$5M theatre transformation for Harry Potter production

Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Slytherin … and Mirvish?

Technically speaking, Toronto’s CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre isn’t one of the houses at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, home to Harry Potter and his friends. But don’t try telling that to the creative team and craftspeople who are revamping the theatre’s interior for Mirvish Productions, turning it into a magical place suitable for the upcoming run of the play, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” which opens May 31.

“For ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,’ the show’s creative team have extended the play’s world from the stage into the auditorium and the theatre lobbies,” David Mirvish, president of Mirvish Productions, said in an email. “They want to immerse the audience in the play’s look and feel. It will be exciting to see how Toronto audiences will react to this all-encompassing form of theatre. I hope they will be as thrilled with this unique theatrical experience as I was when I attended the play in London.”

“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is based on a short story by J.K Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany. The action takes place 19 years after the conclusion of the much-loved books and reacquaints fans with Harry and his friends, as well as the next generation of young wizards. Inevitably, magic, spells and conflict ensue.

In each city where the play is produced, the theatre reflects the magic of the script in a unique way. In Toronto, this means a $5 million transformation of the theatre’s interior to provide an immersive experience. Their aim is to create an intimate space that is a world of its own, one that allows the audience to enter more fully into the story unfolding around them.

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“We want the audience to feel like they are inhabiting Harry Potter’s world,” said Athos Zaghi, the Toronto architect leading the redesign.

To do so, the theatre has been slimmed down from 2,300 seats to 1,600. In the balcony, the aisles no longer run the length of the theatre dividing the space; the audience members will be part of a whole. On both levels, there will be faux side and rear walls that, as Zaghi says, “effectively embrace the audience.”

The real visual impact, however, is in the new colour palette. Gone are the creams and butterscotch that hearkened back to the formality of the 1900s. Instead, theatregoers will walk into a room whose walls are decorated with a colour serendipitously called Witchcraft, described by PPG Paints as “a dark, cool, stormy black with navy undertones.” With gold accents, the theatre takes on a thoroughly modern look, one that is mysterious enough for a Potter production. The theatre’s signature domed ceiling really “pops,” says Zaghi.

Of course, painting an entire theatre is a bit different from painting the living room. One doesn’t simply throw drop cloths on the furniture and tape over the trim. It meant moving the seats out and pulling up the carpets to reveal the cement floors beneath. This allowed Mirvish Productions to add an extra feature: aisle lighting, wired through the bare floors, which will make it easier for patrons to find their seats.

Other Mirvish additions include changing all the interior lighting to energy-saving LED light and installing a catwalk system above the ceiling. The CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre, along with its other Mirvish brethren, has also had its ventilation system improved.

The theatre will also sport a number of custom-designed features that brand the interior as a Potter space: custom light fixtures; trims; special Potter paper — wallpaper with emblems that fans will easily recognize. Zaghi worked closely with the show’s production designers to reimagine the auditorium’s interior in what he calls “a symbiotic relationship.”

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“The show’s production designers have remarkable imaginations and really think about the audience experience,” Zaghi said.

The transformation hasn’t happened overnight, since Zaghi, the craftspeople and the trades don’t, unfortunately, have wizarding wands at their fingertips. They have been working since November 2021 to remake the space.

Although the renovation is a financial gamble for Mirvish Productions, since the pandemic has played havoc with arts organizations and venues, the team is confident capacity limits will be loosened in time for Potter fans to soak up the experience.

“My hope is that no matter what your day was like when you enter one of our theatres … you will be dazzled, delighted and engaged and all concerns will melt away,” said Mirvish. “You will be entering a sacred space where magical memories will be formed.”

Or, as Albus Dumbledore, the beloved Hogwarts headmaster, might suggest, “And now, Harry, let us step out into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure.”

Elaine Smith is a Toronto freelance writer who may be found on Platform 9 3/4 waiting for the Hogwarts Express to roll up.


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