Upstaging the critics

Shortly after moving to Nova Scotia, I happened to strike up a conversation with a local actor (I won’t tell you his name) while standing in line at a fruit stand. He dropped a few names of some semi-famous theatre people and told me about how he performed in some touring companies, did some TV work, directed some college productions, wrote a few plays and generally portrayed himself as an inside guy when it comes to the Nova Scotian theatre scene. When I told him I had been involved in theatre in my home state of New Jersey (that’s another long story), he launched into a soliloquy bemoaning the woes and misfortunes of local theatre.
“It’s dead,” he sniffed, while I watched an old man in a white apron shovel kiwi slices into a plastic container. “Apart from the slow-witted, the excruciatingly dull, or the dead, no one likes theatre any more. Theatre here is completely irrelevant to the population at large. It’s as incestuous as the hillbillies in rural Kentucky. The only people who go to local theatre are other local theatre people. They all go to one another’s shows and tell each other how great they are.”
So it was with some real trepidation that I spoke with Nancy Morgan, executive director of Theatre Nova Scotia, asking her about the current state of the stage. She informed me, right off the bat, that everything my snarky thespian acquaintance told me was balderdash.
Her soliloquy: “Theatre in Nova Scotia is vibrant and varied, with almost 40 professional companies and over 15 community theatre groups. This includes The Theatre Arts Guild, operating since 1931, and is Canada’s oldest continually operating community theatre. We have a number of touring companies that travel across Canada, the U.S., and overseas presenting Nova Scotia theatre to other provinces and other countries. There are theatre programs offered at Dalhousie University, Acadia University, St. Francis University, and Cape Breton University and theatre schools at Neptune Theatre and Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia in Windsor that nurture and develop young talent. There are also two theatre service organizations; Theatre Nova Scotia and Playwrights Atlantic Resource Centre, both serve as valuable resources and advocate on behalf of theatre across the province.”
Morgan ought to know. She took over at Theatre Nova Scotia last April and has worked in arts administration for more than 20 years. After graduating with a degree in music from Queen’s University and an MBA from Saint Mary’s University, she’s worked as the managing director of Strategic Arts Management and general manager at Eastern Front Theatre in Halifax, as well as serving as an administrator at Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa. She has also worked as an independent consultant with other organizations across the region.
When I ask her about my acting acquaintance’s charge that Nova Scotia theatre is boring and insignificant, Morgan is quick to point out the eclectic offerings of the area. “All theatre is not for everybody,” says Morgan. “And in Nova Scotia theatre lovers have a very broad selection from which to choose. Some people like Mary Poppins, and that’s great. Some people like Shakespeare. That’s great, too. Some like experimental theatre and that’s fine. I’m not going to make a value judgement on people’s tastes. But there are a lot of choices out there for them and that is the important thing.”
It’s true. A quick glimpse into the Nova Scotia theatre scene includes experimental theatre, classical theatre, theatre focusing on the lives and needs of women, Shakespeare by the Sea, theatre that focus on the works of a single playwright, theatre that develop original collaborative pieces that openly defy genre, those using multi-media, theatre using puppetry, theatre for children, outdoor theatre, theatre in storefronts, black box theatres, theatre with a proscenium stage, theatre in the round, theatre in the nude…
But there is room for improvement, though Morgan feels the onus falls on arts administrators rather than on those in front of the footlights. “I think we need to do a little better job at ‘collective informing’ of our audiences,” she says. “Maybe if people go to one theatre and see one kind of play, we can pique their interest into going to another theatre and seeing something else altogether. I think that is where musicians have about a 10-year head start on us in the theatre world. When Joel Plaskett plays somewhere he can talk to the audience a little bit, tell them about what song is whose, who is playing where, and when they’re coming back.”
“Another thing that we need to do,” says Morgan, “is start bringing our school kids back into the theatres. Some of my fondest childhood memories were of taking field trips to local theatres and seeing these real wonderful theatrical productions. Those experiences really meant a lot to me and that’s something schools just aren’t doing anymore.”
Okay, there is always room for improvement. I’ll give you that. But, the opinions of snarky actors aside, it seems that Nova Scotia theatre is just fine, thank you. And as Shakespeare wrote that famous theatrical maxim, “All the world’s a stage” in his work As You Like It, it seems that there is a lot to like about Nova Scotia theatre.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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