Reeling With Laughter & Jeremy Webb & Stacy Smith*

jeremy webb & stacy smith in fishing

Jeremy Webb and Stacy Smith are two pillars in the theatre community of Nova Scotia, both having worked extensively at Neptune Theatre and in theatres across the province for well over a decade. The two close friends have teamed up for Jeremy Webb’s newest play, Fishing (presented by his Production Company Off the Leash), a comedy about Internet Dating that chronicles one man’s attempt to date seven different women in seven days and to find true love. It is being remounted at Chester Playhouse July 31st- August 3rd, after a run at the Neptune Scotiabank Studio in November and  premiering in Spring 2012 as part of Eastern Front Theatre’s SuperNova Festival to positive reviews and touring last summer. Jeremy Webb, Stacy Smith and I sat down to talk about Fishing, dating and the Halifax theatre scene at the turn of the 21st Century, among other things, on the comfy couches of the Neptune Studio back in November. Here is the essence of the conversation, during which there was much sarcasm, much laughter and much interrupting of one another by all three of us.  

Amanda Campbell (AC): Would you like to tell the people of Nova Scotia a little bit about each other?

Jeremy Webb (JW): Laughs. After you, Stacy.

Stacy Smith (SS): Jeremy Webb: Brilliant, talented, mega-mind. One man standing alone in the Theatre Universe of the Maritimes laughs. New daddy. British. Funny writer.

AC: Very nice. And Stacy?

JW: Well, somebody that is worthy of having roles written for her.

SS: That goes totally back to you…

JW: No, No it doesn’t Howls of laughter from all three of us.

SS: But you’re the person who wrote them! So you’re really saying that about yourself!

JW: What I’m saying is that when I was thinking of writing the play, I was only thinking of writing it for you.

SS: Okay.

JW: Is that okay?

SS: Yes.

JW: Good. Pause. Mother. Wife. Talented actress. Stupidly living in Stratford [Ontario].

SS: Stratford is awesome.

JW: Stratford is a great place.

AC: It just means you don’t live here.

JW: Yeah. And, a little unhinged. A little crazy. In a good way. A little neurotic. But aren’t we all? And very, very career-focused and ambitious.

AC: Nice. When did you two meet one another?

JW: 1999? I moved into the country in 1998 and we became roommates in either 98 or 99.

AC: Oh, you were roommates.

JW: Yeah. We were roommates for a year, yeah.

AC: That’s fun!

JW: Yeah, yeah. On Inglis Street, in a building that has been knocked down and replaced by another building. It was Party-Central. There are lots of photos of Patricia Zentilli, Marla McLean, Martha Irving…

SS: it wasn’t party central like we were having people over all the time. People just came over on their own.

JW: Yeah, yeah. But there were always people there.

SS: Yeah, but that’s what you do when you’re thirty and single—we were all single. We dated people off and on, but we would go to the [Economy] Shoe Shop

JW: We lived in the Shoe Shop.

SS: We lived in the Shoe Shop-

JW: Along with everyone else.

AC: That’s the actor’s dream, pretty much, right here.

JW: Yeah. When I first saw this country, before I lived here, back in 1996, I remember being in the Shoe Shop and seeing all the actors being all “actor-y” and-

SS: What does that mean!?!?!!? Huge laugh

JW: Air kissing and being all cool like, “We’re in the Shoe Shop” and I vowed that I would never become a part of that culture and then two years later-

AC: You became their King.

JW: I began getting phone calls at the Shoe Shop. It became the place where you would find me. And the phone would ring and I would answer it myself… and I’m not even exaggerating. That’s kind of sad. I spent every penny I earned in the Shoe Shop.

AC: Hilarious. What was the first show that you two did together?

SS: [The] Government Inspector [at Neptune Theatre in April 2000]

JW: Yeah. Was that the first one? Was that before Sylvia?

SS: Yeah. We did Sylvia later.

JW: [The] Government Inspector, directed by Linda Moore.

AC: Ah. I saw that.

SS: Yeah, it was a great cast. Bill Carr, Marla [McLean], John Dunsworth

JW: John Dartt.

SS: Jody Stevens.

JW: Big Cast. A lot of fun.

SS: It was Linda’s last show [as Artistic Director of Neptune].

JW: Oh, wow. And then a few years later in the Studio here we did Sylvia where Stacy played a dog and I played a transgendered man.

AC: I don’t know why I didn’t see THAT.

SS: She wasn’t really a dog. She’s a girl, but… is she dog? Is she a girl? We don’t really know. I loved it; that was a great play.

JW: That was 2002. And that was John Dartt and Jennifer Overton. Directed by Lorne Pardy.

AC: So, Jeremy, when you were writing Fishing, why did you want to write the female parts for Stacy?

JW: Mainly because-

SS: Whispers Because she’s awesome

JW: She’s awesome, yes. Mainly because as I started the process she had actually already emailed me asking, “When are you going to write me a Shakespeare On Trial like you did for Simon Henderson?  And she basically demanded-

SS: I didn’t demand!

JW: In a nice way!

SS: I saw A Christmas Carol and I brought my parents to see it and I saw Shakespeare on Trial when they played in Antigonish and it was so great and so fun and so I said to Jeremy, “It would be so great to have a show like that- to do a show with you like that. You know? I don’t remember that being demanding. I remember it more being exciting and enthusiastic.

