Vol. 6 No. 2 (Fall 1985)

TWO DECADES OF NEPTUNE THEATRE

Richard Perkyns

This article traces the changing fortunes of the Neptune Theatre, Halifax, Nova Scotia, under five artistic directors between its beginnings in 1963 and 1983.

Cet article suit les fortunes changeantes du Neptune Theatre, Halifax, Nova Scotia, pendant les résidences des cinq metteurs en scène de 1963 a 1983.

When Leon Major asked his friend David Renton to join a new theatre company he was founding in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Renton's first reaction was, 'You're kidding ... Halifax?!' 1 Who would be so mad as to start a professional repertory in such a drab, poor, neglected part of Canada? Yet when the dream became a reality, Renton jumped at the chance to become one of the fourteen core members of the original company, expecting to work fifty-two weeks of the year, in an experiment unique in Canada if not in North America.2

The idea of Neptune Theatre emerged from the foundation in 1957 of the Canada Council, one of whose mandates was to encourage the growth of theatre in Canada. Leon Major, who came to Halifax in 1960 to adjudicate the regional finals of the Dominion Drama Festival, was impressed with the enthusiasm for theatre in the city. He met Robert Strand, whose daughter he later married; Strand encouraged Major with the idea of starting a theatre in Halifax. Canada Council had supported Major's European travels in the late 1950s, on the understanding that he would write an outline of the ideal repertory theatre in Canada. Together with Tom Patterson and John Gray he produced a report which favoured the establishment of such a theatre in Halifax.3 He won the support of John Lloyd, the mayor of Halifax, who saw the proposal as a spur for city redevelopment, increased tourist spending, and the attraction of new industry in the way that Stratford had done. A Professional Repertory Theatre Project, backed by a financial and economic study, endorsed the mayor's views and advocated a professional company with a strong permanent cast of performers.

The projected cost of $60,000 included leasing and renovating the Garrick Theatre in Sackville Street, the only theatre in Halifax considered suitable for conversion to a legitimate theatre. Originally a vaudeville house, it had been renovated in the mid-1920s, but had been used only as a movie theatre from the time of the Depression. At the first meeting of the Neptune Theatre Foundation in July 1962, Arthur Murphy was elected president and Laird Fairn vice-president. The following month the Neptune Board voted to open the first repertory season in July 1963. Colonel Oland bought the Garrick Theatre from the Odeon chain on behalf of Neptune for $100,000 and he with several other prominent citizens guaranteed the mortgage on the asset through Canada Permanent Trust Company.

Fairn's architectural firm undertook the renovations of the Garrick, under the direction of Toronto stage designer Les Lawrence, who was to become resident designer with the first Neptune company. Every attempt was made to refurbish and preserve the architecture: much of the former ornate rococo design was uncovered from layers of plaster; a fake ceiling was removed and the original high-arched ceiling restored. A thrust stage was built out an additional eight feet, and to the proscenium were added flanking balconies with detachable stairs. The entire balcony was renovated and new seating installed. Though additions were made to the cramped basement dressing-room area, and some adjacent office, storage, and workshop room was found, to this day lack of wing, backstage, and general working space has remained a perpetual problem. Despite several fund-raising campaigns, including those by the Neptune's ladies' auxiliary, the Tridents, and a pledge of $25,000 from the Nova Scotia government, costs and credit rose alarmingly. Renovation costs alone, originally estimated at $20,000, rose to $200,000 before they were complete. The race to finish preparations in time for the opening on 1 July 1963 was won by a great act of faith, excitement, zeal, and desperately hard work on the part of the founders and the new company.

Leon Major, appointed artistic director in September 1962, saw the challenge of Neptune as a unique experiment. His model was the great European theatres, such as the Moscow Art Theatre or the Abbey in Dublin; when he told Ria Mooney, administrator of the Abbey, that he wanted to start such a theatre in Canada, she replied, 'Then get the hell back and start it.' 4 He wanted to see playwrights attached permanently to the theatre. He hoped regional legends about farmers, miners, and fishermen would find expression on the stage. To this end John Gray was appointed resident playwright as well as administrator. Gray summarized the aims of Neptune in this way:

The Neptune Theatre is an attempt to establish a fully professional regional theatre presenting plays in repertory, based on the assumption that the theatre in Canada must be subsidized, both to open and to continue in operation. Its repertory season will include the best plays of the past in balance with new plays, Canadian wherever possible, but new5

The first season ended with Gray's dramatized history Louisbourg. The first seven seasons also saw three world premières by Arthur Murphy: The Sleeping Bag, Charlie, and Tiger! Tiger! Gavin Douglas's 6 dramatic history of Nova Scotia, The Wooden World, colourfully staged by Leon Major, was a surprising hit for a dramatic reading which won standing ovations; even Nathan Cohen was moved by the potent emotional impact of this 'richly edited collage'. 7 Tommy Tweed's John A. Beats the Devil, which opened at the new Confederation Centre, Charlottetown, was considered an entertaining way of presenting history, but produced shock waves among some P.E.I. clergy when Canada's first prime minister was presented as a drunkard.8

