With Hallowe’en coming up and my mission to play the tourist in my own city (along with a 50% off coupon), my  hat-and-mitts clad friend and I signed up for a ghost tour of Toronto.

On what felt like the coldest night of the year so far, we trekked around downtown with Steve from Tour Guys, learning about Toronto’s history through the stories of the ghosts that haunt it.

For someone who can’t watch a scary movie without living in a petrified daze for days, I do like hearing about weird, spooky, creepy and bloody events.   So I was fascinated by the tales of the ghosts (and some of their bloody or tragic ends) haunting our old buildings.  And many of those buildings happen to be theatres.

We stopped at the back of the Eglin and Wintergarden theatre, whose blackened bricks betray the theatre’s age, history, and–on this dark and windy night complete with one-eyed homeless man yelling about the Salem witch trials– its creepiness.  The front and inside of the theatres (the only double-decker theatre left in the world) are quite pretty.

Winter Garden Theatre (don't touch the leaves!) Photo by Hill Peppard City of Toronto Archives, Series 881, File 53

We found out about the seedy past of the theatre and about seats folding down by themselves, as if a row of invisible people were sitting down for a show. We learned about Sam, the resident ghost of a trombonist who fell into the orchestra pit to his death, and about a woman in Edwardian dress that sometimes mingles among the living patrons in the lobby.

But Steve didn’t tell about the theatre’s most famous ghost (at least according to the internet): the Lavender Lady.  A young woman was stabbed in the upstairs washroom of the Winter Garden and, before she died, she dragged herself through the lobby and pressed the elevator button for help.  By the time the elevator got to the fifth floor, it was too late.

Apparently, the air sometimes fills with the aroma of her lavender perfume and the elevators get called up to the top floor when no one has actually called it up…  OOoooh!

[The original elevators are still in use and require an operator, which was one of the most fun things about seeing a movie there during TIFF.  Seeing the leaves hanging from the theatre’s ceilings up close was also fun- they’re real, believe it or not.  You can’t touch them.  The ushers will get mad and yell at you if you try.]

We also found out that the Ryerson costume room is haunted.  It used to be part of a medical school… the room where cadavers were studied, complete with a chute for body parts that had served their purpose.  Fun times!

That was Friday night.

Saturday night, I went to Matchbox Macbeth presented by Litmus Theatre. I must admit, it was the fact that it was staged in a secret location that got me.

The little audience met at a corner in Little Italy, huddling together with coffees and commenting on the windy cold night being perfectly atmospheric for the Scottish play. Weirdly, it wasn’t raining.  We were led through Toronto’s alleyways by the hilarious Mariel, avoided a car and puddles, and were greeted by a fantastic little magical preamble before entering a garage/shed for the performance.  For an idea of what this was all about, check out the trailer for the show here:

The wind whistling through the wooden slats, the expert use of the shed’s acoustics (is there anything freakier than witches scratching at the door?), and minimal lighting made for a perfectly spooky and immediate Macbeth.

At only one hour long, as you can imagine much of the text was cut out. The very abridged version was a bit choppy and probably slightly confusing if you didn’t already know the story.  And I’m not sure what I thought of having Macbeth so mild-mannered (I didn’t really get a chance to see his ambition, the driving force of the play) or Tori Amos lines replacing the famous “out damned spot” monologue (which could have helped explain why the queen was suddenly dead at one point), but that’s small potatoes compared to the amazing experience that the magical shed offered.

The use of candles and everyday objects and the full use of the intimate space were original and engaging.  The apparition of Banquo’s ghost, a usually problematic staging moment, was done simply with great effect. Freaky.  I have no idea if it was planned, but I thought it was pretty amazing that the air smelled like basil during the supper scene.  (Or was it the ghost of the Basil Lady?)

Hurry up and get your ticket.  There aren’t many seats in that shed, but there are a few performances left.  Get your tickets here.  Do it.

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