JW: It was; it was very positive. Actually, it’s true. That was the initial seed so that when I came up with the concept that it would be a two-hander and that there would only be one actress playing all the roles I thought of Stacy and because we had been roommates and friends for years I knew her voice quite well and so I was able to write with her voice in mind and how I thought she would play the roles.

AC: Did she end up playing them the same way as you had envisioned?

JW: Mostly. But I’m not the director so I have really had to try my best to keep my mouth shut. Which is hard because it’s my company as well and I’m the writer, but I try not to get involved. I don’t tell Simon how to do his role in Shakespeare On Trial. I might make occasional requests as the writer saying, “You know what? Could we look at this moment?” We did one yesterday where I said, “That line would be better as written rather than the line you have ad libbed it into.” But I’m not too precious because I change everything all the time anyway.

SS: No, you say it exactly the same way every night.

JW: Yeah right. If I change a line it’s like, “No, no! I’ve rewritten that! It’s a re-write!” laugh

AC: So, you had Stacy in mind and you knew you needed a lot of different characters to capture her different voices, is that how you came up with the story about Internet dating?

JW: No, that was a separate issue. I had that in the back of my mind. Separate to Stacy, I had come up with an idea to do a show about Internet dating because I had done Internet dating with no luck and so when I came up with the concept of “seven dates in seven days with seven different women” that’s when I said, “Oh, maybe this could be something for Stacy and I to do.” And now here we are.

AC: Stacy, what is it like playing eight different women?

SS: It’s great! It’s a lot of fun.

AC: It looks fun. It genuinely looks like you two are having a great time. Which, I guess is the same as in Shakespeare on Trial. I think there’s something so lovely for an audience just watching two very talented people come together and playing.

JW: That’s the idea! …But is it really fun, Stacy? Or is it very hard?

SS: It’s very hard. Laughs. No, it’s very fun. In the summertime we did a lot of shows and what is a bit difficult is that I don’t have a really big through line as an actor, so sometimes the more you do a show the more you look for different motivators or stories to get you through that performance and with this show, because I play so many different characters, I didn’t really have that. So, I did start to notice that as being a challenge this summer. But, even so, you still have to come up with reasons for why your character is there, what brings them out onstage in that moments, so you still have different things to work with.

JW: The concept of her having to play all those roles was born out of me having done it in Shakespeare on Trial and [A] Christmas Carol and I thought it would be nice to just play one character in one costume and watch someone else do all the work- the costume changing work and the character changing work. Turns out it’s not really any easier, but it is fun to hear Stacy backstage running around-

SS: Um… shouldn’t you be acting!?

JW: No. I’m monitoring what you are doing. I’m wearing my Producer’s hat at that moment.

SS: Remember when you said at the beginning about unhinged? Neurosis? Hmmm.

AC: Hmmmm. Curious. Laughs from all three

JW: I’m an Actor-Manager, what can I say? I’m in the wrong era.

AC: Yeah, you are. I think that it is fun if you are an avid Off The Leash patron to see the roles reversed in Fishing and to be like, “Oh, now Jeremy is playing the Simon Henderson part.” I think there’s a balance. People attending an Off the Leash production tend to come expecting certain elements to be there, but I think they also appreciate when things get shaken up a bit.

JW: I think people who come to see me often like certain elements, they like to see me break the fourth wall, which apparently I do often, or when I do audience participation, which is my signature piece, or when I screw up.. when I hurt myself or fall over or trip up the set. It’s part of it. I really have embraced that philosophy as Off the Leash that, I believe that the play will never stop growing from the first day up until the Closing Night. My stuff is certainly created to allow little breaks because those are the magical moments that the audience will remember. I don’t believe in doing it for the sake of doing it. Having said that, I am a whore for a cheap laugh. I believe in giving people a good time in the theatre. It’s mass entertainment that I want to produce. Is it bad to say that? I want people to have fun. Daniel MacIvor wrote Bingo because he wanted to write a fun play and I’m trying to do the opposite. Someday I am going to write a play that will be totally serious and a drama and maybe I won’t even be in it, but I like the idea of doing the opposite. This is a show for the general public to come and see. This is a show for a group of friends to come to because they know that it’s going to be a comedy about a loser guy going on seven dates in seven days and it’s going to be chaotic. You know what you’re going to get with it. It’s meant to be funny and silly and we sneak in a few little life lessons here or there and there are a few tender moments in there as well- just one or two- and this play, unlike Shakespeare on Trial, doesn’t have a lot of shtick in it. It’s not slapstick play, like Shakespeare on Trial definitely is. Shakespeare on Trial is  a Vaudeville comedy. It is written specifically to be that.

AC: Which makes it more of an actor’s play. There’s a lot of in-jokes for people who are in the theatre business.

JW: Yeah, and there’s a lot of Shakespeare, which we try to do justice to. This is a play for the masses. It’s just meant to be fun. I’ve seen that reflected in the people who are coming to see it, it’s people who don’t always go to the theatre. Which is great.

AC: That IS great.

SS: I also think that real comedy comes out of honest situations and because part of this story comes out of Jeremy’s real life there can be real comedy there because it is based on something that is honest and real.

AC: Jeremy, did you ever take any of your Internet dates to the Shoe Shop?