Of the industrious and talented company that Major gathered for the first season, Robert Doyle has frequently been praised for his ingenious and colourful costume designs. Three local members - Joan Gregson, David Renton, and Mary McMurray - have still made occasional appearances in recent years. Others in the company included Ted Follows and his wife Dawn Greenhalgh, Diana Leblanc, Bernard Behrens, George Sperdakos, Norman Welsh, and the late Molly Williams. Mavor Moore played Undershaft in Major Barbara, which, under the direction of George McCowan, was chosen for the theatre's gala opening. Norman Welsh, one of the most experienced players in the company, appeared as the butler - a gesture which symbolized the ideal of repertory. Though curiosity ensured a full theatre for the first performances, it was a popular comedy, Mary, Mary, starring Dawn Greenhalgh, that was a sell-out two years running; the author, Jean Kerr, had taken the unusual step of making a gift of the play to Leon Major while it was still running on Broadway.9 One of the company's proudest productions, Anouilh's Antigone, was, however, a box-office disaster, despite a striking performance by twenty-year-old Diana Leblanc in the leading role. Not the least of the company's troubles was the smell from a waterfront fish-curing factory blown by off-shore winds into the theatre's air-exchange fan system. Not all the audience may have been imaginative enough to accept the suggestion of the Toronto Daily Star that the action in Thebes was sickened by the smell of a rotting corpse outside the wall.10

In spite of mounting debts and boardroom crises, the company managed to survive with a mixture of plays from the classical repertoire and popular comedies. Attempts at Shakespeare varied in success. Some aspects of Twelfth Night, directed by Major in 1964, so impressed Michael Langham that he used them as the basis for his Stratford production. The Neptune production was also cited as a model by Clifford Leech, the Shakespearean scholar, who was in Halifax at the time giving lectures arranged jointly by Dalhousie Theatre Department and Neptune (others who came in successive years included dramatist J.B. Priestley and actress Barbara Jefford). 11 Dawn Greenhalgh and Roberta Maxwell were highly praised for their roles in As You Like It (1965), but Henry IV, Part I (1966), in which Major never succeeded in imposing a unified style on his actors, was less successful. New members joined the company, three of whom - Don Allison, David Brown and Faith Ward - still perform regularly. Others, such as Eric Donkin, Jack Medley, Ron Hastings, and Linda Livingston, appeared many times with great success.

In February 1965 Leon Major said, 'We're still searching - after two years - to find out how important the theatre is to the community.' 12 He commented on the potentially wide range of the audience and on the need for new, especially Canadian, works. After three years, Nathan Cohen, who had previously called Neptune 'a jewel box of a theatre', 13 took stock of the company's achievement. The premiere performance, he noted, invoked the image of Neptune as the property of the very rich, professional class and intellectuals; it was a false image, yet remained an albatross. He blamed the still modest 50 percent audience average on administrative incompetence. It was still not a grassroots theatre, still had no distinctive style nor authentic individual voice, but it had the makings of a solid, interesting acting company. 'Still an experiment,' he concluded, 'it is no longer an alien luxury.' 14 In the spring of 1966 the provincial government gave the lion's share in contributions of over $250,000 to wipe out accumulating debts. Still the theatre was surviving on what Harry Bruce called the 'financial high wire act'. 15

From its inception Neptune began the practice of taking two plays a season on an extensive Maritime tour, sometimes including the additional trip to Newfoundland. As more regional theatres developed, the tour was restricted to Nova Scotia, but Neptune maintained an unbroken touring tradition. In the early seasons, major, expensive productions often went on the road, the most ambitious being the nation-wide tour of O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock and Murphy's The Sleeping Bag for the 1967 Centennial and Expo celebrations. Though the choice of plays was criticized, the reception was generally favourable. Managing the company on tour was a young immigrant from Vienna with experience of European theatre, Heinar Piller, who joined Neptune first as ASM in 1966 and was appointed associate artistic director in 1968. In addition, John Hobday, an actor with the first Neptune company and then administrator at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown, was appointed business administrator in December 1967. Assured of this extra strength at the managerial level, Leon Major was now free to hand over the reins as artistic director to Piller, while he took up his new post as director of productions at the Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama, University of Toronto, though continuing to serve as consultant and occasional guest director. 'Heinar Piller, my successor,' he told Urjo Kareda, 'will be a much better administrator than I ever was.' 16

'What mistakes did I make?' asked Major. 'Do you have a week to listen?' 17 Costs had been wildly underestimated, audiences were less consistent in attendance than expected, and only with the help of American expert Daniel Newman was the first formal charter subscription series campaign started for the 1967 season: by the 1966 summer season attendance had sunk to 48.3 percent; from 1967 the worst attendance was 74.2 percent (in the summer of 1968), and the winter figure consistently averaged over 85 percent.18 The ideal of year-round repertory had to be compromised: from 1967 until 1971 seasons ran February or March to August or September, with a short break between winter and summer seasons. Yet through trial and error the lessons of astute management learned at the start gave Piller and Hobday a sound basis on which to stabilize the theatre's finances. Hobday was able to report after the 1968 winter season that public hostility and suspicion had been replaced by 'an enormous amount of goodwill towards Neptune', 19 through a combination of increased sales of subscription tickets and prudent choice of plays. A year later subscriptions rose to more than 4,000. Hobday was appointed executive director of Neptune early in 1970, but gave up after the 1971 season, having accepted the post of national director of the Conference of the Arts. The 1970 winter season saw a surplus of just $397 with 86 percent of seats sold by subscriptions. By now the Canada Council grant had risen to $130,000, still short of what was applied for, while both provincial and city grants were frozen at $80,000 and $25, 000 respectively. 20

