Editor's note: With its latest Best Theatre win in 2007, Neptune was elevated to the Best of Halifax Hall of Fame. Two-thousand and seven was the most successful year in the 44-year history of Neptune Theatre in terms of bums-on-seats. More people took in a Neptune show than ever before. These days, with so many different ways we can spend our entertainment dollars, that's saying something.
Ron Ulrich came aboard the good ship Neptune in May of 2000, to a theatre company with an accumulated deficit of close to $3.8 million. "Paying down a debt load that size is enormous. The constraints in the early years were substantial," he says. Over the succeeding years, with some savvy programming and finding added sponsorship and support, they've been able to pay off virtually all of that debt. "Which is great," says Ulrich. "Better than great—it's wonderful."
The freedom gained from being out of the red means that, despite costs going up, the theatre has been able to try riskier works and strike up collaborations with other, younger theatre companies in town. Examples include working with 2b Theatre on shows such as last year's Soul Alone and more recently with Shahin Sayadi's OneLight Theatre, helping to create The Veil, the dramatic adaptation of Masoud Bahnoud's Iranian novel.
"For projects of that nature, paying off the debt has allowed us to expand a little bit to assist other companies working in the area," says Ulrich. "We were very lucky that Shahin was writing this new play based on an extraordinarily popular Iranian novel that no one in the English-speaking world, unless you read Farsi, would have ever heard about. And, at the same time, we worked with Mermaid Theatre because it's involved as well. You couldn't wish for anything better."
And the collaborations don't stop there: Ulrich says that in 2008, Neptune will be working with Tarragon Theatre in Toronto on something called "The South African Project," including South African thespians. It's a show being put together right now, to be workshopped in January. "If that gets ready we can bring it in next season as well. It's a chance to explore cultural values that we don't normally see. It's what we do in the studio anyway," says Ulrich.
He credits audiences in Halifax with the intelligence and perception to appreciate new things, so he can indulge his artistic and creative talents. "It means I can do projects such as The Vertical Hour, Frozen and The Syringa Tree that you can't do in certain other theatres in this country because the audience isn't ready for them," he says. "The ability to do projects like that and mix them in with much more popular projects like Beauty and the Beast or Oliver is really kind of neat."
Over the years, it's been the audience's interest in all kinds of material that has impressed Ulrich and he has strived to give them what they want. "We've been able to check out what our audience would accept...I mean, there's no point in doing something if nobody is going to come and see it. The only reason we present theatre is to excite people, to get people involved, to get the community involved.
"Lets use the example of Copenhagen. I mean, who the hell wants to go and see a play that's talking for two-and-a-half hours about the atomic bomb? Well, the theatre was full, man! It was awesome!"