JW: Pauses to think. No. No. Because that’s one of the dating rules in the show! Never go on a date anywhere near where you live, work or play.

AC: Or where you would know people… or get phone calls.

JW: I actually had one date at the World Tea House just opposite Neptune and that was a mistake. That was actually when I came up with the rule. People were coming in that I knew and they were smiling and nodding at me and I was like “No! Don’t come over here!!”… it was bad.

SS: I think when you go see anything you want to connect with the story, whether it’s in an entertaining way or a dramatic way, so we can do that with actors, with the masses, with all people. That’s a good thing to achieve at the end of the night. If people are laughing and going, “I went through that!” or “I could see that happening.” Then that’s awesome.

AC: I agree. Jeremy, you are doing two very generous things with this run of Fishing. First of all Off the Leash is presenting two other shows here at the Studio November 15th and 16th. Can you talk a little bit about that?

JW: Yeah. There were two nights where I got another gig in the middle of the show and I thought, “Well, because an audience for a show here is of a certain size, maybe I can just keep the rental booking and invite submissions from smaller independent theatre companies that maybe can’t afford the theatre space… I’ll take on the rental space, it’s not going to cost me anymore and we’ll strike a deal where I present these two shows- essentially give them the venue for two nights each- and so that’s what we’re doing. TheatreSpeak [‘s production of [title of show] and Once Upon a Theatre Collective [‘s According to Plan] are both presenting a piece each for two nights in the second week of our run. Which is very exciting. They’ll get to come in, they have four hours  of tech rehearsal and then they’ll do their show.

SS: We saw [title of show] back in May-

JW: Yes. I really liked it. And then they applied- we had about half a dozen theatre companies apply- and we had a little jury and we chose these two. It’s hard as a small, indie theatre company to be seen, so if this in any way gets people to see their shows and to see what they can do, then that’s great.

SS: It’s great to have it for two nights too because then they can really promote it.

AC: I also think that because you have such a strong brand with Off the Leash even being associated as under the umbrella of your company is helpful for smaller, independent companies as well.

JW: We’ll see! I hope so!

SS: It’s going to be awesome.

JW: I’m hoping that the audience who see Fishing in the first week, will come back to see these two shows in the second week.

AC: Me too. Do you want to talk a little bit about your fundraising efforts for PAL in conjunction with this run of Fishing?

JW: Oh! Yeah! Well, I’m the Chair for PAL Halifax-

AC: Can you explain what PAL is?

JW: PAL is Performing Arts Lodge, a National charity; we have a local chapter here in Halifax. It is an organization dedicated to building affordable, subsidized housing for retiring or aspiring artists who cannot afford certain elements of life. PAL is a charity that will help those artists. I took over as Chair two years ago and we are now at the point where we have a memorandum of understanding with a developer to have twenty units in a building being built on Gottingen Street right next door to the Bus Stop Theatre and we’re waiting for that building to be built. When all that approval goes through it will be our job as PAL to fill those units with artists- anyone in the allied industries- who needs help. We do a fundraiser every year called Scrabble with the Stars and this year we decided to make that every other year and from now on we will be looking for a performance piece that will be the fundraiser for the year. So, this year I donated the last performance of Fishing, on the 18th in the evening. So it costs the same to come see the show, but all the money goes to PAL and there’s raffles and 50/50 draws and all the money is going to a really good cause rather than my bank account. Tickets are on sale at Palhalifax.org, it’s $25.00 and actually cheaper than booking through Neptune’s website because there are no processing fees.

SS: They just got a house at PAL Stratford on Brunswick Street and it is beautiful. So it can be achieved!

AC: That’s exciting. I love it.

Fishing plays at Chester Playhouse (22 Pleasant Street, Chester, Nova Scotia) July 31st-August 3rd 2013 at 8:00pm with a 2:00pm matinee August 3rd. Tickets are $18.00-$28.00 and are available by visiting this website, or calling 902.275.3933 or toll free 1.800.363.7529 or visiting the Box Office at 22 Pleasant Street in Chester, Nova Scotia.

Interview re-posted from November 2012.  

Not At All A Museum Piece, That Margaret MacNeil

francine deschepper as margaret macneil  photo by andrée lanthier

francine deschepper as margaret macneil
photo by andrée lanthier

One of my favourite things about the production of Wendy Lill’s play The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum, now playing at Neptune Theatre’s Fountain Hall, is that it is a Co-Production with the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, where the show ran earlier this season, and yet, it has a distinctly Nova Scotian cast and creative team. This is far rarer than it should be for Neptune, where Co-Productions don’t often give the opportunity for Nova Scotian-based actors to perform in other cities or to be the central characters in the story. The theatre is such an integral medium for telling the stories of home, our stories from our communities, and it is vital that Neptune Theatre, as Halifax’s regional theatre, continues to show its commitment to fostering a theatrical experience that enriches and reflects who we are as Nova Scotians.

The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum is based on a short story of the same name written by Sheldon Currie in 1979 and adapted for film (1995’s Margaret’s Museum starring Helena Bonham Carter). Lill’s play was first produced in 1995 for Ship’s Company and Eastern Front Theatre here in Nova Scotia. It has been argued that because the play is not new and that it captures vividly life in Cape Breton in the 1940s, it has become a sort of museum piece unto itself. Yet, I think that the fundamental questions Currie and Lill raise here: “What price do we pay for fighting to honour our heritage, to preserve our past, our history and our culture?” and “What price do we pay to fight for what is right, what is fair and what is just for the people?” could not be more relevant in the time of the Idle No More and Occupy Movements that have been sweeping the globe.

