Theatre Nova Scotia's 2022 Robert Merritt Awards, recapped

“ I never in my life thought I would win an award for a pantomime—and in fact, at one point, I never thought I'd be in one," best actor winner Allister MacDonald says.

The secret to Allister MacDonald's award-winning turn as the Mad Hatter in Neptune's holiday pantomime show? Instead of doubling down on camp, "I just approached the Mad Hatter like they were a real person," the actor says.

Last night, Theatre Nova Scotia’s Merritt Awards celebrated the best in local live performance with its first ceremony since COVID-19’s arrival. With plays from 2020 and 2021 both in the running, the nominee list felt like a reminder of just how much boundary-breaking, life-affirming theatre has been made during the pandemic in this province.

Eastern Front Theatre and Shakespeare By The Sea’s collaboration Fat Juliet—a new, body-positive and women-centered take on Romeo & Juliet by Stevey Hunter—was the frontrunner of the nominees, up for 12 awards total. It took home the trophies for Outstanding Choreography, Outstanding Sound Design and Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role (for Peter Sarty’s turn as Romeo). The category of Outstanding New Nova Scotian Play was nabbed by Richie Wilcox and Ship’s Company Theatre for the play Good Grief.

Outstanding Performance in a Leading Role went to Hilary Adams for her role in Two Planks And A Passion Theatre’s summer 2021 show Schoolhouse—as well as Allister MacDonald for their turn as the Mad Hatter in Neptune Theatre’s production Alice in Pantoland. The holiday pantomime has quickly become a signature of the Argyle Street theatre under artistic director Jeremy Webb, and are a genre of show MacDonald describes as “a new take on an old story, an old, beloved fairytale, with modern pop music—and often a lot of drag, and a lot of camp, and a lot of audience interaction and a lot of fun.”

On break from their next round of Neptune rehearsals—where they’ll play Dr. Frank N. Furter in an upcoming stage adaptation of the cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show—MacDonald talked to The Coast about how the big win felt: “ I never in my life thought I would win an award for panto—and in fact, at one point, I never thought I'd be in one," they begin. "But Jeremy got in touch with me to take it on. And I didn't approach the work like it was a panto. I just approached the Mad Hatter like they were a real person who lives in this bizarre world. And at the end of the day, Jeremy brought together a really unique and wonderful cast and we had a lot of fun,” they say with an audible smile.

“It was a really bizarre time: To work through a pandemic and be one of the first main stage shows at Neptune to really get back on its feet. And I was so beyond grateful every day to be in front of an audience. It was a really emotional experience, to be honest.”

When asked what makes theatre in this province so special, they don’t hesitate: “I kind of touched on this in my speech yesterday, but: For the longest time as a queer person—as a queer artist—I felt I had to run away from this province to be accepted for who I am, and be accepted for my artistry,” MacDonald—who splits their time between Halifax and Toronto—says. “The theatre scene has done the work to be more inclusive and more accepting and feel like I have a safe space to just come and fully explore every opportunity I'm given, and I'm really grateful for this province for being so welcoming. And coming back home in a way where I can just fully be myself artistically is something I didn't expect and something I'm very grateful for.”