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Cellar Door Project: re-animating the past

Cellar Door Project: re-animating the past

This student theatre group re-animates local history in site-specific plays, and brings its audiences along for the ride. 

[posters for five Cellar Door Project plays]

On the Run is the most recent of the five Cellar  Door project site-specific plays.

 Become part of the action with
an audio clip from On the Run


On a cool night in early March, five people huddle together, waiting for a jailbreak.

They’re just a few blocks away from the soaring stone walls of Kingston Penitentiary, and though the snow’s begun to melt from the sidewalks, their breath hangs in the air as they wait. Seconds tick by until, suddenly, they hear blasts of gunfire and the shouting of guards as three escaped inmates come barrelling down the street.

The five people listen as the convicts catch their breath and argue about stealing a car, and then follow after them as they continue their escape down King Street.

While they sound like accessories, those five people are actually an audience, reliving the real-life escape of Norman “Red” Ryan and his compatriots that transfixed the nation in 1923. The jailbreak is part of a play called On the Run, and it’s a production of the Cellar Door Project, a student theatre group who make plays inspired by local history.


[photo of actors rehearsing On the Run]
The cast of On the Run in rehearsal. Photo courtesy of Cellar Door Project.

Learn more about the people involved in On the Run.

The idea for the group was borne out of a history seminar taught by Dr. Steven Maynard. Together, the class dove into archival holdings about the jail cells underneath city hall, learning about the people who worked and were held there through Kingston’s past.

“After we had their names, we learnt about their lives, their homes, their jobs and their families,” says Mariah Horner (Artsci’15), one of Cellar Door’s founders and artistic directors. “We realized we didn’t just have biographical information, we had a complete character analysis for all of these people.”

What started as a class project soon morphed into a one-act play. Ms. Horner and her peers brought together come of the cells’ most colourful inhabitants for The Lockup, which had students playing real prisoners who were held in the cells during the late 1800s as they chatted and argued with one another and the constable guarding them.

After reaching out to the city, they were given permission to hold their play in the actual cells, which are still in existence, although no longer in use, under City Hall. The location added an extra layer of authenticity to work, which Ms. Horner says was pushed even further when came face to face with an enormous rat just before the start of their first performance.

After the success of their first play, they began staging more productions that made use of the history in their spaces. This led to performances about Kingston’s first observatory in City Park, Sir John A’s campaign to be prime minister at the Royal Tavern and Red Ryan’s jailbreak outside of the Kingston Pen. Setting their plays in the spaces where they actually happened aids in the immersion of the immersion of the audience, they have higher goals as well.

“Too often, we’re not interested in Canadian history because we don’t relate to the people we’re talking about,” says Ms. Horner. “What I believe this type of theatre does, by putting people in the present into these historic sites, is remind them that there have been countless stories in these places over time. History isn’t just about looking backwards, it’s recognizing that people will eventually look backwards on you.”

[photo of actors recording audio files at CFRC Radio]
Members of the On the Run cast record audio at CFRC Radio. Photo courtesy of Cellar Door Project.

The Cellar Door Project’s next performance, Tall Ghosts and Bad Weather, tells the story of the conservation effort to maintain the Lower Burial Ground at St. Paul’s Anglican Church.