The story centers on Margaret MacNeil, a young girl with the dubious reputation of being a “snot nosed whore,” who lives in a small shack in Reserve Mines, Nova Scotia and whose family is still mourning the loss of her father and beloved older brother in a mining accident. The story unfolds as a retrospective told from Margaret’s point of view and she is later revealed to be an unreliable narrator, which accounts for the scenes having an inconsistent or even slight Expressionistic quality about them. Sometimes the characters and situations seem so big, broad and stereotypical that it seems like Lill is creating a pastiche of rustic Cape Breton. Yet, this is contrasted continually with beautiful intimate scenes that allow the characters’ intricate dynamics with one another to come alive, and allow the actors to honour the complex idiosyncrasies that make these five people specific individuals rather than representations of “types of people one might encounter in a small Cape Breton mining town.”

The result is that there is so much to love in this play, so much earnest emotion, captivating storytelling, the clashing of ideals that never feel too didactic or “concept heavy” and it makes for ardent and riveting kitchen sink realism. The challenge is that Lill’s play isn’t constructed to be entirely realistic and the arc of the play crams much of the real climatic, emotional action into the very last section of the play and has it narrated rather than unfolding dramatically as the expositional scenes do. This is jarring for the audience because the play stylistically careens off into unfamiliar territory and, while this does mirror Margaret’s journey, the audience is not given the chance to delve deep enough into Margaret’s personal anguish and psyche to justify alienating them from their investment in the other characters at the very end of the play.

Director Mary Vingoe roots the piece in a very familiar theatrical realistic style, with the set serving the purpose for multiple locations, but doesn’t go as far as to suggest Lill’s Expressionistic undertones. This works beautifully for much of the play, but becomes problematic as it cannot contain the play’s ending in a way that is truly satisfying. I would be interested to see this play done in an overt Expressionistic style, as perhaps it would root the audience more firmly in Margaret’s world and make it more clear that there is more to the story she is telling than initially meets the eye.

The actors make it impossible not to fall immediately under their spell and to want to connect ardently to each character’s tragic and wide open heart. Francine Deschepper is charming, sweet and lovely as Margaret, an immediately likeable ingénue with just enough pluck and feistiness to keep her story perpetually interesting. I thought Margaret could have had an even harder outer shell at times and been a little bit edgier and darker given the tragic and difficult circumstances of her life, but Deschepper is so irresistible and joyous to watch, I willing suspended my disbelief. She falls in love with Neil Currie, played by Gil Garratt, an uproarious idealist and bagpiper who longs to return to the simpler ways of his ancestors, but finds himself caught in a trap of unemployment, disillusionment and drunkenness. Deschepper and Garratt have beautiful chemistry together and an endearing playfulness that makes you want to see them succeed, despite Currie’s flaws. Jeff Schwager also develops a great chemistry with Garrat as Margaret’s brother Ian, a fastidious and practical Union man who dreams of reforming the mines that killed his father and brother. Martha Irving is a pillar of strength as Catherine, the world-worn matriarch whose resourcefulness and brutal prudence is what keeps the family with a meager meal in their bellies and an (albeit leaking) roof over their heads. David Francis, in the non-speaking role of Grandpa, is the beating heart of the play. He is a revelation in how much depth of emotion, character and wisdom can be conveyed with facial expressions and gestures and the intermittent joyous lighting up of his face, as though his soul had suddenly caught fire.

What is most interesting for me about the themes Currie and Lill are exploring in The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum is the idea of the loss of our cultural identity, a quiet assimilation, and a disconnect between what we must do to survive and to succeed here versus the values of our ancestors. I consider myself to be an English-speaking Nova Scotian because English is my first language. Yet, upon reflection, I realize that most of my ancestors did not speak English when they first arrived on these shores; some of them spoke Gaelic and some of them spoke French. Since the time this play is set, Cape Breton Island has invested ardently in preserving its Scottish heritage and, therefore, has a very vibrant, tangible culture and sense of its own history. This is beautiful and enviable and makes me wonder where that leaves the rest of the Province. Nova Scotia is becoming increasingly multicultural and we see our Lebanese, Greek and Indian communities (just to name a very few) celebrating their cultures and being a beautifully visible part of the mosaic of Nova Scotia, perhaps we, whose ancestors arrived here hundreds of years ago, should be taking a bit of Neil Currie to heart and making sure that we are, figuratively, reading the scribblers of our past instead of just using them for fly swatters.

The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum plays at Neptune Theatre’s Fountain Hall (1593 Argyle Street) until March 17th. Show Times are: Tuesday to Friday at 7:30pm. Saturdays at 4:00pm and 8:30 and Sundays at 2:00pm and 7:30pm. Tickets from $20.00 to $41.00. Tickets can be purchased by calling 902.429.7070 or in person at the Box Office at 1593 Argyle Street or online. For more information please visit this website.