In three seasons as associate or full artistic director Heinar Piller maintained the generally high standards set by Major. Highlights of his tenure included his own first mainstage production of Frederick Knorr's Wait Until Dark, with a riveting performance by Joan Gregson as the blind girl, Jack Medley as Sir Thomas More in Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, Linda Livingston as a delight in Giraudoux's Ondine, Lynn Gorman as a forceful Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf directed by Marigold Charlesworth, and Arbuzov's The Promise, rated by Lionel Lawrence as the 'best attempt at serious theatre' of the season.21

International artists joined the company for the 1970 season: European designers Anton and Olga Dimitrov stayed for two seasons; Michael Gough headed an acting company which included Lynn Gorman, Douglas Chamberlain, and Kenneth Pogue.22

Piller also instituted Neptune's Studio Theatre for experimental works, performed in an auditorium in the basement of King's College in 1967 and again in 1969; this was a small-scale forerunner of Second Stage, which began in 1971. He arranged for a group of four actors to tour high schools with excerpts from works by major playwrights. Under pressure of administrative duties Piller submitted his resignation in September 1970. Before he left he directed both the Christmas play Rumple Stiltskin by Diane Stapley and Ron Chudley and with the assistance of David Renton the first play of the new season, A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Robert Sherrin was appointed artistic director in February 1971. Piller had already planned the winter season, though Sherrin had a hand in casting and other details. Guest director William Davis mounted an absorbing Long Day's Journey Into Night. Eric Salmon's splendid production of Pinter's The Caretaker provided David Renton as Aston with possibly the finest of his more than 100 roles for Neptune, superbly supported by Patric Boxill and Ken Pogue. Sherrin came into his stride to announce changes in policy from the fall of 1971. Since August 1966 the theatre had been dark between September and February, with the exception of 1970-71, when the season began with the Christmas play. Now seasons would revert to the almost year-round activity, running from November to August. The single season made planning easier, and more economical with one subscription campaign.23 Since the 1970 winter repertory had become impracticable in a theatre ill equipped for constant changes of set. Now Sherrin finally set the seal on winter repertory through a conscious policy decision: he argued that actors of renown would come to Halifax only for a play or two, not for an extended period.

The other major innovation of Sherrin's tenure was the establishment of Neptune's Second Stage, aided by L.I.P. grants, from 1971 to 1974. Over three seasons Second Stage mounted an impressive array of chamber or experimental works, many by Canadian authors. Notable performers there included Nick Mancuso in The Foursome (E.A. Whitehead), Joan Orenstein imperious in Beverly Simons' Crabdance and pairing strongly with Joseph Rotten in Michel Tremblay's Forever Yours, Marie-Lou, Terrence G. Ross with a virtuoso solo in Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, and Jerry Franken in Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. With the support of Neptune James Reaney conducted at Second Stage his famous children's workshops on the Donnellys and began his association with Keith Turnbull; hence the formation of the NDWT company, which returned to Neptune in triumph with the full Donnellys trilogy on its fall tour of 1975. 24

The ninth and tenth seasons each began with a tour which included a visit to the National Arts Centre, Ottawa. Tony van Bridge, who also gave his one-man show on G.K. Chesterton at Neptune, appeared as Dr Lombardi in Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters; Herbert Whittaker praised the 'rich texture and warm colour' of Robert Doyle's costumes, 25 while Audrey Ashley thought Sherrin's fast-paced production 'sets a high standard' for the NAC series.26 The world premiere production of Michael Cook's Colour the Flesh the Colour of Dust was less favourably received, and it was generally felt that Sherrin was less successful in stirring life into a somewhat sombre and turgid script. Both plays met with production problems. On the opening night of the Goldoni at Neptune following the tour, leading lady Tedde Moore fainted on stage; Douglas Chamberlain caused much amusement when the disguised lover he 'discovered' to be a girl turned out to be Stage and Company Manager Christopher Banks, who read her part in Act One. Bob Sherrin recalls how at intermission he went into the audience and pressed Joan Gregson to take over the part for the rest of the run; she went on the next night with the part half learned.27 On the tour of Colour the Flesh at Grand Falls, Newfoundland, when condemned man Bob Reid was taken down from the gibbet he appeared to have actually been hanged; in trying to hold his breath for five minutes he practised taking deep breaths, but on this occasion hyper-ventilated and passed out. The scene literally stopped the show, but it continued after a break; 'We were all shaken solid,' David Renton confessed to me.28

