Ferley’s favourite space may not be an actual place (column)
London Community News
Susan Ferley stands at an entrance to the Grand Theatre auditorium watching the crew striking the set used for a recent production of Hair. Stage doors to the alley beside the theatre are wide open. Clear, bright daylight pours in. There’s a sense of finality about all of the activity: Without the set, this particular version of the classic 1960s musical can never appear again.
Ferley, the Grand’s artistic director, seems oblivious to the implications of the teardown. Instead, she’s focused on the future – in this case My Fair Lady, the theatre’s high school project that’s scheduled to run in September.
She began talking about the production after being asked what is her favourite play. She explained that she doesn’t make those sorts of judgements. Plumbing plays for their moments of connection and staging potential is what interests her. My Fair Lady was the example.
Moments earlier, while chatting in the theatre’s fourth floor poster lounge that overlooks St. Peter’s Cathedral Basilica and Richmond Street, Ferley provided a similar, richly layered response to the question of her favourite space.
At first it seemed to be the lounge: It’s “a beautiful area to sit and look out at the city and watch the city moving by and it’s a beautiful place to observe the seasons,” she says. But it could have just as well been the whole theatre, which she describes as “an extraordinary space with such a rich history.”
Then there was Richmond Row revealed in the lounge’s bank of windows: “I love the scale of the neighbourhood as you look down the row and just the richness in terms of what’s here, what’s grown up on this street. Certainly historically the theatre and the churches are so amazing right here. I’ve always found that history fascinating.”
Put these options to the vote and the theatre would seem a shoe-in, given Ferley’s long love affair with the medium. Her first audition was in Winnipeg in Grade 2 before the late John Hirsch, who was one of the founders of the Manitoba Theatre Centre, Canada’s first regional theatre. Later on, she studied theatre at the University of Alberta and worked in theatres in Ontario, including Stratford, as well as in British Columbia and Saskatchewan before arriving in London 10 years ago.
The Grand also has much to qualify it as a favourite space. Opened in 1901 the theatre has hosted both live productions and cinema. Actors who have performed under its famous proscenium arch include W.C. Fields, Michael Redgrave, Sidney Poitier, Maggie Smith, Sandra Oh and Leonard Nimoy.
But as Ferley speaks, it becomes apparent her favourite space isn’t simply the theatre or the neighbourhood. History is important to her, as are environments that are catalysts for exchange and connection. She talks about how much she enjoys living in downtown spaces.
“I don’t know if that’s a reaction to growing up in suburbia or just my life is very connected to the arts and there are usually concert halls and museums and galleries in this area — those things nourish me.”
She describes mining the neighbourhood for ideas and has found inspiration “in the oddest things” surrounding her. “You can be looking at a building and go ‘Oh, something in that architecture, how does that connect?’”
She returns again and again to the idea of connecting her surroundings and her creative work. She recalls sitting in a nearby coffee shop with designers who worked on Hair and observing people in the shop and in the street. “You want things that we do to resonate and reflect the world now,” she says.
After the interview, I wonder if Ferley’s favourite space is tied not so much to a particular spot as it is to occupying a certain experience, one that involves generating connections through acts of gathering, sharing and creation.
That’s what theatre is about, she had said at one point. “It is a place about human communication.”
Favourite Spaces is a new monthly column that profiles London’s residents in their favourite city location. Do you have a favourite space you’d like to share? Contact Mary Baxter at firstname.lastname@example.org.