At the Edge of the Orchard, Estate’s Choked by Chekhov

the cast of estate

The newest theatrical venture from LunaSea Theatre is Estate, written by young Torontonian playwright Hannah Rittner, which plays at the Neptune Studio Theatre until January 13th, 2013. Estate is a re-imagining of Anton Chekhov’s 1904 play The Cherry Orchard, modernized and set in the Annapolis Valley. It features a powerhouse cast and an incredibly rare dynamic of having six female performers in an ensemble of seven.

One need only read Rittner’s “Message From the Playwright” in Estate’s programme to see that she weaves poetry into the most unlikely of places and longs to connect ardently to humanity and its artistic canon. There is much beautiful language in Estate, poignant imagery and interesting perceptions, but her characters and their story feel trapped by her attempt to fit them into Chekhov’s framework.

My first question is: Why do we need an updated version of The Cherry Orchard? What is the connection between Chekhov’s Russia, which had just abolished Serfdom and was seeing a massive overhaul of the fundamental fibers of its society and its economy as the Western World was being revolutionized by the Industrial Revolution, with the early percolating of Bolshevism and Marxism that led to the Russian Revolution of 1917 stirring the people’s world even more vigorously, with contemporary Nova Scotia? Rittner sets her story in the immediate future (2015-16) and hints at some sort of economic crisis, but the stakes and tangible consequences of this crisis outside this one family’s need to move is not made clear.

Rittner’s greatest strength is her beautiful poetic language, which contrasts sharply with Chekhov’s use of stark, mundane, realism. In The Cherry Orchard each character represents a certain aspect of society: a political ideology or the penniless aristocracy or the absurd futility of the forgotten former serfs, for example. This grounds Chekhov’s play in the stories of the people who inhabit this land and their ancestors. In Estate all the characters speak in heightened, grandiloquent soliloquies quoting from Shakespeare and referencing Williams and Nietzsche, from Bobby, the overalls-wearing orchard employee to Georgia, the hippie Yoga-loving matriarch. Beyond a brief reference to exploiting the Mi’kmaq and the Acadians, the sense that this is a Nova Scotian story told from the perspective of the people who have farmed the orchards in the Annapolis Valley doesn’t seem at all realistic and in some cases is historically murky. A family named McInnes, for example, likely would have immigrated to Nova Scotia from Scotland a century after the Acadians were expelled by the British. Rittner’s language is made strange and alienating in this otherwise realistic play, but I think that if it were liberated from the chains of Chekhov and approached from a different artistic style the result could be quite fascinating and emotionally arresting.

Chekhov maintained that the plays he wrote were comedies and focused on his characters’ inability to express themselves or to connect with the world around them as a source to highlight humanity’s inherent absurdity. This means that most Chekhovian characters’ inner-most thoughts and emotions exist only in subtext buried under foolish chattering about the snow, the late train or delicious food. Rittner does the opposite in Estate, having her characters continually telling one another exactly what they think and how they feel at every opportunity. As the characters are continually revealing their souls without real consequences or stakes, it is difficult for the actors to create a realistic justification or motivation as through-lines to give the story immediacy and to elicit a sense of care in the audience.

Mauralea Austin plays Georgia, reminiscent of Donna from Mamma Mia trying to be Mama Rose. It is an odd and intriguing combination. There are moments where Austin is ferocious, but the writing takes her to such extreme lengths that the heart of Georgia as a mother who has lost her child, a woman who is losing her home and a person who has lost herself is too often eclipsed by manic arm flailing and tongue in cheek Yoga axioms. I would love to see her play the Chekhovian equivalent to this part someday because it is clear that she would be incredible if given the opportunity to rein all that intensity, loftiness and emotional ferocity into a more tightly wound and subtler box. Carroll Godsman has some wonderful moments as Bobby. I loved how beautifully naive her faith was in the efficacy of the apples. Her perverse crush on Georgia, someone with whom she has had a maternal role since childhood, is one that I would have loved to see explored much deeper and with higher stakes and consequences from the rest of the characters. There is a goldmine of potential between these two women and I think this could give something more tangible and distinct for Martha Irving’s character, Sylvia, who seems under-written, to respond to. Michael McPhee’s Richard is the most “realistic” character in that he seems to belong to the contemporary Haligonian world and his inability to fit in creates a nice tension, but it is difficult for this tension to evolve because Richard responds to the chaos around him as a sort of buffer, but doesn’t have a distinct depth of personality, ideology and philosophy of his own. Rittner’s strongest character is, perhaps not surprisingly, the one who is the most different from her Chekhovian sister, Serbian artist Penelope played with beautiful simplicity by Alexis Milligan. Here, Rittner captures much of Chekhov’s subtext because Penelope is trapped in her imperfect knowledge of English. She cannot connect to others, her sense of her own identity and homeland was lost during the Bosnian War, it is not entirely clear whether she loves Gita and her angst and emotions are repressed and complicated. Penelope shines as an example of what Rittner is capable of, and Milligan’s mesmerizing performance shows how actors benefit so richly from the gift of subtext and depth.

I love that Luna Sea Theatre is dedicated to giving opportunities to young, emerging female artists. I love that they are committed to telling stories about the female experience and I am intrigued that they seem so interested in doing this through the proxy of the classic canons of male playwrights. I love that Neptune Theatre is offering its “Open Spaces” initiative which gives independent theatre companies like LunaSea the opportunity to use the Studio Theatre and to be invited under the “umbrella” of the Neptune Theatre Organization that Halifax theatre audiences have come to trust and rely on for quality theatrical experiences.