Robert Sherrin attracted many major directors and performers to Neptune. As well as his Second Stage work, Keith Turnbull brought great imagination and energy to such productions as Reaney's Listen to the Wind and his own colourful adaptation of The Good Soldier Schweik. In Joe Orton's farces Loot (director Christopher Newton) and What the Butler Saw (directed by Sherrin), David Renton showed a new brilliance in comedy performance, while Eric House, ever a welcome guest to Neptune, gave portrayals of masterly comic timing as Dr. Prentice in What the Butler Saw and as Maître Jacques in Molière's The Miser, which was directed with panache by Jean-Louis Roux, and also starred David Dodimead (the fine Tyrone of Long Day's Journey) in the title role and Denise Pelletier as Frosine. The night that I saw The Miser a small boy in the audience commented audibly on Maître Jacques' behaviour, and House, while remaining in character, fixed him with such a look as to win a loud round of delighted applause - one of those rare moments of spontaneous theatre. Renton found playing a supporting role in Peter Nichols' A Day in the Death of Joe Egg at the same time as directing Creeps at Second Stage, both of which concern the victims of cerebral palsy, an extraordinarily moving experience, especially as his youngest child was born the first week of the run; Joe Egg, directed by Joseph Shaw, captivated its audiences with outstanding performances by Colin Fox and Anne Butler. Andrew Downie brought with him from the English Royal Shakespeare Company a young, then unknown actor named Roger Rees, who gave an electrifying performance as Marchbanks in his production of Shaw's Candida; Rees has since won international acclaim in the title role of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Nicholas Nickleby. The tenth season at Neptune was the most remarkable in the theatre's history. Several productions were of plays by Canadian dramatists of such eminence as Reaney, Tremblay, Cook, and French. When local actress Florence Paterson played Mary Mercer in Sherrin's production of Leaving Home, David French knew that this was the definitive performance, and she was the obvious choice for the role in the sequel Of the Fields, Lately, both at Tarragon in Toronto and at Neptune.29 Peer Gynt with Heath Lamberts, and The Italian Straw Hat were enterprising choices for a summer season.

The years 1971-74 were an exciting time for the theatre in Halifax. With two stages at Neptune and Pier One Theatre, founded by John Dunsworth and Bob Reid, trying out many avant-garde works there was a range and richness of theatre arts that has never been repeated. In 1974 John Wood replaced Robert Sherrin as Neptune's artistic director. One of his first moves was to arrange for structural alterations, which reduced the thrust stage area to allow for an orchestra in the pit. Though the change was a distinct advantage for musicals, the intimacy of the apron stage and some seating were lost in the process. He obtained approval and financial backing for a new sound booth, though this was not installed until John Neville took over in 1978. Some dressing-room space was also lost, but after 1977 room was found for two new upstairs dressing rooms, as well as some redesigning of the lobby and box-office space, with the addition of a foyer bar. All the changes were made with a rearrangement of the existing space.

Wood appointed three associate directors - Alan Laing, Hamilton McClymont, and David Renton - to act as a resource body and assist him in determining his artistic policy. Laing became musical director and was kept constantly active, with music playing a much larger role in Neptune's work than hitherto. Wood and Laing collaborated on three original musical productions. In addition Godspell (J-M Tebelak and S. Schwartz) and Jacques Brel (Eric Blau and Mort Shuman) were presented, as well as the large-scale, colourful musical Gypsy (Laurents and Sondheim). Several Canadian plays were mounted: Gordon Pinsent's John and the Missus, in which the author co-starred with Florence Paterson, had a highly successful world premiere, though as an adaptation from a novel it never took full dramatic shape. W.O. Mitchell's Back to Beulah and Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid in a main-stage version were both taken to the National Arts Centre. Beulah, with a strong performance by Joan Orenstein, fared rather better than Billy the Kid, the text if not the performance of which was disliked by critics when it also played in Philadelphia and New York.

John Wood's staging of plays was ambitious, colourful, sometimes vulgar, but always positive enough to arouse strong reactions. Doing nothing by halves, he tried to scale the heights with Hamlet and King Lear, with Neil Munro and Eric Donkin as the respective tragic protagonists; worthy attempts as they were, the productions, like their heroes, had fatal flaws. Others, such as Simon Gray's Dutch Uncle, were a total failure. Yet he gave Shaw's Misalliance a richly elegant production, and mastered the theatrical excitement of Shaffer's Equus, offering David Renton as Dysart one of his best opportunities, and introducing an outstanding young performer in Richard Greenblatt as Alan. He directed Zindel's The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds strongly with a mainly black cast led by folksinger Odetta, three of whom came from the United States for the production, while two were local performers.

Unhappily financial stability quickly disappeared. By 1976 Neptune was announcing a deficit of $87,000. John Wood had been unable to contain the mounting costs in the face of frozen government grants. No longer was there any clear control over spending; the city was taking back in taxes what it gave in grants. Renton maintains that Wood was given a free mandate by the board to stage exciting, creative productions, and that if risks were to be taken the money would be found somewhere. Hamlet ran $6,000 over budget, and overruns became regular; no one really kept track of just how the money was being spent.30 The initial remedy was for the first time to cut out a summer season in 1976 and to allow the theatre to go dark for eight months. But that was only a temporary respite. Wood resigned in April 1977 to accept an appointment as director of the English theatre at the National Arts Centre.

