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Friday, August 19, 2022
Rob Grindlay: Helping bring ‘magic’ to the Shaw stage

Veteran Shaw production crew member anxiously waiting for new season and debut of 'Charley's Aunt' 


When Rob Grindlay left work as the supervisor of the setup crew at the Shaw Festival’s Royal George theatre on Tuesday, March 17, he thought the recently declared pandemic might keep him away for a couple of weeks.

He didn’t even take his tools or his work boots.

Grindlay, 54, has been breathing, eating and sleeping the Shaw theatre for 35 years, one of the longest-serving members of the entire production team. 

He’s only been back to the Royal George once, to pick up his tools. “It was an eerie feeling,” remembers Grindlay. “The ghost light was on. The rest of the stage dark. With a mask on. Walking out on the stage. Quiet. Nobody around at all.”

The set for “Charley’s Aunt,” a celebrated farce by Brandon Thomas, was largely in place, when everything went dark. The backdrops were hung and Tim Carroll, the show’s director and his technical team, were fiddling with props, working to get everything exactly right for the first preview performance just six weeks away. 

Today, everything is still on stage, just as they left it nine months ago, ready to be remounted when performances are allowed.

“Once we get a call, it will all be there,” says Grindlay. “I imagine it’s going to be dusty.”

Grindlay is locally grown. Born in the Wellington Street hospital. Attended St. Vincent de Paul Elementary School and vocational high schools in St. Catharines and Niagara Falls. His father was a plumber in Niagara Falls; his stepmother, a secretary at a Niagara Falls high school.

“I actually went to see movies in the Royal George when it was the Brock Theatre. I remember seeing a lot of Disney shows when I was four or five years old.” 

“High school is really where I learned to use my hands,” Grindlay explains. “Basically, I got all kinds of different trades: automotive, landscaping, welding, carpentry, right down to floor polishing.”

But his best subject was baking. “When I got out of high school, I went to the Pillar and Post. I was apprenticing to be a baker.” 

“I was up at 4 o’clock in the morning, every day. And I got to the point where I didn’t like the heat of the kitchen.”

So, in 1986, he moved to the maintenance department at the Shaw Festival, making better use of all the skills he had learned in high school. It was a return of sorts. Grindlay had worked part-time at the Shaw as a high school student.

“I was all over the place fixing things, tightening up seats, changing light bulbs and stuff.”

“One day when I was on stage, I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could create magic with these people, who do it for a living.’”

He applied and was accepted as a member of a setup crew. 

“It is amazing,” Grindlay says, seemingly part mystified, part enthralled by his role. “You’re involved in putting something together for hundreds of people to enjoy — a little bit of magic.”

The setup crew of three helps rig in the shows. “Anything that hangs. The lights. The walls that fly in. The curtains. The back drops that fly in. That happens in March.”

“Once we are up and running, we come in at 8 o’clock in the morning, set up the show that is going to happen at 1 o’clock. When that show is done, we come in at 4:30 to take that away and we set up the show that is going on that night. After that, we go home. And start over in the morning.”

Grindlay describes the setup task at the Royal George as extremely challenging because the backstage area is so small, sometimes housing all the onstage needs of three or four productions.

“There were times when we had to go from a hotel suite to a jungle — in one scene. Really creative. You have a chest of drawers on one side and when you turn it around, it’s a bush.”

“There’s kind of a Tetris feel to the stage. The designers want so much, we have to build paths through the stored scenery because there is so much of it. We need to think ahead for the next few moves.”

Tetris was a popular video game in the 1980s. Players move different shaped pieces into the field trying to make them fit. Grindlay is describing what has now come to be known as the Tetris Effect.

Grindlay lives with his girlfriend just a couple of blocks from the Royal George, across Regent Street from the Olde Angel Inn, in a house his family purchased in 1967. 

“My house is actually built out of the same materials that were used to build the Royal George Theatre at the turn of the last century.”

When Grindlay was growing up, his great-grandparents lived in the house where Cheese Secrets is now. 

“When I was a child, I used to watch (Shaw) do the set offloading at the Court House. In the parking lot back there. It was the early ‘70s.

“I said to my great grandmother: ‘One day I think want to work in the theatre.’ I had my opportunity and here I am. I’m a theatre guy.”

And Grindlay likes to see shows. “Some put me to sleep. But there are shows that are absolutely exciting. My favourites have been shows like “Sweeney Todd,” “Peter Pan,” I like that stuff.”

Grindlay has found the transition from 80-hour weeks to the idleness of the pandemic incredibly challenging.

He’s pleased the Shaw took advantage of pandemic insurance and government programs to keep everyone employed until the end of August. Now it’s unemployment.

Executive director Tim Jennings and artistic director Tim Carroll “have been great. Jennings has got to be a superstar, for what he’s done for everybody.”

Grindlay has spent his downtime completing renovations on this 104-year-old home and taking a few weeks at a cottage near Cochrane, Ont. 

“It’s OK, I guess,” says Grindlay. “But the mind melts a little as you’re sitting there wondering what your future is.”

“I’m more than ready to go back. I’ve missed the theatre. You don’t know what you got, until it’s gone.”

The Shaw has announced a shorter, more focused 2021 season, highlighting many of the shows that were under development for this year, including “Charley’s Aunt.”

Grindlay is almost wistful when he considers the future.

“If we hold on to what we feel about the theatre and what we do, how we make people feel, it will come back. The joy of this career is how we make people feel. 

“A lot of the social aspect of the theatre will not return for a very long time. I hope people have learned how much they really need the theatre,” he says.

“I wouldn’t have been there for 35 years if I didn’t love what I do. I love what happens in the theatre. The magic is incredible.”