Plot twists

Chris O'Neill. Photo: Bruce Murray

It’s been a daunting few years for Nova Scotia’s live theatre scene, and the drama isn’t over — talking with industry insider Chris O’Neill

Theatre has always been central to Chris O’Neill’s life — her mother was an actor and her father was a director and playwright.

When she was seven years old, Mermaid Theatre did a puppet show at her rural community school and she was hooked. She loved the idea that she could build a career by performing.

O’Neill met Ken Schwartz in high school, and they began a partnership by creating a youth group connected to Theatre Arts Guild at Pond Playhouse in Jollimore, near the Northwest Arm. They developed a theatre production featuring world-renowned opera singer Barbara Hannigan and toured to local high schools. After living in Montreal and Ireland, the pair came back home to Nova Scotia where they wanted to help grow local theatre.

O’Neill is now co-chair of Theatre Nova Scotia and executive director of Canning’s Ross Creek Centre of the Arts and Two Planks and a Passion Theatre, which she co-founded with Schwartz. She speaks with Unravel Halifax on the state of live theatre in the province.

The role of government: “We’re not post-COVID in any way, especially in the theatre. A few weeks ago, we had to cancel 11 of our performances. What I see is a failure of leadership in that regard because we’ve gone from ‘We’re all in this together’ to ‘Do what feels right for you,’ and that is a horrifying change. That lack of leadership is now being seen in the way that people are interacting with each other, and that for me is very difficult.”

Surviving the pandemic: “(Nova Scotia Chief Medical Officer of Health) Robert Strang has been a gem throughout. He’s been very responsive. Specifically with theatres, he’s been very much trying to support us and understand what the challenges we face are, but unlike a restaurant or a bar, when they say, ‘OK, great, you can open next week,’ a theatre can’t because we have to rehearse, and we couldn’t come together to rehearse. By the time we could, it was too late for the season.”

COVID’s lasting impact: “It took a really hard toll on many theatres and individual artists. We’ve seen artists who have left the profession … The whole gamut of arts administrators, technical crew, everybody involved in the art of making theatre — people who’ve just said, ‘It’s just scary; we want to be able to know that we can have a family or be able to afford to live,’ so they’ve left. And other people who decided not to go to theatre school, not to go and get that education so they could become that next generation.”

Community responsibility: “We’re still masked at the centre when we’re inside because we feel strongly that every part of our community matters. We don’t know what somebody else’s situation is and it’s our responsibility. Masks are so easy. Vaccination is so easy. If all things were equal, which they are not, but for the vast majority of the population, it is an easy decision to make and we make it for each other, not just for ourselves and that’s the message that I think has really been lost in the last little while.”

Filling the seats: “The difficulty we’re still having is that while we’re doing everything we can, that’s not being repeated out in the community. That’s very complex, because theatres are still holding ourselves to a standard that nobody else is, and I don’t think we should lower our standards. But we don’t have a lot of support for maintaining that standard, and audiences are just not coming back.”

Road to recovery: “What was amazing for me … was the determination and the dedication of people saying, ‘We’re artists, and we need to make art, but also we need to engage our community.’ We need a way that they could support the community as well as give them something to look at to be inspired and moved by and laugh at.”

Bolstering diversity in Nova Scotian theatres: “Theatres are at the forefront of social changes because they’re made up of individuals who are so supremely connected to different communities. Now, that doesn’t mean we have historically done a good job. We have not as a collective, but I would say that even pre-pandemic, this is work that was starting and being undertaken with a lot of thought and dedication. We’re nowhere near where we should be. It’s a long, slow process. It’s about reflecting our communities and our communities are different. There’s not a one-size-fits-all in terms of what the approach should be.”

Chris O’Neill in The Tempest. Photo: Ken Schwartz

Building audiences: “Audiences are still relatively homogenous, so we need to build new audiences and that takes resources. I don’t mean at all to diminish the passionate people that come to the theatre, but we do need to, in some cases, break down biases there too … And say, ‘Yes, this person might be of colour, their story is beautiful, and the way they tell the story is beautiful, and whether they’re in Shakespeare or whether they’re in a new Shauntay Grant play, it doesn’t matter who you are, you should come see this because there will be something in this for you.’ I wish that economics weren’t part of it. But they sometimes are just in terms of getting enough support — that’s something we need to work with governments on.”

What should government do next? “All of the supports have disappeared, both federally and provincially. But we’re not through (COVID) … It’s going to be at least two more years before we’re back up on our feet, and that’s true across the country. Many of our sponsorship or advertising dollars have dried up because businesses are struggling. That’s one revenue stream that’s really dried up for a lot of us, but then the other thing is just our box office (revenue) … We need some more governments to step up and to do more about that.”

What can people do? “Come out to see stuff; see everything you can. You won’t like some of it, you will be astonished that you have never discovered this theatre company or this group of actors or this kind of performance before … We need people to make it their habit and if they haven’t done it before, to take that leap into the water … They can write and call their MLAs and say we need to increase funding for the arts. We have been stagnant for 20 years, and we can’t cope with inflation anymore. We can’t cope with the change in the living wage.”

Where we’ll be in five years: “There has been such grit and determination through these last three years, and I’m really excited to see what’s going to happen. The other thing is we’ve learned stuff from the pandemic, and we’ve learned to collaborate sometimes with new people from all around the world. You’re going to see much more diverse theatre across the province.” 

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

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