Part of the problem lay in the lack of a consistently effective general manager responsible for the theatre's finances. After John Hobday left in 1971, Robert Sherrin believed that the artistic director should have overall control of the theatre, and he found that balancing the books was not a major problem during his tenure.31 He kept a tight control on budgetary as well as artistic considerations, with the temporary support first of Kenneth Giffin as administrative director and then Peter Dorrington as business manager. But he maintained that the role of general manager 'was a particularly difficult position to fill at the time'. 32 Shortly after John Wood appointed three associate directors he added a fourth, Christopher Banks, to look after communications while Hamilton McClymont was responsible for administration. Banks' managerial experience had been with production rather than administrative staff during Sherrin's tenure. After Murray Farr replaced Hamilton McClyrnont for the 1977 season financial restraint began to slip further away. One explanation of the artistic director's carte blanche is that out of a proliferation of associate directors (when Wood resigned there were as many as seven) no one had the single authority to cut through the bureaucracy to demand a restraining hand.

Wood left under a cloud, in his own words 'frustrated by the lack of understanding by the leadership of the Board on what it is to run a theatre.' 33 Despite his flashes of brilliance, he was unable to command a steady, growing respect from the Halifax theatre community which would be reflected in increased subscription sales. He felt the backing of the board erode as soon as a production was unsuccessful, an inevitable risk in the creative business of theatre. 'They won't listen to me,' he said. 'They hire an artistic director and treat him like an employee.' 34 He advocated a much smaller board of about fifteen members who really believed in theatre and trusted the artistic director.

Since John Neville, his successor, could not take over until May 1978, the board named David Renton acting artistic director, with the idea that he would remain as Neville's associate. The new season was planned with sound judgement to stabilize the uneasy situation, to attract large audiences without lowering artistic standards. The fixed-interest mortgage which the group of interested citizens had previously guaranteed was now officially transferred to the Neptune Theatre Foundation, which finally owned its own building; subscriptions exceeded 4,400 compared with 3,281 in the previous year. Shaw and Ibsen were balanced with Slade and Simon. Renton directed Arms and the Man, with effective performances by Doug Chamberlain, Nicola Lipman, and Joseph Rutten. Bernard Hopkins' production of A Doll's House marked the return of Diana Leblanc, but her touching Laura was ill-matched by the clumsy Torvald of Chuck Shamata. Bernard Slade's Same Time Next Year, starring Joan Gregson and David Brown, toured with great success, Mary McMurray returned in Neil Simon's The Gingerbread Lady, and a summer season was revived, two Noel Coward playlets from Tonight at 8:30 and the revue Oh Coward! proving a safe bet with holiday audiences. Neptune's credibility was restored, and with the help of Lynne Dickson as general manager, the season ended with a modest profit of $6,000. Renton's biggest regret was that he could not resume the high school tours. In 1973 he had formed the Tritons, a Young Neptune company. For two years thirty high-school students put in ten weeks' work assembling new and established pieces into a show which they staged at Neptune, Dalhousie Arts Centre, and took on a school tour. When John Wood disagreed with this policy, as he felt performers should be professionally trained, the whole project floundered.

Though the student acting company has never been resumed, John Neville, who had done much pioneer work taking the Edmonton Citadel-on-Wheels to rural schools and Indian reserves in northern Alberta, took up Renton's proposal for a school touring company and made it a major part of his program during his five years at Neptune. Of all his considerable achievements at Neptune, Neville considered the school program the most important. He first called on the vast experience of Irene Watts from the Citadel-on-Wheels, and then as the program gathered momentum gradually handed over to Bill Carr as tour manager. The aim was threefold: to bring top-quality professional theatre into the schools throughout the province; to keep a regular program going; and to encourage schools to start their own drama clubs. Even as funding was cut back, workshops for teachers and students continued. Bill Carr described it to me as 'an act of love': if young people saw no theatre they developed no taste for it; their increasing knowledge raised their own standards and in turn those of the performers. Each season required several months' planning and complex integration with main-stage productions. The demand was such that requests from as many as ninety schools for performances or workshops had to be turned down in Neville's last season, 1982-83. 35

Coming to Neptune after a distinguished career as actor, director and administrator, Neville rejected the glamour of international stardom to devote his attention to a small, ailing, regional theatre. One of his first steps was to establish his role as theatre director, or, as he termed it 'benevolent dictator.' In fact this move regularized a situation which was already becoming an accepted practice, that the artistic director and general manager were equal authorities responsible to the board. Now the theatre director became primus inter pares: in close consultation with his general manager, he had the final responsibility for artistic policy modified by financial restraint. Since 1978 the theatre foundation has given theatre director and general manager equal billing. In 1978 Christopher Banks replaced Lynne Dickson as general manager, making excellent use of his long experience in various capacities at Neptune. Late in 1981 Denise Rooney took over from Banks, and she remains general manager to this day. Neville has spoken highly of his association with these two, and there is no doubt that they played a major role in his success at wiping out the appalling $200,000 debt he had first faced.36 This was achieved by making the public aware that the theatre belonged to them - not just in Halifax but in the whole of the province. Unlike previous artistic directors he was a regular performer and so kept himself in the public eye. His first gesture was to play the title role in Othello and tour with it throughout the province, the first time a Shakespeare play had toured since the time of Leon Major. The deficit was cut to $40,000 by the end of the second year; the number of subscriptions jumped to more than 6,000 by the third year, and to a high of about 9,500 by 1982-83. While grants from public bodies were generally frozen, financing of individual productions was subsidized by corporate sponsorships. Dr Jacqueline Oland, president of the board 1981-83, praised its members' efforts to approach numerous organizations for sponsorship of productions and tours.

