By Alex McLean, Co-Artistic Director
We aren’t spring chickens anymore. We had our 20th anniversary in March and have barely stepped back to reflect. My colleague Ben Stone founded the company with our friend Sandy Gribbin in 1998, but it wasn’t until 1999 that the company’s longstanding artistic directors (me, Ben and Susan Leblanc) first made a show together. We rehearsed in a condemned hospital. Most of the building was in darkness, but they left the power on in our little corner. There was no heat, so we bundled up and had kettles plugged in around the room for steam, tea and hot water to keep us warm. In those cold and gloomy surroundings we worked late in the evening, scoring and fine-tuning every moment in what was to be a 90-minute show performed alongside a live musical score. Jason MacIsaac, who composed and performed the score, left rehearsals to work the overnight shift at the casino. The rest of us had day jobs.
When it came time to open the show, we couldn’t get any local coverage. We had struggled to find a performance space we could afford, and eventually found a local school kind enough to host us in their gym. Incredibly, people came. There was that addictive, unmistakable electricity in the air that we always strive for, and by the end of the run we were turning people away. That show, Nosferatu, was very different from the kind of thing we make now, but it kicked off a collaborative relationship – with each other and with an audience – that has lasted. It proved that, in a place people known as ‘a black hole for theatre companies,’ we had a home.
Flash forward to 2018. Halifax has changed considerably, with more new companies popping up than anyone can keep track of. Nova Scotian theatre artists are touring the world. Indeed, touring is vital for companies like ours, as a way to reach new audiences and connect to the conversations driving the art form forward. The more we travel, the better our work becomes. We have all lived in larger cities at times, and we do our best to keep track of the world beyond our little peninsula.
At the same time, we owe a lot to those people who lined up to see that show in the school gym nearly 20 years ago. Many of them are still coming to Zuppa shows, and others have tagged along over the years, becoming the core audience that has enabled everything we do. They’ve followed us down some dead-ends and on our most rewarding quests. They’ve never expected us to embrace some received “Nova Scotian” identity. They’ve let us be us, and that is pretty much the best thing a core audience can do for a company.
No two people would encounter exactly the same things, but hopefully everyone left feeling some kind of shift in perspective. I’d like to think that, for some people, the city still hasn’t reset to normal.
We just finished This is Nowhere, our largest ever project. It was a city-wide performance for which we were able to contract nearly 100 local artists and commission the creation of our own GPS-driven phone app. Up to 150 people at a time went on solitary journeys throughout downtown Halifax in search of undercover performances in different locations, all of which attempted to illuminate some aspect of life in our city while considering how it might evolve in the future. No two people would encounter exactly the same things, but hopefully everyone left feeling some kind of shift in perspective. I’d like to think that, for some people, the city still hasn’t reset to normal. Throughout the show, the app prompted people to share their thoughts about the city’s future and the responses have been compiled as our ‘Blueprint” for an imagined Halifax.
As we move into our third decade, we’re travelling more, partnering with organizations in other cities and countries, and thinking about theatre in ways we never could have twenty years ago. At the same time, we’ve never been more rooted locally. This is the contemporary conundrum: how to be locally grounded without being parochial, and globally engaged without being dilettantes? We’ll keep poking along, trying not to stumble too much, grateful for our friends on the journey.