The challenge for the Halifax independent theatre right now is twofold. Firstly, we still need to work harder and better at helping audiences to find their way to Neptune’s Studio Theatre and to get as excited about the new work that is created there (both those within Neptune’s Official Season and Visiting Productions) as we are. Next, if we are fostering this space as a place to showcase that local productions and independent productions are often of similar professional caliber as those audiences have come to expect from Neptune’s Fountain Hall, we must make sure that the plays we are presenting there have been workshopped and dramaturged and rehearsed and polished as much as the plays in the main space have. Estate feels like it is still midway through its process. There is much to mine and explore and so much that is exciting and well on its way. Yet, to stage the production here and now, it feels rushed and forced into making good use of an opportunity for a playing space, rather than the culmination of a theatrical process. The consequences may be that it leaves theatregoers who would rather wait and see something closer to the “finished product” a little frustrated or underwhelmed.

LunaSea Theatre’s production of Hannah Rittner’s play Estate plays January 10-12 at 8:00pm with a matinee at 4:00pm on January 12th and a matinee at 2:00pm on January 13th, 2013 at the Neptune Studio Theatre (1593 Argyle Street). Tickets are: $25 Regular / $20 Seniors & Artists / $15 Students and can be purchased in person at the Box Office (1593 Argyle Street, next door to the Argyle Bar & Grill) or by calling 902.429.7070 or online at www.neptunetheatre.com. For more information, please click this link!

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Blonde Ambition: Talking Bristol With Amy Reitsma


amy reitsma

It’s a foggy early afternoon as Amy Reitsma and I drink coffee at the quaint Two If By Sea on the beautiful Halifax waterfront. Amy and I have known each other since our days at Sacred Heart School of Halifax and I can honestly tell you that from the very first time I saw her perform, I knew she was going to grow up to be a big success on the stage. Since then, she has performed in musicals at Neptune Theatre, as Anne Shirley in Anne and Gilbert on Prince Edward Island, did Shakespeare with LunaSea Theatre Company and has performed here and in Germany with DaPoPo Theatre. She has most recently been accepted to the very selective (14 people, worldwide!) and prestigious Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, England for their Master’s Of Professional Acting Program and she is fundraising to help get her there. Amy and I sat down together and had this lovely little chat:   

Amanda Campbell (AC): I’ll start off with the question I ask everybody right off the top. Who are you? Where are you from and how did you get so talented?

Amy Reitsma (AR): I’m Amy Reitsma, daughter of Linda Bateman, the hippie, and Alex Reitsma, the musician and hippie. I’m from Seabright, Nova Scotia, which is about fifteen minutes away from Peggy’s Cove. And, how did I get so talented? I don’t know! I think it’s all smoke and mirrors. I dunno, my mom taught me to surround myself with good people and I have been really lucky that I have gotten to know really wonderful theatre professionals who I can learn from. I can just be a sponge when I’m around them.

AC: You are one of the only people that I can say this about, but I first saw you perform when you were twelve years old. I was ten.

AR: In Annie?

AC: Yes! In Annie. (At Sacred Heart School). It’s funny because you didn’t have a really big part in that show-

AR: I was Pepper.

AC: That’s right. Yet, even at ten years old, I remember noticing you. I sort of picked you out of that cast as someone that I should watch for. The little baby critic in me… (laughs)

AR: I think that most people in the audience know, they can tell when a person really enjoys being on the stage and not just that they’re having fun, but that they’re good at telling the story. I think that’s something that even young people can see when they’re watching a show.

AC: I think so too. I know that my child instincts ended up being pretty good. The people I sort of sought out at that time usually did go on to pursue careers in the theatre. So, I was wondering, did you always know you wanted to act?

AR: I think I did. It wasn’t the sort of thing where, when I was two I KNEW I was going to be a STAR, but I always play acted in the backyard, with a wand pretending to be a Fairy Princess. I think most little girls do that. In elementary school I was always involved in plays. They did one about bullying and I played the bully because I was a heavier kid. You always want to get the character roles! They are so much more fun than playing an ingénue. That’s one of the reasons mom wanted me to go to Sacred Heart. I mean, she wanted me to go there for the academics and the all-female environment for sure, but she went and saw the musical before Annie, was that… Joseph?

AC: Yes. Joseph [And the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat].

AR: Yeah, she saw Joseph, I didn’t see it, for some reason I couldn’t go, but she said it was awesome. My parents both had a great appreciation for the Arts. My dad was a musician, so I come by singing and theatre honestly! I do remember the moment when the seed was planted in me that theatre was something that I could pursue. It was at the Old Neptune, they were doing Our Town, I think, or maybe it was 1949… anyway, my mom knew some people in the cast so I went to the cast party. There was this kid there, I don’t know who he was, but he was holding this prop of a tongue or tonsils or something. I asked to see it, because, I’m a kid and he’s the only other person my age there. I was really young. And I remember he said, “I don’t get paid enough for this.” All that wisdom from a kid! But that was the moment, if it’d been a cartoon there would have been a light bulb above my head, “You get PAID for this?!” That was when I realized that acting was a job and not just something that people did for fun. So that planted the seed, which was always there as I got older, but it didn’t really flourished until I graduated from University and got hired at Neptune. Before that I always assumed that I wasn’t good enough. I never thought that I would do theatre professionally. I knew I was a good singer, until I went to Queens and started having to sing classically and that sort of stripped me of that idea, because I can perform a musical theatre song, but when it comes to doing opera (laughs)… So, after I graduated I was a little lost. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. University doesn’t prepare you for what happens the day after you graduate. I thought maybe I should go to Sheridan [College], but I didn’t make that a possibility, because at that time I already had a student loan. Now, I am really happy about the way things have turned out. I ended up working professionally for Neptune and LunaSea and all these companies that have done great work and with really fantastic artists here on the East Coast that I learned a lot from. I did my first professional play with Bill Forbes, Mary Vingoe and Deb Allen. All giants.

