Lisa Bugden takes a bow
Lisa Bugden. Photo: Submitted
By Alec Bruce 2 November 2022 Share this story
After six years and the challenges of a pandemic, Neptune Theatre’s general manager is ready for a big change
What does the retiring head of Atlantic Canada’s largest professional theatre company do for an encore? “I’m buying into a flower business,” says Lisa Bugden, who leaves Neptune on Nov. 4 after six years as general manager. “It’s time to explore new opportunities.”
“Well … I’m not going to be designing them,” she says. “I mean, you know, not right off the bat. But I want to learn that side of the business too. It’s just like it was for me coming to Neptune. It’s about understanding the craft. You need to know all of that before you can ever hope to promote or sell or manage.”
Bugden managed to promote, sell, and manage Halifax-based Neptune Theatre during a stint that included the decidedly audience-unfriendly COVID-19 pandemic.
“Lisa steered Neptune through unprecedented challenges and successes,” says Paul Laberge, Neptune’s board chair, in her retirement announcement. Adds artistic director Jeremy Webb: “Under Lisa’s leadership [we] remained strong and vibrant.”
Fifty-seven-year-old Bugden, who was born and raised in Halifax, says what kept her going was knowing the theatre’s place in local hearts. “We’ve been on a journey to be more reflective of the community that we serve. That’s meant new shows that (mirror) the rich history of most people here. I can’t say all people, because we’ve barely started that work. (But) the artists who come to Neptune bring these stories to life.”
She’s loved watching Neptune’s stage magic since she was a kid. “I started coming when I was, probably, 12. I remember seeing the Snow Queen, in 1976. When I was at Mount Saint Vincent University and worked for the Picaro (student newspaper), I was always first in line for the free tickets to go and review a show.”
After working at Nova Scotia Business Inc. (NSBI), rising to vice-president of marketing and communications, she became president of Film and Creative Industries in 2015. When NSBI absorbed that provincial agency, she did “a quick stint” as CEO of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. “That’s when board members at Neptune reached out and asked if I’d be interested,” she says.
Heady times. She took over in November 2016 just as the theatre embarked on a $4.5-million facelift and upgrade. A year later, she was at the helm when Neptune mounted Mamma Mia! — now considered the most successful show in the theatre’s 60-year history. Other highlights of her tenure included the Canadian regional premiere of The Color Purple in 2019, and reinstating summer programming.
Then came COVID.
“That was … well … an enormous challenge,” she says. “Being closed and unable to present live theatre? I mean that’s your reason for being. It’s also your primary source of income. We really had to undertake a range non-traditional fundraisers.”
Under the guidance of development director Leslie MacDonald, management did a telethon and ran raffles. The artistic team created online content, including Webb’s popular adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Meanwhile, the theatre continued to offer education programs to the public.
“All of this connected us with a much broader community,” Bugden says. “Folks who may not have ever come to Neptune, or bought tickets to our shows, were interested in the 50/50 lotteries … By filming A Christmas Carol, we were able to share it with Hospice Halifax and IWK and other community partners who would normally bring groups to then theatre over the holidays … Some of the education programs were online, connecting kids and giving them a safe environment to explore their creativity … There really were some incredible things we were able to do.”
Looking forward, she’s just as enthusiastic. Long-time board member Catherine Bagnell-Styles will act as interim GM until the search committee finds a successor. “We have Elf The Musical beginning on Nov. 25, and later on that week we’re opening A Christmas Carol,” Bugden says. “Tickets for both shows are moving really well.”
Asked about her new gig, she demurs.
“We’re still working out the details. But it’s an established business with a store in Halifax, and another in Dartmouth … It’s different, sure, but I didn’t know the theatre business before coming to Neptune. I love the challenge of learning about a new organization and how it connects with people.”
As for all of Neptune’s future opening nights, she has that covered, too.
“I’ll be sending flowers.”
Alec Bruce is an award-winning journalist whose bylines regularly appear in major Canadian and American publications. He is completing a Master of Fine Arts (2022) in creative nonfiction at the University of King’s College in Halifax.
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