In a day and age when a lot of marriages don't last 10 years, it is pretty remarkable that an ensemble theatre company, the kind of collective that's likely to be a hot-bed of creative passions and potential clashes, is entering its 10th anniversary season. But Zuppa Circus Theatre, one of Halifax's most cutting-edge theatre companies, is marking that 10-year milestone with several exciting events: A brand-new show called Penny Dreadful; a Blue Plate Special series that will showcase artists from other parts of Canada; a 16-day winter workshop called Baby Clown with John Turner and a grand anniversary bash to top it all off, scheduled for next spring when Zuppa returns from touring Penny Dreadful in Boston and Vancouver.
To be totally truthful, of Zuppa's three core members—Ben Stone, Alex McLean and Susan Leblanc-Crawford—only Stone is a founding member. He and actor/musician Sandy Gribbin formed the company in March of 1998, with McLean and Leblanc-Crawford joining in '99.
Since the beginning, Zuppa Circus has created original works through a highly collaborative process. The major creative decisions are made through the rehearsal process, with all parties having an equal say, but with veto power resting with McLean, in his role as director.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon in September, the company is deep in rehearsal for Penny Dreadful at the North Street Church. Stone is wearing gumboots and standing amid a pile of mousetraps. Leblanc-Crawford and Stuart Legere, a relative newcomer to the group, are out among the "audience"—chairs set in a diamond shape on the floor.
Leblanc-Crawford sings two notes and then Legere joins her in a song, mournful and sonorous. Finally, Stone adds his voice, as the trio begins to busily set the traps. When the scene is over, McLean tweaks some lines and the actors talk briefly about how the recently created scene fits into the show. They move on.
"This process," says Leblanc-Crawford, "is one of the secrets to Zuppa's longevity. I think if we were just staging plays, it might get a little boring after 10 years. But the sort of investigation involved in continually honing what we do and how we tell stories and how we make a play makes you want to keep doing it. It's really stimulating."
The company is always looking for creative ways to keep the work fresh. For instance, McLean describes Penny Dreadful as a departure from their usual style, by virtue of its more realistic setting and traditional love story. "The show has our Zuppa Circus elements like the heightened theatricality that's kind of typical of what we do," he says. "But we're exploring some things we've never extensively explored before, like setting this show in historic Nova Scotia rather than somewhere fantastical like we have in the past.
"Over the last few years in particular, we've been playing with different styles of performance like "clown' or "melodrama.' For this show, we're approaching it in a kind of naturalistic way, and there are elements that are influenced by Ibsen and Strindberg...So it's Zuppa Circus in that we're playing with styles, but they're styles that people will be familiar with."
The starting points for the show were a theme, the arrival of a stranger, and a focus—the true story of Jerome, a mysterious man who, in 1863, washed up, mute and gravely injured, on the beach at Sandy Cove, NS. However, early on in the rehearsal process, they learned that The Birth House author Ami McKay had been commissioned by the Two Planks and a Passion Theatre Company to write a play based on the same story.
The company went back to the drawing board, and while maintaining the original theme, they created an entirely new story by improvising and bringing in pieces of text based on their interests of the moment. In fact, there's a table in their rehearsal space nicknamed "the Ministry of Information," which is covered in literature.
The piece was workshopped for eight weeks last fall at the Ross Creek Centre in Canning and is currently in the middle of eight weeks of rehearsal at the North Street Church, where the show will be staged. It has also benefitted from input from the Toronto-based dramaturge, Bruce Barton.
Penny Dreadful, named after the cheap, lurid publications of 19th century Britain, is set in 1863 in a well-to-do Halifax household. The grounds-keeper Charlie (Stone) is trying to trap the mice that are overrunning the house, while the drunken maid Adelaide (Leblanc-Crawford) tries to rescue them. The play becomes a love triangle as well as a crime story with the introduction of Harry, their employer's wayward son.
Harry is played by Legere, a young actor who has worked with Zuppa on short performances for Live Art's Small Stages Halifax and Opera Nova Scotia's Orpheus and Eurydice. He is the outsider, both in the play and in the company, a fact that McLean says works to their advantage. "It's really important for us to have some new people to work with, like Stuart. He gives us new blood and new energy and possibilities."
McLean also speaks of the outsider's role in keeping the core group on their best behaviour. He says that after so many years, they're almost like brothers and sisters, in that they're familiar enough with each other to needle one another and comfortable enough to get pissed off with each other. An outsider's presence keeps that to a minimum.
Penny Dreadful will also include an additional outsider, cellist Claire Gallant, who plays a score composed by David Christensen, and Jason MacIsaac of The Heavy Blinkers.
"Music is a huge character in the play," McLean says. "Claire will be, in various ways, involved in creating the atmosphere of the play and in underscoring important things."
Another tool the group uses to keep interactions positive is something they call "The Rules of Play." The hand-lettered, bristol-board sign is prominently displayed while they rehearse, and includes directions such as, "If you don't like something, propose something else"; "Let others speak to the end of their thoughts"; "In rehearsal, we are colleagues first" and "Don't stop, modify. Do everything fully, always."
"When you're working, you're here to work, and there's a sense that we really are lucky to be able to do what we are doing," explains Legere. "But at the same time, it's always play."
"It's all about getting to know the things that the people you're working with will respond to, and using them on stage and off. I think that's very, very rare, and I really enjoy it."
Like most arts organizations, finding money is one of the biggest tasks the company must undertake to continue doing what they love. "A large part of what we do as a company, year-round, is apply for grants," says Leblanc-Crawford, who also acts as general manager.
"We've kind of pieced together lots of little ways that kind of resembling making a living," McLean adds, laughing.
Since the beginning, the company has also encouraged the growth of innovative theatre in Nova Scotia. They continue to work towards that goal, most particularly through their partnership with Armbrae Academy, a local private school where Zuppa Circus is the resident theatre company. "Ben runs all of the extra-curricular drama clubs at Armbrae, and it's pretty amazing what the kids get out of it," says Leblanc-Crawford, who is also active in the program. "They get to contribute; they're not just learning their lines and going where Ben tells them to. They write scenes and play the same games we do in rehearsal."
"We direct five performances a year," Stone says, clearly excited by the projects. "Things like Peter Barnes' Red Noses or Chekhov Vaudeville, which was scenes from Chekhov interspersed with Broadway show tunes. And last spring, the grade six class did a synopsis of Brigadoon and then rewrote it as their own show with their own music. They put it on as a fundraiser for the new Brigadoon Village for chronically and terminally ill kids in the Valley."
It's this combination of remaining true to the original spirit of Zuppa Circus while experimenting with new elements that has allowed the company to thrive. McLean sums it up: "We've been working together for a long time, and I think one of the things that played into Penny Dreadful is the realization that in order to keep going as a company, we need to make sure we're doing something new in everything we do. I think and hope and believe that there are still very "Zuppa Circus' elements in the work, but we wanted to kind of turn ourselves onto our heads. There's swearing in this show and stuff that's clearly about sex and about class politics—things that are different for us.
"Maybe it's kind of dangerous to start messing around with the formula of what people expect from you, but I think it's what we have to do in order to stay fresh and interested in working together."
Penny Dreadful, October 9-21 (except Mondays) at North Street Church, 5657 North Street, 8pm, $15-$10 for students, October 10 is pay what you can, 431-5202
Kate Watson is a freelance writer and the theatre critic for The Coast. She’s only a few clowns short of a circus.
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