Playwright Novelist Screenwriter

Vue Weekly – Resurrecting the Strand

by: Fawnda Mithrush  VUE weekly

Francois Chevennement admits he was stunned to find out that most lifelong Edmontonians have no idea where the famed Strand Theatre once stood.

“Everyone knows about it in the States, but no one in Edmonton here knows that we had the Strand,” he says, noting that some of the world’s greatest vaudeville artists once performed right there, on Jasper Avenue: “Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy—hello!” he quips.

Initially named the Pantages Theatre after its founder, the Strand sat on the corner of Jasper and 102 Street, beneath the Enbridge tower—a measly 12-inch plaque on the north wall is now the only mark distinguishing the historic theatre’s background.

As Citie Ballet’s artistic director, Chevennement came across the story of the Strand last year, when he was given an article about the mysterious death of the theatre’s manager, Lester Treffery.

“I wanted to present something that was really Alberta, especially Edmonton,” he explains, and the mythology surrounding the Strand intrigued him.

Though the manager’s death was never deemed a murder (Treffery was found dead at the bottom of the staircase with an apparent head injury), Chevennement notes that there was another, more symbolic death that occurred when the live vaudeville stage was changed into a film screen, and he decided to explore that shift in his next full-length ballet: Murder at the Strand.

Chevennement recruited a libretto-writer, Katherine Koller, to develop a script for the piece. Along with a bit of can-can and slapstick-style shenanigans in the ballet studio, Murder began to take shape.

“In the 1920s, because moving pictures were starting to come here, people weren’t going to vaudeville anymore. They wanted to see the new technology,” says Koller. “So my goal was to build the relationship between something that we already had and was killed. The murder in the title came from that: it was the murder of live theatre.”

Incorporating new technology himself, Chevennement employed videographer Travis Fairweather to help create a film that would augment the ballet through projections—they filmed a dancer for a day in Fort Edmonton Park’s Selkirk Hotel (incidentally, the original Selkirk was right across the street from the Strand).

The characters in the piece are partly historic, partly symbolic, Chevennement says. On the historic side there’s Treffery (danced by Luke Muscat), the manager who changed the theatre’s format. Then there’s Charlie Wilson, the true-to-life longtime doorman of the Strand, played by Jason Vaz. On the fictional side, there’s Marie (Lauren O’Kell), a young dancer trying to make a name for herself by getting into the movies. She’s foiled by Aster (Danica Smith), an older, experienced dancer. “Aster is a bit of a diva, the prima ballerina,” Chevennement chuckles. Six other female dancers round out the cast, along with pianist Evan Rokeby-Thomas, who will score the show just as a pianist would have during a silent film in the roaring ’20s.

“One of the things I want to do in the piece is to give people a hint that they should not forget the past. The past helps us to evolve: you always remember what you did earlier so you can move forward,” Chevennement explains. Whatever Murder at the Strand shows audiences, there may be a few more Edmontonians who take a closer peek at the plaque on the Enbridge wall as they’re strolling down Jasper.