George Pothitos: Friend or Foe?

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george pothitos

photo by robert provencher.

Two weeks ago Neptune Theatre’s Artistic Director George Pothitos did something that would have been unthinkable ten years ago; he announced the theatre’s 51st Season which features six Canadian plays out of nine. In 2003, under Ron Ulrich, Neptune presented three Canadian plays; in 2004 it produced only two. Yet, Pothitos is still often blasted by members of Halifax’s artistic community for failing to produce work that reflects this city and its artists. Is this reaction warranted?

It was under Ron Ulrich when the unrest from the indigenous theatre community began to seethe beneath the surface in Halifax. Much of this unrest had to do with the lack of opportunities for Atlantic Canadian playwrights to have their work produced at the city’s regional theatre. There was also frustration regarding his casting choices, although, especially initially, most of his musicals (and many of his plays) featured a wide array of local talent, including emerging artists, many of whom would end up working in theatres across the country. Initially, this unrest was productive and constructive, as it was part of what paved the way for the creation of Halifax’s independent theatre community. In the same way that Soulpepper and Theatre Passe Muraille were born as a reaction against Stratford, Zuppa Theatre and 2b Theatre can be seen as being born as an alternative to Neptune. This has proven to be both healthy and advantageous for Halifax’s theatre audiences, as 2b and Zuppa have grown to become nationally and internationally acclaimed companies and both have had successful and well received plays in the Neptune Scotiabank Studio Theatre this season. It is true that by the end of Ulrich’s tenure there was little being produced that people in the industry were excited about, despite the fact that Ulrich was choosing some great plays from the theatrical canon: works by Tennessee Williams, Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett. I remember when Tarragon’s gorgeous and poignant Ubuntu came to Halifax being so shocked that it made barely a ripple in the community. I was told many people missed it because they had given up going to Neptune, it no longer held any relevance to them.

It was clear what Neptune Theatre needed was change. It needed an Artistic Director who would root the theatre once again in the community that it belonged to and begin to tell Atlantic Canadian stories. Since arriving in Halifax in 2009, George Pothitos has consistently done just that and this new season is certainly an exemplary one. Hockey Mom, Hockey Dad kicks off the Studio Season in October, an iconic play by Sydney playwright Michael Melski, his third at Neptune since Pothitos took the reins, starring local actors Heather Rankin and Kevin Kincaid. Rankin won audience’s hearts as the hilarious Bitsy in the Mulgrave/Neptune production of Cape Breton favourite Daniel MacIvor’s Bingo earlier this season. Kincaid recently played the hockey dad at Chester Playhouse. Eastern Front Theatre and Neptune team up once again to present Halifax-based playwright Joanne Miller’s Cradle and All in the Studio in February. Through the new Open Spaces program Neptune is also helping to bring three very exciting productions from Halifax’s independent theatre community to the Studio Theatre. There is Kazan Co-Op Theatre’s production of Daniel MacIvor’s play His Greatness, a thoughtful imagining of the last days of Tennessee Williams, a new TheatreSpeak, production, dedicated to bringing intimate musical theatre by local talents to local audiences and The Doppler Effect’s production of Michael McPhee’s play The Contribution. It is likely all of these will be cast locally, as they should be. The Open Spaces program is the recent Neptune Theatre venture that I am the most proud of, the most excited about and one that I don’t think gets enough attention or appreciation by the media, the audiences or the community. This program has the potential to be an incredible launching pad for emerging playwrights, directors and actors in this city. Yet, it is not just Neptune that should help market these shows more ardently, it is also each of these companies that should be investing zealously in finding new, creative and lucrative ways to market these plays to a new audience. I would like to see the Studio Theatre filled for all three of these productions next season. They are three shows I am the most excited to see next year. 

Under Ron Ulrich Co-Productions with other Canadian theatres, so wonderfully vibrant in Toronto, Edmonton and Winnipeg, were rare and Neptune was cut off artistically from the rest of the country. George Pothitos has started to repair Neptune’s relationship with other theatres, bringing not only shows like Tarragon’s Another Home Invasion to us, but also bringing a Neptune show like The Glace Bay Miner’s Museum to Ottawa. Next season Neptune is getting Artistic Fraud’s renowned Oil and Water directed by Jillian Keiley, which will hopefully see the return of Halifax’s Jeremiah Sparks to the Neptune stage. In the Studio we are getting Melody A. Johnson and Rick Roberts’ acclaimed Miss Caledonia. I could not be more thrilled about these two visiting shows! Sadly, these co-productions are not seen by everyone in the theatre community here as an opportunity to expand perspectives on Canadian Theatre by seeing productions from across the country, to meet potential friends and collaborators and to be inspired by some of the best of our theatrical canon. Instead, I hear people speaking about them as though they were invading troops, seeking to pillage and plunder what is rightfully ours. I hear people attacking the return of artists to Neptune who grew up in Nova Scotia, many of whom worked steadfastly in theatres across this province for decades, many of whom once WERE Halifax’s theatre community, and now they are slammed as being from “Toronto” if they are cast in Pothitos’ shows. This saddens and discourages me.

Halifax has the opportunity right now to build bridges in the artistic community, especially with artists from Cape Breton (an artistically thriving Mecca without its own national theatre), Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and helping to foster a strong and thriving Atlantic Canadian theatrical tradition. Halifax has the opportunity to welcome visiting artists to our province, as both 2b and Zuppa have done this season, in the creation of something new and exciting for our audiences here, as well as with the ability to tour theatre created here elsewhere. The problem with cutting ourselves off from the rest of the country is not just that we miss out in seeing the work created by other Canadian artists, but also that we deprive the rest of the country of experiencing the work that we do here. Co-Productions, building networks and building bridges across this mammoth country of ours are what the regional theatre system was originally designed to do and at its best and most healthy, it is a beneficial two way street.

