The performers in Hasta La Vista Danforth! take their final bow, behind the show’s hosts Jan Caruana and James Gangl (far right).
“I want to talk about endings, because endings are weird things,” began Robin Archer, the host of one of the last comedy shows ever to be performed by the Bad Dog Theatre Company at their inaugural location at Broadview and Danforth.
And weird they are. Beneath the “For Lease” sign on the window of the storefront theatre, the friends of Bad Dog jammed inside the small lobby on Saturday evening, hoping to snag any rush tickets for the evening’s sold-out farewell performances, titled It Ain’t Over and Hasta La Vista Danforth!. Beside posters asking for a $5 monthly donation to the not-for-profit improv haven, framed photos lined the walls, showcasing the exaggerated contortions of the familiar faces of the company’s notable performers, all for auction beginning at $50 a pop. The mood was optimistic, animated, nostalgic, and sorrowful all at the same time. It was a mix between a celebration, a funeral, a graduation, and an estate sale. As anyone who’s ever had to say goodbye knows, it’s hard to describe that mix of feelings with any word but weird.
For nearly eight years, 138 Danforth Avenue was home to a loyal legion of actors, comedians, and neighbourhood patrons as Toronto’s only theatre hub dedicated to improv and the art of performing without a script. Their improvised parodies, like Stars Warz and A Twisted Christmas Carol, along with their signature show Theatresports, have attracted standing-room only audiences, and boosted the early careers of Pat McKenna, Linda Kash, Colin Mochrie, Mike Myers, and Bruce McCulloch and Mark McKinney. But still, Bad Dog announced two weeks ago that increasing rent, and decreasing revenue from corporate workshops, were forcing them out of their beloved doghouse for more affordable and liquor license-friendly pastures.
February at Bad Dog saw returns from favourite troupes in a series of programs that commemorated the move, and the build-up to the finale raised the emotions of the company and audience to new levels. “We have to laugh, otherwise we’ll cry!” said Jan Caruana, Bad Dog performer, producer, and co-host of Hasta La Vista Danforth!. It may have been a joke, but it was true—when the laughs were over and the lights dimmed, the tears began for the comedian who has been with Bad Dog since it was a barely a pup. “It’s like being at your own funeral.”
Kerry Griffin, Carmine Lucarelli, and Rob Norman in Hasta La Vista Danforth!.
A funeral march may be a bit of overkill: the venue may have changed, but that hasn’t put down Bad Dog. Classes, workshops, and Theatresports shows will all resume in April at Comedy Bar, and Artistic Producer Julie Dumais is looking at options for new locations and partnerships. The company’s schedule shows no signs of slowing down, even while nomadic. But that doesn’t take the sting out of leaving the only spot that Bad Dog has ever called its own.
“It’s like spending your childhood somewhere, and then having to pack up all your toys and move away. There’s no home like your first home,” Caruana said.
The company’s blood, sweat, and tears are ingrained in the venue, both on the stage and in its very foundations—in 2003, the original members of Bad Dog personally tore down the cubicle walls of the former corporate office space to create the theatre Toronto knows today. (Member Alex Hatz provided electrical work, and co-founder Kerry Griffin’s mother provided handmade curtains.) Signatures of performers past and present dot the white cement basement walls. The building is far from pretty, with paint chipping from the black walls, wires hanging out of vents, a drip sporadically falling from the roof, and a hole in a stage wall that has resisted any attempt at repair over the years (a hole that grew exponentially as the actors finally released pent-up aggression towards it throughout the evening). But it mirrors what Caruana calls the “beautiful weirdos” who make up the company, creating a family for Toronto’s theatrical misfits—a family that’s okay with mutual crotch-grabbing, full-on make-outs, and whatever else a scene may demand.
Creative forces behind Bad Dog Theatre, “The Artistic Trio” of Marcel St. Pierre, Kerry Griffin, and Ralph MacLeod, pay their thanks to the audience.
One person who did both acts in Hasta La Vista Danforth! was Griffin. “People do know this as a home. We thrive on an intimate relationship with each other and the audience, that’s the vibe in the theatre,” he said.
The emotional ties between 138 Danforth and Bad Dog Theatre make Dumais’ job all the more difficult: she joined the company as Artistic Producer in September and was immediately tasked with the job of solving Bad Dog’s budget woes. Though she has performed with the company for eight years on and off, she doesn’t consider herself part of the core group of members, and yet she has found herself in charge of making the calls that have profound impacts on her co-workers and the Danforth community.
“Everybody here wants to see the Bad Dog live. I have enough closeness that I want to see it really thrive, but I’m still distant enough for my heart not to break every day that I’m making these decisions,” she told us.
Dumais said that in a perfect world, Bad Dog would have its own location by the fall—one that’s TTC-accessible, in a culture-rich environment, and allows them to serve drinks and refreshments—but she isn’t ruling out sharing spaces with other companies in the city. Griffin adds that they’ll try to keep the same size of theatre (about fifty to one hundred seats) to keep the intimate atmosphere (as well as having the theatre be “one we can afford”).
As emotionally torn as the actors and audience were throughout the evening, the close of Hasta La Vista Danforth! could not have been better suited to the “beautiful weirdos” of Bad Dog—as a wise taxidermy mentor (Sandy Jobin-Bevans) returns to visit his now-expert protégé (Alastair Forbes), they stare intently at each other as Forbes says, simply—
“Thanks for stopping by.”
Photos courtesy of Sharilyn Johnson.