In the early days of the pandemic, Diana Bentley and Ted Dykstra were mostly holed up at home with their son, Henry. But the co-founders of the Coal Mine Theatre also felt the presence of a fourth entity: the theatre itself.
“I mean, I’m ridiculous,” said Bentley. “But I would have conversations with it … It was kind of my first baby in a way. And it was our creation, and this thing that we put so much blood and sweat and life into.”
The Coal Mine was founded in 2014, but it received its first Canada Council for the Arts grant for the final show it staged before the pandemic, “Marjorie Prime,” starring the late Martha Henry. The theatre has otherwise been funded by box office income and private donations.
It’s a tiny storefront on the Danforth that seats a maximum 85 people per performance, with a strong public and critical reputation.
Making it through the pandemic was not a given. “We don’t have a backup plan,” said Dykstra. “There’s no such thing as a deficit at the Coal Mine Theatre because that’s all the money we have. We can’t operate on a deficit. It’s not actually possible.”
Against the odds, Coal Mine has survived and the Star can exclusively announce its winter 2022 half season: two Toronto premieres of highly acclaimed American plays, “The Antipodes” by Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker and Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit,” a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer.
While these plays are characteristic Coal Mine fare in that they’re notably well-written and attuned to the cultural and social moment, they were also chosen for their entertainment value. “People need relief and they need escape,” said Bentley. “This season is specific in that way … It has a bit of a bow on it.”
Each show will run for six weeks at a maximum audience capacity of 60. These are longer runs than the theatre’s previous three- to four-week runs, part of what Dykstra calls the “gentle growth” of the company. Their first production in 2014 played to approximately 800 people in total and had a budget of about $30,000; those audience and budget numbers have tripled.
While the company received another Canada Council grant during the pandemic, Bentley and Dykstra attribute their theatre’s survival squarely to their audience.
“If we were grateful to them before, now we’re indebted,” said Bentley.
They ran two fundraising campaigns during the pandemic, offering donors a place on their “Wall of Fame”: a hand-painted list of names on their lobby wall. These donations are “incredibly generous and we couldn’t exist without them,” said Dykstra.
Just before the pandemic, they received a windfall from an unexpected benefactor. The night that “Marjorie Prime” closed in late February 2020, Martha Henry handed Dykstra an envelope, “and she bid me adieu and she went into the night,” said Dykstra. It was a cheque for $5,000, essentially Henry’s whole salary for the show.
“She said it was one of the best experiences she’d had in the theatre, and that she was blessed and lucky,” said Dykstra. “We knew she was becoming unwell.” Henry died last month.
The theatre’s board has strongly backed Bentley and Dykstra, insisting that they continue to receive their salaries during the pandemic rather than collect the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.
“We had a meeting at the beginning,” said Bentley, “and the board said no, they felt it was really, really important that we kept working.” The theatre availed itself of other government supports and, with the co-operation of its landlord, paid a quarter of the rent on the Coal Mine space.
“The hardest thing has been to endure the waiting and to keep sharp creatively,” said Dykstra. “Diana’s been writing a lot. I composed music for a rock opera so I sat in the basement, literally for a year, and just wrote music.” Both are also actors and did some TV work, he on “The Expanse” and she on “Departure” among other shows.
Currently, Bentley is at home in Toronto with now three-year-old Henry and Dykstra is in Edmonton, rehearsing to play Scrooge in Citadel Theatre’s production of “A Christmas Carol,” which will have him away through Christmas Eve.
“I have a lot of friends who, like myself, have really struggled being artists and mothers through this time,” said Bentley. “There were months without child care and there were all of those things to get through, while still trying to juggle the stress of … we could lose our theatre. We could lose our jobs.”
“There’s a kind of PTSD that’s going to happen from the shock (of the pandemic) that we’re not really dealing with yet,” said Dykstra. “There will be things we notice about our state when we all come back.”
Throughout it all, though, they felt the presence of the theatre, keeping them going. “The Coal Mine is a funny thing. It really has its own life,” said Bentley. “I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”
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