One of Neville's major innovations, in the face of continuing lack of funding for a second stage, was the lunch-time theatre sponsored by the du Maurier Council for the Performing Arts. Helping to fill the ten-day gap required between productions, it produced some of the finest theatre seen at Neptune in recent years. Actors otherwise given little opportunity sometimes gave performances which outshone the best in mainstage productions. Cathy O'Connell and Timothy Webber were superb in Brian Friel's Winners, delicately orchestrated by Hans Böggild; these three youthful local artists, aided by John Dunsworth in a supporting role, brought a magical hour to the theatre. Running a close second was the beautifully detailed interplay of Cathy O'Connell and John Dunsworth in David Mamet's Reunion directed by John Neville. Böggild was less successful with O'Casey's A Pound on Demand, but his own evocation of fishing life, Salt Cod and Pork Scraps, gave much pleasure. John Neville and Denny Doherty made uproarious Irish yokels in a sell-out production of O'Casey's The End of the Beginning; other delightful comedy duos were Nicola Lipman and David Brown in Shaw's Village Wooing, and Keith Dinicol and Susan Wright in Pinter's The Lover. Touches of the sinister-absurd were added with Orton's Ruffian on the Stair, Pinter's The Dumbwaiter, and Mrozek's chilling Striptease.

There were few mainstage productions 1978-83 which gave a comparable sense of occasion that makes theatre a supreme experience. Some performances were memorable: Neville himself a majestic if almost too statuesque Othello, a suave King Magnus in Shaw's The Apple Cart, a gay barber playing so well with Douglas Campbell in Dyer's Staircase, Florence Paterson and David Schurmann in splendid comic form in Richard Ouzounian's production of Leonard's The Au Pair Man, as were Eric House and Miriam Newhouse in the Ayckbourn How the Other Half Loves and Absurb Person Singular, both plays directed with flair by Leslie Yeo, Fiona Reid a touching Nina in The Sea Gull, Joseph Rutten deliciously lascivious in Ostrovsky's The Diary of a Scoundrel, Joan Orenstein a regal Juno, Ann Casson a moving Aline Solness in The Master Builder. Neville's gambit of bringing Tony Randall as actor, director, and ambassador was a clever promotional move but artistically less successful. Randall's Trigorin in The Sea Gull was colourless; his role as a man less than half his age in The Diary of a Scoundrel was a gross piece of miscasting; and only the strength of Ibsen's play managed to overcome his flaccid direction of The Master Builder. It was unfortunate that Randall, who might have joined Flo Paterson to form an excellent comedy duo, strained credibility by playing her son in The Diary of a Scoundrel. Miscasting dogged other productions too: The Night of the Iguana was an interesting choice, with a superbly atmospheric set by Phillip Silver, but the three actresses were all too young for their roles and Roland Hewgill's Shannon was overplayed. Hewgill was more convincing as Hamm to Neville's Clov in Endgame, a commendably bold choice but one that would have been better received if a second stage season had been possible. Denise Coffey's versions of The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing, revamped with local and modern references, had more energy than poetry, and Tom Kerr's traditional Othello proved more compelling.

There were other misjudgments during this period. Neville passed off his unceremonious dropping of his pilot, Associate Director David Renton, as an economic necessity, but Renton considers that his long association with Neptune would have cramped the style of one who had always 'gone it alone'. 37 While Neville gave opportunities to many local players, they were not offered the security a full repertory system would have allowed, and were faced always with the possibility of sudden rejection. Renton himself, for example, was given little to do, and Joseph Rutten was not seen after his great success in Diary of a Scoundrel. Neville partially met criticisms that he was neglecting Canadian drama by instituting an artist-in-residence. Tom Gallant was hired in 1981-82, and his Step Dance moved to restoring a policy which Leon Major had begun twenty years before; the twentieth season saw the tenure of a talented eighteen-year-old apprentice set designer, Andrew Murray, whose simple yet tasteful sets for The Apple Cart drew audience applause. He learned much from principal designer Arthur Penson; other designers whose work was constantly impressive included Phillip Silver, Guido Tondino, Roy Robitschek, and the perennial Robert Doyle. Canadian plays, John Gray's 18 Wheels, Rick Salutin's Les Canadiens, and Margaret Hollingsworth's Ever Loving, were accorded entertaining and worthwhile productions, but the twentieth season's attempt to bolster Canadian content proved disastrous. Walker's Filthy Rich and Chudley's Comeback, both billed as comedy thrillers, contained neither humor nor suspense; Chudley, in fact, disowned the embarrassingly frenzied performances under Paddy English's direction.

