Theatre of Merritt in Nova Scotia

halifax harbour
In 1990 an unnamed Edmontonian actor told Canadian Theatre Review not to include The Citadel, the city’s regional theatre, in its issue on Prairie Theatre because “it was not even reasonable. It’s a roadhouse for American and British plays and the occasional Canadian play.” The scene at this particular theatre at that time was a familiar one to artists across the country as indigenous theatre artists seeking to create innovative, creative, vibrant contemporary works that reflected their own interests and experiences within this particular community were locked in a power struggle against a powerful theatrical monolith intent on appeasing board members, subscribers, and funding bodies with their safe seasons of classical fare and reproduced hits from New York and London. How could a unique and thriving Canadian theatre tradition hope to blossom and flourish in the regional theatres under such repressive and dismissive circumstances?
The answer for Edmonton largely came in their Fringe Festival, the largest in North America, which fostered and encouraged the creation of new theatre companies, indigenous playwrights and most importantly empowered the city’s artists to the realization that they could forge their own paths and careers in the artistic community without relying on the patronage and support of the Citadel. Along with the development of such “alternative” theatre companies as Theatre Network (a company that “helped prove that you could live in Edmonton or Calgary and be a playwright”), Workshop West, Catalyst Theatre and Northern Light Theatre, Edmonton became the Canadian city with the highest number of professional theatres per capita. Suddenly the Citadel Theatre was forced to either work in collaboration with these other theatres and to work within this established theatre community to contribute to the development of the city’s newly established world class theatre tradition or risk becoming ostracized and obsolete in its role as an “American Roadhouse.” Under the direction first of Robin Phillips, then Duncan McIntosh, and most recently, Bob Baker, The Citadel Theatre has struck a steady balance between presenting Canadian work, internationally renowned work from elsewhere and also maintaining a close relationship with several of Edmonton’s more avant-garde theatre companies. The current season provides a good example of this balance, as earlier this winter a Canadian cast presented the critically acclaimed production August Osage County which had its Broadway debut in 2007, next up at the Rice Theatre (Studio) is Canadian playwright Brad Fraser’s True Love Lies, and currently playing at the Mainstage Theatre is Catalyst Theatre’s critically acclaimed production of Hunchback. The Citadel is still Edmonton’s regional theatre; in 2007-8 it welcomed 9,299 subscribers and 133,884 audience members through its doors, but in working together with respect and cooperation as a vital part of Edmonton’s rich and dynamic theatre community without threatening to deplete the resources of the other theatres by eclipsing them with its political clout, mammoth size and the power that comes with it, Edmonton gets the benefit of having one of the most exciting, unique and enduring theatre communities in the country.
Things are looking up in Toronto too, recently Andy McKim, Artistic Director of Theatre Passe Muraille and Matthew Jocelyn, Artistic Director of Canadian Stage formed a unique collaboration surrounding Project Humanity’s The Middle Place, both presenting the play at its theatre within the same season and in the same city. Jocelyn spoke about the need for theatres and theatre artists to work together in the creation and development of unique, electrifying new work at the Opening Night at the Berkeley Street Theatre last month. Last year The Toronto Star’s theatre critic bemoaned the state of the Dora Awards because in a rare burst of support and recognition for the independent theatres that have so often as of late been completely thrust asunder or ignored completely by the mainstream media and these type of awards in favour of the Mirvish monolith (the best Canadian example of an American Roadhouse), in 2010 Mirvish Productions received only one Dora Award nomination. This signifies a shift in attitude among the theatre community to actively work within its own power to shine its light on its own indigenous theatre, to encourage risk and innovation to keep its theatres, especially those such as Theatre Passe Muraille, Factory Theatre and Soulpepper, all of whom were founded in reaction against an established norm that was seen as being stagnant, conventional, colonialist and stifling, from becoming complacent and conservative as they settle into their own maturity. Toronto’s theatre community continues to forge ahead and flourish in the same way as Edmonton’s does, and with Mirvish’s recent support for Toronto’s newest musical theatre company, Theatre 20, as well as its productions of the work of Studio 180 and its interest in producing Canadian written work (such as My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding), the gap between this monolith and the rest of the community is gradually closing, which bodes well for a hopeful future of continued cooperation and recognition from “The Industry” to those who are the true beating heartbeat behind the creation of the majority of Toronto’s own theatrical work.
It is curious that this year Halifax’s theatre community saw a similar change in the nominations for its annual theatre awards, The Robert Merritt Awards, which will be presented on Monday March 28th at the Alderney Landing Theatre. Instead of being dominated by that region’s own theatrical monolith, Neptune Theatre, the regional theatre only received five nominations: Lighting design for Haligonian powerhouse Leigh Ann Vardy (The Wizard of Oz), set design for Ken McDonald (7 Stories), costume design for Edward Ledson (The Wizard of Oz), and acting nominations for Jackie Torrens (7 Stories) and Susan Stackhouse (Rabbit Hole), two of the few well-established Halifax-based performers to be hired by Neptune Theatre this past season. The rest of the nominations were all captured by Halifax mostly new and rapidly growing and prosperous, indigenous theatre movement.