AC: What play was that?

AR: It was Ivor Johnson’s Neighbours [by Charlie Rhindress] and the first professional musical I was in starred Susan Gilmour. I’m sure she would never remember me because I was just a random Argentinian, but still I got to watch her and observe how she works! That was my musical theatre school. Ron Ulrich hired such good people to be in those shows.

AC: I read that you have wanted to go to Bristol Old Vic since you were sixteen. How did you first hear about it? How did that come about?

AR: (laughs) You will enjoy this story. Bruce Godfree went to Bristol Old Vic and we knew each other a little bit because we were both in the Young Neptune Theatre School crowd that I was affiliated with for a short time. Bruce was one of the “cool kids…” anyway, there was this performance that I went to at one of the Dal Theatres… maybe it was the Dunn, maybe it was one of the studios, and Bruce performed his audition piece for Bristol. I remember asking [fellow student] Katy Pedersen what this school was and she was talking about it with such reverence, and Bruce was so talented, even then, and I might have had a mini crush on him… as we ALL did…

AC: Yup, I did.

AR: Yeah! So, that was how the Bristol seed got planted. I knew that it was one of the best schools to go to for theatre. But, of course the insecure and self deprecating part of me would say, “you’re never going to be able to go to a school like that. That’s where Bruce Godfree is going and you’re not as talented as Bruce Godfree. There is no way you’ll ever be good enough to go to the UK’s Juilliard.” But then, because I am stubborn, the other twin, because I’m a Gemini, would counter with, “Well, maybe SOMEDAY you WILL.” And then I was advised to go to school for music, and I sort of forgot about Bristol. I knew, financially, at that time in my life Bristol wasn’t in the cards, but I had always aspired to continue my education somewhere grand like Harvard or Bristol. I ended up at Queens because it is a good school, it was one of the best in the country at that time. Then, after I graduated and started working in the industry, suddenly there were people I knew here who had gone to Bristol Old Vic. Mary Fay Coady. Jeremy Webb. Keelin Jack. So, that made it more realistic, maybe? Or maybe it was just more in my face. It became clear that even if I had forgotten about that dream or pushed it aside, it was definatley still there and my desire for more training was still there.

AC: So then, how did you end up getting a degree in music?

AR: My music teacher at the time, Gwen Dawson, sagely advised me to go to a school where I would earn a degree. She also told me that getting a music degree was quite difficult and as soon as she said that I wanted it. Also my dad was a musician but he got a commerce degree and as soon as he graduated he was like, “Okay, got that, now I’m going to go do this other thing!” He didn’t have the opportunity to get a music degree so, in some small way, I got mine in honour of him. So, I got into Queens, even though I TOTALLY failed my theory exam! (laughs) That was the one thing. Theory always plagued me! But, it wasn’t until I played Juliet in a production of Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet, that I realized that I really loved working on the development of a character. I had just done three musicals back to back at Neptune and growing up there had only really been musical theatre camps for us to do. I had done a lot of the summer camps that the Feast used to do, which was Jim Petrie and Nancy Marshall. But this production of Goodnight Desdemona really sealed the deal for me about my love for acting in plays. It reminded me what I loved about the theatre. In my experience, working in this industry is all about being reminded. You go off and do a show, you go off and do another one because you need the money or whatever, but it’s really when you’re not working, I think, when you realize what it is that you really enjoy- more than just doing your job. And that production reminded me why I do theatre. I am not as much of a singer as people think I am. I think I’m more of an actor who can sing, even though my career and my life choices may have said different.

AC: Well, the more musical theatre I see the more adamant I become that for a musical to be really terrific the acting needs to be just as strong as the singing and the dancing. Even when we were doing the musicals at Sacred Heart we were focused so much on acting and creating those characters.

AR: Yes! Nancy [Marshall] taught us from a young age that we needed to act in our musicals. There was much more emphasis on acting at Sacred Heart because that was what Nancy was most interested in and she had the strongest personality of everyone involved. In musical theatre I find that it can become such a competition. There is such a focus on how high someone can belt and the whole, “Dayum, that gurl can siiiiiing!!!” Canadian Idol sort of thing and I hate that. I have enough issues competing with myself. There will always be someone who is better.

AC: Agreed. So, what do you feel like you’re going to gain from going to Bristol Old Vic? Why go now?