In my opinion, George Pothitos has made some good decisions as Artistic Director, not just for the 51st season, but for all five seasons here. I believe that he cares about his audiences. I believe he wants Neptune to be financially sound at a time when its finances are extremely challenging. I also believe that he can do even more to engage a theatre community that can feel alienated (and sometimes even bitter)- many of whom are still wounded and mistrustful from the Ulrich years.

The biggest liability to Pothitos as Artistic Director is his weakness as a director, coupled with the fact that he directs three shows every season. Next season he will direct The Comedy of Errors, A Christmas Carol and Mary Poppins, which immediately makes their potential to be formidable works of theatre dubious at best. If this is a financial decision, its efficacy is not consistent. Halifax audiences are smart and they have high standards for the productions of their regional theatre, especially if they are paying upward of $60.00 for a ticket. It would be economically and artistically shrewd to invest in the directing prowess of one of Halifax’s many dexterous and beloved directors: Anthony Black, Alex McLean, Christian Barry or Ann-Marie Kerr to name just four. I am looking forward to John Logan’s Tony Award winning play RED next season, which was recently produced by Canadian Stage in Toronto. Since that production had Kim Collier of the Electric Company at the helm, I would be excited to see Ann-Marie Kerr at the helm of ours. It also strikes me that it can be an amazing opportunity for local-based theatre artists to be able to work with the best directors in the Canadian theatre, so in this way, it would also be beneficial for Pothitos to invest in bringing in a director from elsewhere, but encouraging that director to find his or her company through auditions here in Halifax.  He may be surprised what fresh eyes can see.

Auditions for all Neptune’s productions should always be held in Halifax first. It is absurd to ask local-based theatre artists to fly to Toronto for an audition for Neptune. I believe in casting the best people for the job. I don’t believe that local-based actors should necessarily be entitled to the roles in a Neptune show. I feel uncomfortable with the idea that while hundreds of performers leave the hometowns they love and live out of suitcases, travelling around the country and the world, auditioning and crashing auditions in every city they can wiggle their way into, actors who choose to stay in their hometowns should be entitled to be able to make their livings there- regardless of who else auditions. I think that it is extremely rare to make a living in the theatre living in one city (unless one is creating his or her own work) and that those who are able to do so are extremely fortunate, but that it is not something that can be demanded or expected. I don’t believe that is Neptune’s fault or George Pothitos’ fault or Ron Ulrich’s fault, I think that is just the nature of the beast of the industry. Yet, I believe in fairness and I think that assuming that one will find what one is looking for in a larger city without seeing the talent available at home is presumptuous and a huge disservice to the very talented people who live and work here.

When it comes to building bridges and engaging with the community, George Pothitos has to be a leader and that means that he needs to be a visible member of the community. The only time that I see Pothitos around the city is at Neptune openings. Does he see the plays of Zuppa and 2b? Is he aware of young actors like Stewart Legere, Margaret Legere, Colleen MacIsaac and Stephanie MacDonald who have given extraordinary performances recently? Has he ever seen a show at the Bus Stop Theatre, the place where many of Halifax’s new theatre gems are born? I hope the answer to all these questions is yes. There was a production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown at Chester Playhouse in 2011 directed by Mary Lou Martin featuring Ann Doyle, Cliff LeJeune and Troy Adams. It would be a perfect holiday show for Neptune. It is a minimalist production of a beloved musical featuring characters iconic to audiences and a cast and crew that does not need to be flown in from elsewhere. It was magical and fun and warm and cozy, just the sort of production one wishes for at the holiday season. In the same way that Ship’s Company’s The (Post) Mistress was remounted in the Studio this season, Neptune should be a place where strong productions like this one can find larger audiences. It should not be unthinkable for artists to strive to begin with their show in the Atlantic Fringe Festival with the hopes of it someday ending up at Fountain Hall, in the same way that artists whose shows begin at the Toronto Fringe end up in Edinburgh and New York. In order for artists to dream of being on George Pothitos’ radar, George needs to prove that he not only has one, but also that he wants one. There is much happening in this city and part of being Artistic Director is continually being in the midst of it. Otherwise, Neptune is in danger of becoming irrelevant.

It is discouraging to think of Halifax’s theatre artists giving up on Neptune, especially when so much has been done in the last five years that is positive. Building these bridges will make Halifax a stronger place for theatre to thrive. A happy, healthy, theatre community that doesn’t rage with jealousy or feel hurt and alienated will create better theatre and attract bigger crowds and forge stronger alliances and collaborations. The bridge has to be built from both sides. Ideally, I would love to see Neptune in the capable hands of someone indigenous to this community, someone who is dedicated to bringing excellence to Halifax audiences while fostering the work of the artists who live here and building bridges with artists creating interesting and exciting work all over the country. For now, however, we have George Pothitos and instead of retreating sullenly and making assumptions about his agenda and his opinions, I think it is overdue for us to extend our hand out to him- to appreciate the positive strides that he has made for us and to invite him, to encourage him, to become an even more active member of our community.

Eastern Front Theatre’s Stages Theatre Festival features an exciting myriad of local companies and artists both professional and emerging, Mr. Pothitos. It is one of my favourite Halifax-based festivals and theatrical times of the year. It begins on May 27th. I genuinely hope to see you there!

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