What sets Halifax apart from Edmonton and Toronto is that one could argue effectively that the claim that anonymous Edmontonian actor made about the Citadel in 1990 not being representative of  its own region’s theatre could be charged against Neptune Theatre today. Actors in Halifax are still engaged in a difficult struggle to even be given the opportunity to be seen and considered during audition processes for the company and Neptune sees an influx of actors being hired from other places across the country, which continues to be a sensitive issue for those trying to make a living in their professional careers working at home in Nova Scotia. Neptune remains relatively aloof from the rest of the theatre community, without engaging overtly with any of the other theatre companies in the city for co-productions or to commission a new work developed by any of Halifax’s growing and maturing independent companies such as Zuppa Circus (nominated for eight 2011 Merritt Awards), 2b Theatre (whose work in 2011 alone has been produced in Saskatchewan, Melbourne and Sydney Australia and Nashville Tennessee) and LunaSea Theatre, Halifax’s answer to Theatre Columbus, comprised of four of Halifax’s most beloved, critically acclaimed and most skilled and fiercely talented female theatre artists. Neptune Theatre does not have a playwright in residence program and the (very) few Nova Scotian plays that are produced there have largely been “safe” adaptations of classic Maritime or universal stories instead of being interested in the development of new stories, voices and unique and creative ways of telling them. Things are improving slowly, as this year Artistic Director George Pothitos has added Michael Melski’s The Fly Fisher’s Companion to the Studio Series. Still, however, Nova Scotian Internationally acclaimed and Dora and Governor General Award winning playwright Daniel MacIvor has said that it is currently impossible to make a life for oneself as a professional playwright in Nova Scotia because the infrastructure needed to maintain support and foster the creativity needed for the development of indigenous work is absent from Halifax’s theatre experience.
Very recently, however, two plucky, somewhat scrappy (and I mean that in the most endearing of ways), underfunded, overlooked, fiercely determined theatres have emerged in Halifax that believe steadfastly and ardently in the creation of Nova Scotia’s own playwriting tradition. The Bus Stop Theatre and The Plutonium Playhouse have made it their mission to encourage plays to be written by Nova Scotian artists, and giving them the opportunity to stage these plays, to workshop them, produce them and to begin to invest in the community for actors, directors and playwrights that they have here in Halifax for the first time in recent memory. Plays that debuted in these two spaces this season took the majority of the 2011 Merritt Award nominations, ousting Neptune Theatre completely from the categories of Outstanding New Play, Outstanding Direction of a Play and Outstanding Production.
These type of awards can always be dismissed as being incredibly subjective and not indicative of uncontested “greatness” or “genius,” but what is of most pertinent interest to me is that the Halifax theatre community is sending a strong message here and it is one that I think that George Pothitos and all the executives and Board Members of Neptune Theatre would do well to consider thoughtfully. These independent companies are considerably younger than their counterparts in Toronto and Edmonton, yet they are swiftly gaining exposure, clout, international recognition and loyal, diverse audiences. 2b theatre is well on its way to becoming Halifax’s own Crows Theatre, Zuppa Theatre is Halifax’s answer to Catalyst, and the Bus Stop and The Plutonium Playhouse, as scrappy and ad hoc as they may appear now, have all the potential in the world to bloom into theatres like Theatre Network and Theatre Passe Muraille, once just as scrappy and ambitious. With Two Planks and a Passion, Mermaid Theatre and Mulgrave Road Theatre, Nova Scotian companies that already have a solid reputation for excellence and a Fringe Festival that I foresee being completely overhauled and placed back in the hands of Halifax artists in the very near future, the days of the Neptune Theatre monolith are numbered and George Pothitos now faces the same conundrum that the Citadel Theatre faced twenty years ago. He can either attempt to resist the powerful sway of the community, to try to stamp out their light, ignore their achievements and risk alienating the city that the theatre was built to serve or he can do as Robin Phillips, Duncan McIntosh and Bob Baker valiantly did in Edmonton, to open up and embrace the talent and innovation and the surge of artistic energy, revitalization and growing theatrical and creative power that surrounded them, and to let all that light pour into the regional theatre and to shine it back out into the community.
I hope you will make the latter choice, Mr. Pothitos, I think it is the only one that will secure your position as Artistic Director of Neptune Theatre as the Halifax theatre community becomes increasingly boisterous in their success and their confidence and the belief in their own abilities and their own empowerment. This is only the beginning of what I hope will become a theatre revolution, and one that will benefit the city and the province immensely if the artists are able to establish a theatre community in Halifax that can flourish and prosper like its counterparts in other cities. It is not the size of the city, the size of the prospective audience or the economy of the province that will limit its future success, it is only despair, defeat and pessimism that can inhibit or restrict inevitable progress. As long as the artists believe in their vision for the future, it will continue to materialize and grow stronger and take root in the consciousness of the province.
To every member of the independent theatre community in Halifax, keep forging ahead, keep your faith in the theatre, in the art, in the myriad of voices of Nova Scotia, and know that you will always have a cheerleader in me; I hope the rest of the country is rooting for you too. I have a feeling they are. I am very proud of you, Congratulations!

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