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On the stage at Neptune Theatre, a lone naked lightbulb known as a ghost light casts eerie shadows into the auditorium’s corners.
Hanging up in the wings are Victorian costumes from the holiday production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which was canceled at the last minute when Nova Scotia went back into lockdown in November.
Between the stark illumination and the thought of Ebenezer Scrooge’s ethereal visitors, it’s emblematic of how the presence of live theatre in the historic downtown Halifax venue has become a phantom since COVID-19 became a reality here last spring.
“It’s still pretty dire,” says Neptune Theatre artistic director Jeremy Webb, nursing a cup of tea in Fountain Hall. “Our industry has been shut down since March 13, revenue became non-existent, and we have managed over the last 10 months to claw our way into maintaining existence and hang on.”
In October, Webb was one of several Nova Scotia theatre artistic directors endorsing a letter to then-Minister of Communities, Culture and Heritage, Leo Glavine, asking for support from the province to stabilize their sector. He pegged Neptune’s revenue loss for the first five months of the pandemic at $1.7 million, requiring layoffs at the theatre, increased fundraising efforts and the introduction of online Neptune at Home programming to keep the ship afloat and maintain audience engagement.
Webb recalls when Glavine’s successor, Suzanne Lohnes-Croft, held a meeting with members of the theatre community, the first thing she said was, “I’m all ears, and I’m all heart.”
“To me, that’s an unusual thing to hear from a minister,” says Webb, “and then she took action. Was it enough action? No.”
Long struggle ahead
The minister announced a $2.1 million emergency fund for the arts sector in November, but Webb says his industry will be struggling for a very long time, even if COVID-19 numbers stay low and the vaccine rollout continues at a steady pace.
Programs like the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy have helped ease the situation, but the artistic director also has deep concern for actors and artisans who work on a contract basis and aren’t necessarily able to access that support.
“A lot of them have moved on and got what we in the industry call ‘Joe jobs’ or managed to pivot themselves — and I hate the fact I just used that word — and maybe moved into another segment of the industry,” says Webb, who was heartened by the fact many crew members found jobs on locally-shot TV series like Feudal and Chapelwaite.
Theatre community solidarity
If there’s one silver lining he can think of, it’s a greater sense of solidarity and community between Nova Scotia theatres.
“The connection between all of us here in Nova Scotia is a lot stronger than it’s ever been, we’re actually communicating a lot better than we ever did,” he says. “We were always just trying to create in our own little worlds, and now we’re a bigger bubble.
“And also across the country. I’ve been in a lot of meetings with a lot of my colleagues who hold the same kind of job, where we’re all just staring at each other asking, ‘What are we going to do?’ ‘What are you doing?’ ‘How are you doing that?’ ”
New inclusive initiatives
Not that things are completely quiet at Neptune Theatre during the winter months. The company has partnered with the Prismatic Arts Festival for the Open Spaces Program, making the theatre’s rehearsal spaces available for use for free for Nova Scotia artists, particularly Indigenous artists or people of colour.
This month, Webb is also welcoming a new artistic director intern — actor, writer and educator Patricia Cerra — as part of the RBC Chrysalis Project, in collaboration with Toronto’s Prime Mover Theatre company’s goal to increase opportunities for BIPOC arts leaders across Canada. Together they will develop a 2021-22 season for Neptune Theatre with a focus on diverse programming and community stewardship.
Finding an online audience
The online platform Neptune at Home, which was borne out of necessity to stay connected to the audience while the theatre is closed, will be here to stay even after the pandemic subsides. Webb says it will be a great opportunity to provide behind-the-scenes looks at Neptune Theatre stage productions once they resume, along with other content produced both locally and shared from theatre companies across Canada.
He looks forward to hosting more local online offerings like the concert series and the digital version of the Nova Scotia Kitchen Party Show, which was directed for video by Terrence Taylor, who handled the filming of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for the service.
“Those were the days when I almost felt like we were back in business, because we had technicians from our crew in, we had Terrence in filming, I was directing, there were people onstage performing, and those were pretty much the first live performances I’d seen (since March),” Webb recalls.
“Christina Martin was the first one in, and the place was silent because there was no audience applauding, and I had to say, ‘Christina, just so you know, we’re not allowed to make any noise between songs for editing purposes, but we’re all cheering inside!’ ”
- Neptune Theatre welcomes artistic director intern Patricia Cerra via Chrysalis Project
- The show must go on: Nova Scotia theatres ask province to lend a hand
- Neptune Theatre opens the curtain on new Neptune at Home online platform
- All-star lineup joins Neptune Theatre’s Fly Again Telethon fundraiser on Sept. 24
- Neptune Theatre’s Jeremy Webb hosts behind-the-scenes interactive chat show on Facebook