When Leon Major left Neptune in 1968, he said:'It was very tiring, and by the end I was very tired of that responsibility and problem.' 38 John Neville not only had total responsibility as theatre director but was also expending constant energy as a performer. It is little wonder, then, if he did not always live up to the standards of international excellence as director and actor that had become expected of him. He stayed at Neptune the five years he promised, his achievements far outweighing his failures. He acknowledged the need for a change of director for the good of the theatre, which he felt was standing still at the time he left, and for his own artistic refreshment.39

In twenty years Neptune had emerged strongly after continual vicissitudes. The ideals of Major's year-round repertory were never fully realized. Compromises were inevitable. The theatre building, though a delightfully intimate space for the performer, lacked the wing and backstage facilities to make the constant changes required for repertory a feasible proposition. By 1970 stock had replaced repertory for the main seasons, and though repertory remained a feature of summer seasons, the latter disappeared altogether after 1979, when a co-production with Theatre New Brunswick, The Return of A.J. Raffles by Graham Greene, played in the larger Rebecca Cohn Auditorium with only modest success. Neville's biggest disappointment was that plans for an exciting new waterfront Theatre and Art Gallery of Nova Scotia complex could never be funded.

Neville left with some bitterness, not so much that the plan for the new theatre failed - 'I can do plays in an aircraft hanger,' he said - as that a 'cultural revolution' is needed and that before professional theatre can progress in the province attitudes must change

on the part of the government, the bureaucracy, and particularly that alleged élite who think they are the custodians of our little pockets of arts resistance in this province and in this city, who do nothing but sit on their asses at board meetings and pontificate about jobs I know better than they know.40

While acknowledging that the theatre has been dependent on government funding, Neville, Renton and others have been angered by the inconsistent and apparently philistine attitude of certain members of the provincial government towards the arts. One instance was in 1981-82, when the Recreation Department funded the largely amateur Navy Show but rejected applications for support of summer seasons by Neptune and other professional groups. Personal animosity between Neville and certain government ministers soured the relationship between sources of funding and the arts.

If there are lessons to be learned from the first twenty years of Neptune Theatre - and similar situations may be found from Stratford Festival Theatre down to the smallest regional company - they centre on the theatre's administration. There is inevitably a tension between the vision of the artistic director and the economic restraint placed upon him. Traditionally the autonomy of Neptune's artistic director has been accepted and supported by the executive, the board. Successive artistic directors have periodically used questionnaires to sound public wishes and response, but ultimately the directors have attempted to achieve a delicate balance between the popular, the classical and the experimental: a play by Beckett and two new Canadian plays were daring injections into the nineteenth season, but were balanced by a popular musical, Ayckbourn and Coward; Anouilh's Antigone had failed to win popular support in Major's first season, and in a rare appearance of classical tragedy, Euripides' Medea was in 1981 tempered with a modern rock music score. Planning an eclectic program has frequently been hampered by lack of an alternative stage. Heinar Piller's tentative steps with a Studio Theatre were followed by Robert Sherrin's three seasons with a Second Stage. But only the early seventies permitted the additional funding of LIP grants. David Renton is critical of the board of that time for relying on a temporary subsidy when a long-term policy of support for an alternative theatre was needed.41 With growing economic recession during the seventies and early eighties no further funding has been forthcoming.

It was only with the goodwill of government and the implementation of a subscription campaign, followed by the appointment of an executive director in the person of John Hobday, that Leon Major and Heinar Piller were able to keep the theatre open, let alone maintain the artistic standards they set from the beginning. Robert Sherrin kept a fine balance between artistic quality and restraint, but without the guiding hand of astute financial management John Wood lost all economic control with his ambitious and sometimes extravagant productions. Since the board put its trust in the artistic director, it was hardly surprising that some of its members turned around and blamed Wood for allowing a large deficit to accumulate. The role of general manager, which took a stronger hold when Renton and then Neville took the helm, therefore became an important stabilizing influence. Yet Neville, and Tom Kerr who inherited his role in May 1983, have shown that the autonomy of theatre director, supported by the restraining hand of a general manager, ultimately may be the only solution to retaining both a balanced budget and artistic integrity.

