping changes to how the theatre would run. Phillips scrapped the subscription season and instead programmed a repertory theatre season of fifteen plays including Godspell, Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma and Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. Phillips created a company of renowned actors including: Brent Carver, Susan Wright, Carole Shelley, John Neville, and William Hutt. The productions were artistically praised.
Robin Phillips and the repertory season model remained for only one year. In that one season, the theatre had accumulated a deficit of over a million dollars. A combination of factors lead to the repertory model’s failure including a boycott of the theatre by long-time subscribers angry with the cancellation of their subscriptions, a significant shortfall in grant money, and attendance of less than 77%.
It was for this season that the theatre company’s name was changed from Theatre London to The Grand Theatre Company.
Don Shipley (1984 - 1986)
Don Shipley was appointed artistic director the season following the “Phillips year.” The Grand returned to the subscription season model. The main objective during this time was eliminating the deficit. A minimum of 10,000 subscribers was needed, and fortunately Londoners showed their support. By October of 1984 the Grand had sold 12,653 subscriptions. Shipley was artistic director for only a year and half and resigned in January of 1986.
Larry Lillo (1986 - 1988)
The thirty-nine year old director/actor from Vancouver, Larry Lillo, became the next artistic director. He served for two seasons, before returning to Vancouver to become the artistic director of the Vancouver Playhouse.
By the end of his first season, Lillo and executive director Elaine Calder had eliminated the deficit and created a surplus. Lillo left the Grand triumphantly by directing a production of John Gray’s Canadian musical Rock and Roll. The production starred Doug Bennet of the band Doug and the Slugs. Elaine Calder said of the opening night “The audience was on its feet screaming. Everyone was so happy!” And there was great reason for celebration; Lillo had brought a warm, generous, and energetic presence to the Grand and the organization was set for future financial and artistic success.
Martha Henry (1988 - 1995)
In 1988 the great Canadian actor and director Martha Henry was appointed the new artistic director. Henry served a long and successful tenure. Henry introduced the UnderGrand Series on the McManus Stage. The object of this series was to present newer Canadian plays including works by Judith Thompson, Michel Tremblay, and John Lazarus. The series also included plays by local writers including Herman Goodden’s play Slippery. Henry introduced London audiences to challenging contemporary plays on the MainStage including Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca, John Murrell’s Farther West and David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. These productions were controversial among audiences, especially Glengarry Glen Ross which many audience members found objectionable due to the swearing and aggressive nature of the characters. Henry concluded her tenure in 1995 with financial and critical success.
Michael Shamata (1995 - 1999)
During Michael Shamata’s tenure, he brought a new generation of Canadian theatre makers to the Grand including director Peter Hinton who directed Steve Martin’s surreal comedy Picasso at the Lapin Agile, and Maureen Hunter’s Atlantis. The production of Atlantis is especially memorable to audiences because the stage design consisted of an ankle deep pool of water covering the entire stage.
Shamata directed and adapted four classic novels during his tenure. The adaptions have become staples in Canadian theatre programing. During his first season Shamata adapted Dracula for the stage, which was the unconventional choice for the Christmas production. The following season he adapted Great Expectations. In 1997 Shamata adapted A Christmas Carol featuring Douglas Campbell as Scrooge. This adaptation is now an annual favourite of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre. In his final season Shamata directed and adapted The Wind and the Willows also featuring Douglas Campbell as Badger.
The High School Project
It was during Michael Shamata’s tenure that the High School Project began. The High School Project remains a cornerstone in the Grand’s educational programming to this day. The idea for the High School Project was given to Shamata by John Douglas, then drama teacher at Westminster Secondary School. The first High School project production was West Side Story performed in May of 1998.
Kelly Handerek (1999 - 2001)
In 1999, Kelly Handerek became the Grand’s artistic director. Handerek served as artistic director for two seasons, before returning to his teaching career. During Kelly Handerek’s tenure, he made a commitment to producing new Canadian plays. In his first season he facilitated the workshop readings of North by Greg Nelson and The Phoenix Lottery by London, Ontario native Allan Stratton. Both productions were included on the MainStage in Handerek’s second season as artistic director. Handerek directed both productions.
Susan Ferley (2001-2016)
Susan Ferley became artistic director in 2001 and would go on to be the longest serving artistic director of the Grand to date. Her tenure was marked with great financial success which brought economic stability for the theatre. This financial success was due in a large part to the work of current executive director Deb Harvey, who joined the Grand in 1999. Ferley put emphasis on the holiday production, making it a popular tradition for Londoners. Notable productions Ferley directed during her tenure include: the Québécois comedy Strawberries in January by Évelyne de la Chenelière, and Verne Thiessen’s epic play about physicist F.J. Haber titled Einstein’s Gift. She launched the Playwrights Cabaret with London dramaturg Jeff Culbert which presented short plays by London writers. Most notably, Ferley was committed to further developing the High School Project, the only theatre program of its kind in North America.
Dennis Garnhum (2016 - Present)
On June 1, 2016, Dennis Garnhum became the Grand’s new artistic director. Garnhum was born and raised in London, Ontario. Before returning to London, he had served eleven seasons as artistic director of Theatre Calgary. Garnhum began his tenure by announcing a series of new programs for the Grand. These programs included the new play development program COMPASS, and the 100 Schools initiative that brings live theatre into elementary schools at no charge. At the announcement of his first season, Garnhum and executive director Deb Harvey announced that they had secured the largest donation in the Grand’s history. London philanthropists Helen and Andy Spriet made a one million dollar donation to the Grand. In honour of this donation the mainstage was renamed the Spriet Stage. The donation is for artistic and creative capital projects including staging large scale productions.