By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Every good theatre has its ghosts,” says playwright Megan Dart, an intrepid explorer of haunted terrain over the past dozen years.
Which is why it was only a matter of time till Catch The Keys Productions ventured into the Capitol Theatre on 1920 Street in Fort Edmonton Park for edition XIII of Dead Centre of Town. They are, after all, specialists in ghostly exhumations in the boneyard where our own civic history, with all its macabre secrets, lies buried.
Theatre: there is a reason that the single caged bulb that burns on the stages of dark and possibly empty theatres is called a “ghost light.”
The Capitol is an elegant reproduction of the vintage vaudeville theatre c. 1929 that once stood on Jasper Avenue, in the heart of a flourishing Edmonton theatre district. “It’s been on our wish list forever, the opportunity to haunt that space,” says Dart, the indefatigable researcher who unearths our ghosts, and writes scripts for the Catch The Keys expeditions into our past. The other half of Catch the Keys is Dart’s sister Beth Dart, who directs the immersive roving thrillers that take us deep into the eerie darkness of fall nights in the river valley.
Thirteen spooky seasons ago, Dead Centre of Town got its inspiration and title from the morbid nickname of early last century for the intersection of Jasper Ave. and 109th St. A mortuary, one of this town’s first, stood on the corner, surrounded by coffin shops and embalmers. And business was brisk; the train stopped there to unload dead soldiers from the century’s assorted wars. By the time Catch the Keys disinterred this macabre history, the mortuary was a nightclub, the Globe. And Dead Centre of Town was a one-night only event.
Since that first edition, Dead Centre of Town has haunted an abandoned train station, an ex-cinema, a former tinsmith shop, among other eerie buildings with lurid pasts. And at Fort Edmonton, in the flickering light of bonfires, Dead Centre of Town has occupied a ghost carnival, a defunct air hangar, and in 2019 (the last Dead Centre before it went … underground) the Mellon Farmhouse at the top of 1920 Street. “The spaces do so much of the work for us,” says Dart happily.
This time, starting Wednesday as the veil between present and past grows thinner and thinner, the locale is a theatre; “the research this year was a lot of fun,” says Dart. Though a mere youngster as cities go, Edmonton has a lot of theatre ghost potential as she points out. “We were always a theatre town,” so lots of ghost-in-residence positions available. There are stories of ghosts at the Princess, the Garneau cinema (what happened to the projectionist?), Walterdale (an ex-firehall haunted by the ghost of a dead fireman), and the Bus Barns, headquarters of Fringe Theatre (of which Dart is the executive director).
At the Capitol Theatre itself, says Dart, “we’ve heard tell of a rambunctious playful spirit who might appear in a mirror behind you, or be giggling somewhere near…. It’s the best backdrop.” Stories, as she says of the evocative mixture of urban lore and historical fact, “are part of our collective history. And they live on in their telling.”
“There is unfinished business,” a shivery thought which might, come to think of it, be why there are ghost lights in theatres. And in a way they are haunted spaces by very definition, since actors inhabit other people and breathe life into them.
Since the Darts, their actors, and their crew are theatre people, “it’s very nice to be in a space we know well.” And, ah, the notion of ‘inside’ speaks powerfully to a company that has “chased people through fields or shoo-ed goats off the ‘stage’ at times. I seem to recall warming my hands over an assortment of fires (“we’ve lit a few,” says Dart). In Dead Centre of Town X, the year of the Johnny J Jones midway at Fort Edmonton, the only part of the experience that wasn’t under the stars, if memory serves, was briefly inside the giant glass box where the classic ghostly merry-go-round dreams its decades away.
The core company returns year after year to disturb your equilibrium. Colin Matty, a genuinely unnerving presence, returns for his ninth year as narrator. Improv skills are required; we’re up very close to the action. Christine Lesiak, artistic director of the Play The Fool Festival, has been part of the cast for 10 years; Adam Keefe has found himself at the Dead centre of town since the very beginning 13 years ago, says Dart. The cast of seven this year, working two shows a night, includes Sarah Emslie, Dayna Lea Hoffman, Murray Farnell, Max Hanic, and Jake Tkaczyk.
Back with the company are the special effects team of John and Kat Evans, along with Ian Walker (Dart calls him “our impossible machine wizard”). And since ghostly tales demand rarefied sound effects, sound designer Michael Caron “builds our world every year,” says Dart.
Dead Centre of Town XIII
Theatre: Catch The Keys Productions
Written by: Megan Dart
Directed by: Beth Dart
Where: Capitol Theatre, 1920 Street Fort Edmonton Park
Running: Oct 13 to 30, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m.
Tickets (which can be bundled with Dark): fortedmontonpark.ca