Notes

TWO DECADES OF NEPTUNE THEATRE

Richard Perkyns

1 I would like to thank David Renton, John Neville, and Bill Carr, who kindly allowed me to interview them in April 1983; Dr Charles Armour, curator of Dalhousie University Archives, who was very patient with my requests; and board members Jacqueline Oland, Peter Evans, and Jack Craig, as well as Neptune's General Manager Denise Rooney and former Artistic Director Robert Sherrin, who have supplied helpful information.
    All critical opinions of productions or performances from 1970 to 1983 are personal unless otherwise stated. I witnessed most Neptune productions of this period, with the exception of the 1977 season. I saw no productions prior to 1970; for these I have either acknowledged specific comments or used a synthesis of general critical opinion.
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2 RENTON interview. Leon Major, a graduate of the University of Toronto, had studied theatre in Europe, the British Isles, and Canada; he was assistant to Michael Langham at Stratford in 1961, and directed at Toronto's Crest Theatre 1961-62.
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3 TOM PATTERSON had won much prestige as a founder of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. John (Jack) Gray was already an experienced Playwright, having written plays for CBC-radio and for television in the U.S. and U.K.; he was studying theatre in London, England 1961-62. He is not to be confused with John Gray of Truro, N.S., who is of a younger generation. A copy of the report on Neptune Theatre is catalogued in the Dalhousie University Archives, though it had been misplaced at the time this article was written.
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4 Quoted by ANTONY FERRY in an interview with Leon Major, Maclean's 17 November 1962 p 90
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5 Reported in The Globe and Mail, Toronto 5 January 1963
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6 GAVIN DOUGLAS, who performed and wrote for early Neptune seasons, later became CBC radio drama producer under the name JOHN DOUGLAS.
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7 Toronto Daily Star 10 August 1967
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8 JACK RICKETTS St Catharine's Standard Ontario 9 June 1964
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9 RENTON interview. The gift was expedited as Leon Major and Jean Kerr both had the same agent in New York.
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10 Toronto Daily Star 8 August 1963
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11 RENTON interview. According to Renton, Twelfth Night was one of Major's most successful productions, winning the praise of both scholars and the playgoing public. Langham was particularly interested in Renton's interpretation of Feste as an elderly retainer, suggesting a harsher underlying theme, and this theme reappeared in Langham's Stratford production. See also CLIFFORD LEECH Twelfth Night and Shakespearean Comedy Dalhousie University Press, 1965
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12 The Mail-Star Halifax 4 February 1965
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13 Toronto Daily Star 29 August 1964
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14 Toronto Daily Star 9 August 1966
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15 HARRY BRUCE Happy Birthday, Dear Neptune, Halifax 1973 p 15. Bruce gives a full analysis of the financial problems, and shows how close Neptune came to closure on several occasions.
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16 Toronto Daily Star 31 August 1968
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17 Ibid
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18 BRUCE op cit p 38
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19 The Mail-Star Halifax 26 June 1968
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20 HEINAR PILLER interviewed by BASIL DEAKIN The Mail-Star Halifax 10 August 1970
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21 LIONEL LAWRENCE The Mail-Star Halifax 2 April 1969
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22 British actor Michael Gough has won international fame in countless stage plays and films; during the seventies he was a member of the National Theatre Company of Great Britain. The Dimitrovs, two of Eastern Europe's most prominent designers, fled to Canada from their native Czechoslovakia after the 1968 Russian invasion. Anton Dimitrov designed over 100 productions for television and theatre, while Olga Dimitrov achieved fame with costume design for international prize-winning films such as Closely Watched Trains.
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23 Patrons could subscribe for either the whole season including summer plays or just for the winter portion.
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24 In a letter to me dated 29 August 1983 ROBERT SHERRIN adds the following:'... Designers [of Second Stage] were generally a collective of whoever was available at the time. Also the running of Second Stage was a very informal affair ... I merely asked Don [Allison], then Keith [Turnbull] and finally Michael [Mawson] if they would run the place, under my general supervision. The Board was not involved and it was a very loose arrangement'.
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25 The Globe and Mail Toronto 18 October 1971
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26 The Ottawa Citizen 19 October 1971
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27 In a letter to me, 20 April 1983. In the second act ASM Bruce Blakemore read the part.
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28 RENTON interview
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29 DOROTHY PERKYNS 'Leaving Home, Coming Home': a profile of Florence Paterson in The Atlantic Advocate September 1979 pp 37-8. French and Bill Glassco were delighted with her performance, and the playwright asked her if she was interested in playing the mother in a sequel: 'Of course I said yes, never really expecting to hear back, but in three months I had the first script of Of the Fields, Lately.' This occasion was personally recalled to my wife and myself by DAVID FRENCH when we met him in Halifax in the winter of 1984.
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30 RENTON interview
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31 Letter from ROBERT SHERRIN 20 April 1983
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32 Letter from ROBERT SHERRIN 29 October 1984
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33 JOHN WOOD in an interview with Vince Coady, Halifax Chronicle-Herald 24 June 1977
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34 Ibid
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35 CARR interview
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36 In a telephone conversation, 8 January 1985, DENISE ROONEY told me that her accounting background was particularly helpful in effecting more stringent controls. She brought in a new purchase order system, and has become skilled at making deals, with many contacts in the business community. She has established an amicable working relationship with both John Neville and Tom Kerr. She has consulted with them on budgeting, but reported individually to the board on the total finances of the theatre. She speaks highly of the board's efforts under Presidents Jack Craig and Jackie Oland to make contacts in the business community, with much more structured fund-raising through committees than hitherto.
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37 RENTON interview
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38 URJO KAREDA in Toronto Daily Star 31 August 1968
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39 NEVILLE interview
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40 Ibid
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41 RENTON interview
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The appendix can only be viewed using the Acrobat Reader
Appendix: Neptune Theatre Production Checklist 1963-1983