AR: Because I am older, I know how much work has gone into getting me here- the fundraising, the application and the audition. I know people who have graduated from this school and, while I know that they probably went and were already good, I also know that they came out better. Yes, I have trained vocally and yes, I have professional experience, but I still lack the confidence in my own ability and I know that going to this school will help with that. There is still so much I feel I don’t know. I can perform Shakespeare, I can say the words because I understand them and I understand the technique, but there are things that I still am not sure of. Like… what do I do with my arms? There are things that people may not see as being important but I know that I am missing part of that training. I have been fortunate to work here on the East Coast and I love the community here but, ultimately, I want to be able to work all over the world and to work at theatres like Stratford or Shaw.

AC: One of your younger sisters is in New Zealand, the other was just in Iceland and is now in BC, you Reitsmas are gypsies. I think you come by that desire to travel honestly too.

AR: That was part of the attraction of acting for me, that not only would I be able to work across Canada but that I could travel all over the world. I would love to work for a tiny little German company or an itsy bitsy little Finnish company! I feel that having the opportunity to study abroad will finish up my formative years, the end of my twenties and into my thirties, I am a little more mature than I was at seventeen (laughs) and I want to learn. I’m not done. I don’t think that we ever really are but I think that if I wait until I’m fifty to go back to school it might be too late. Something in this long dreary winter inspired me to do something, to change my life. I want to do something different, something satisfying. Something more than satisfying!

AC: It’s exciting! You are having a fundraiser, Blonde Ambition: Amy’s Bristol or Bust Fundraiser to help get you there. Can you tell us a little about that?

AR: The fundraiser is on May 28th at the Bus Stop Theatre. Jeremy Webb is Emceeing it and there will be performances by some great performers and good friends of mine. Martha Irving. Deb Allen. Stacy Smith and Jeremy are going to do a scene from [his new play] Fishing. Keelin Jack. Mary Fay Coady. Ryan Doucette. Lisa MacDougall. I’m going to perform because Jeremy says I have to… It’s going to be a great show! There will also be a silent auction and Keelin and I are making up specialty cocktails… at least I hope we are! Ah! There’s so much to do! There will also be appetizers, which will be complementary… once I figure out what to  serve. (laugh)

AC: I know that Jeremy Webb is a big supporter of you, which is especially apt now because he’s a graduate of Bristol Old Vic. I was just wondering how your professional relationship with him got started?

AR: Jeremy taught me when I was sixteen years old and we had a good rapport, I guess. And then I went off to University and we lost touch and then when I came back we ran into each other at a lineup at the movie theatre and I was like, “HEY!” and he had no idea who I was. So, that was embarrassing. I sort of hated him a little bit after that. Then we did Oliver together at Neptune, where he mended my broken heart over the movie incident, and we ended up having a really great time! So, then we became friends and colleagues and he was always there as this person that I really respected and liked in the theatre community. Sort of like a friend/mentor. So, when I was trying to figure out what I was going to do this year, Mary Fay Coady and I were talking about her experience at Bristol and then I had this coffee date with Jeremy where he said, “It’s interesting that you mention Bristol because I was just talking to them yesterday about someone I’m helping coach for their audition.” He told me the auditions were in two weeks and that two spots had just become available in Toronto. He asked me if I would like him to contact them on my behalf saying, “I have this other person who would like to audition as well.” And I was like, “Fuck it! Yeah! Sure!” I applied that night, the application was received and I got the last spot in Toronto. Martha Irving coached me on my pieces and Jeremy coached me on my Shakespeare technique. And Jeremy happened to be in Toronto for an ACTRA meeting at the same time as my audition, so afterward we went for a drink and we were joking about how if I got in we’d have to do a fundraiser… He was one of the first people I contacted when I heard that I got in. I texted him from the law firm where I work and he was in rehearsal for Titanic, and he called me back and said, “What. The. Fuck. Your life just CHANGED.” I was just going on a mile a minute on the phone, and he has been so generous. He is EMCeeing my fundraiser, he’s helped me apply for grants. I asked him once why he has been so wonderful to me and he said, “Because I love you, darling. And so does everyone else.” … I have had so much support, so many Bristol cheerleaders already. I feel so lucky.

AC: It’s like you said at the beginning, that you were taught to surround yourself with good people… and you have.

AR: Yeah. Thanks mom!

AC: She’s a good one.

AR: She is.

AC: How can we all help you get to Bristol?

AR: You just log on to http://www.indiegogo.com/blondeambition and there are a variety of donation amounts that you can choose from and there are different perks that you get for each one. You can select your payment method, either VISA or MasterCard or PayPal or whatever. It’s all pretty straight forward on the website. It will be up there until August 15th! It’s been amazing to see the support pouring in already, and from people you might not expect… some people who have donated I went to school with at Queens. It’s weirdly bringing all these different people from my past together. Also, I have a sponsor. He wants to remain anonymous. I have known him for a long time, and we met and discussed my decision to go to Bristol and what I thought I could achieve with further training and at the end of it he said that he would help me and that whatever amount I raise, he would match. So, now it is really going to happen! I am really going to get to go to this school I’ve dreamt about since I was sixteen! It’s just been such an incredible experience already.

Help make Amy’s dream come true. Head to the Bus Stop Theatre (2203 Gottingen Street, Halifax) on Monday May 28th at 7pm. “This fundraiser/performance/ party will be a celebration: of artists, food, friends, local business, specialty cocktails, sword-fighting and the positive side of ambition.” She is adorable and genuine and funny and one of the humblest people I know. Watch this video, you will see! Donate the heck out of this!! 

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