“I grew up in a small town playing the fiddle. Guys like me don’t get to be rock stars”: A Q&A with Great Big Sea’s Bob Hallett, Toronto’s newest theatre impresario
Hallett was already a Canadian rock icon. Now, he’s the proud owner of the Regent Theatre on Mount Pleasant. Here, he talks about his plans for the venue, his band’s hiatus and how he’s avoided the pitfalls of celebrity life
What is a son of Newfoundland doing buying a theatre in Toronto?
This all started in 2018, when Walter Schroeder—a Canadian philanthropist who loves supporting Newfoundland artists—and I formed our theatre company, Terra Bruce. My band Great Big Sea hadn’t been active for a few years, so my plan was to run the company in St. John’s since there’s so much talent there. But we realized early on that, to do the kinds of shows we wanted to do, we needed a presence in Toronto. So we bought the Regent in early 2022.
Toronto has a lot of beautiful old theatres. Why the Regent?
That was just fortuity. In recent years, the Regent had become a down-at-the-heels venue. Covid crushed any shot at business, so the owners were ready to sell. It’s a perfect mid-size theatre, which is rare in Canada these days—venues are either big 2,000-seaters or little boxes. The bones of the building are so beautiful. And it will be a short walk from the subway once the Crosstown is done.
A finished transit project? You’re clearly not from Toronto.
Well, theatre is fuelled by optimism, and we have some time until the Regent is ready anyhow.
Given the past few years, why are you so optimistic about live theatre?
There are many festivals that have rebounded, which tells me people are craving collective experiences. If theatre is struggling, it’s because the industry is struggling to find the right shows for the right audiences. Terra Bruce focuses on shows that are—not to sound trite—fun for the whole family. It’s about good music and lots of dancing. I want audiences to leave feeling better than when they came in. Historically, the 50-plus crowd has supported theatre. We want to draw younger crowds, like The Book of Mormon and Hamilton.
Are you an impresario now?
Oh, yeah. That’s what I ask my children to call me. I’m getting business cards made up.
For so long, Toronto’s theatre scene has been dominated by a single big dog. Should David Mirvish be worried?
The Mirvishes have done an amazing job of making Toronto a competitor to New York, and that’s good for everyone. What we’re doing is enhancing, not competing. Our musical, The Wild Rovers, is an original new show, written here and starring Canadians.
Right. You need to stage Canadian productions. How else will you find Canada’s own Lin-Manuel Miranda?
Exactly. And that person is out there. I can’t tell you how many incredible performers and writers I’ve met—great people. I feel like we’re shaking a champagne bottle and it’s soon going to explode into success.
Were you a theatre nerd growing up?
I wasn’t the guy hanging outside of drama class, but showmanship is in my DNA. I grew up in a family where music wasn’t something we listened to; it was something we lived. Family and friends were always in our home, which is where I learned to play instruments and to be entertaining. That’s really my greatest skill: knowing how to put on a show.
I couldn’t find any rock-star dirt on you. Were you well-behaved or just good at covering up?
I married young—that saved me from being an ass. The band’s drug of choice was alcohol. But, the more I drank, the worse I performed. I get wicked hangovers. A bottle of wine means I can’t function the next day. I also felt so lucky to have success that I didn’t want to screw it up by getting arrested at an airport. I grew up in a small town, playing the fiddle and the tin whistle. Guys like me don’t get to be rock stars.
What happened to Great Big Sea, anyway? Was it not an amicable split?
It’s complicated. Basically, Séan McCann, who founded the band with singer Alan Doyle and me, didn’t want to be a part of it anymore, and he didn’t want us to continue without him. There were times when we almost got back together, but it would fall apart. It’s too bad. The band is a three-legged stool, and right now we only have two legs. So what can you do?
Perhaps put on the Great Big Sea musical?
It writes itself, doesn’t it? That’s high on the list, or at least it’s high on my list. It’s going to happen—it’s too good an idea not to do it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.