It's show time on a Saturday night at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts, and the sun is peeking out from behind wispy clouds as people make their way toward the "stage"—a meadow surrounded by forest. The crowd walks through grass, still wet from an afternoon shower, along a path marked by unlit tiki torches. Metal bleachers creak as bums shift to find a comfortable position, and happy chatter is punctuated by the sound of hands slapping at bugs and birds calling from the trees.
Over the past 10 years this scene has been re-enacted many times, as people from far and wide flock to the North Mountain of the Annapolis Valley to see award-winning outdoor theatre, created and produced by Two Planks and a Passion Theatre Company.
But the company's genesis goes much further back than its decade at Ross Creek.
Two Planks, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, had its beginning in another rural Nova Scotia town where husband and wife Ken Schwartz and Chris O'Neill realized their dream of establishing their own company. "Two Planks had its first home in a small community hall in a little place not far from here called Sheffield Mills," says Schwartz, now the artistic director.
"From there we became kind of an itinerant theatre company, touring rural Canada and getting to really know our country, particularly the smaller places like Flin Flon and Tumbler Ridge," he says. "Places that we probably wouldn't have seen otherwise."
During its touring years, the company showcased many Atlantic Canadian plays, including Michael Melski's Hockey Mom, Hockey Dad, Josh MacDonald's Halo, and The Butterbox Babies and Westray: The Long Way Home, written by Schwartz and O'Neill.
Schwartz says its years on the road were an important way for the company to mature. But eventually, the couple was ready to find a permanent home for Two Planks and to explore theatre on a larger canvas. They chose a former cattle farm that offered 178 acres of field and forest overlooking the Bay of Fundy. In 2003, they began construction of a multi-generational, multi-disciplinary arts centre.
The Ross Creek Centre for the Arts offers programming and space to nurture both artists and art lovers: Things like arts-focused residential summer camps, workshops for youth and families and retreats for emerging and established artists. It also offers a stunning setting for creating and producing what Two Planks describes as "theatre off the grid."
Once the company had a permanent home, its plays no longer needed to be portable. This allowed Schwartz to explore work that had large casts, populated by no fewer than 10 characters. It also meant that the plays could be firmly rooted in an outdoor setting.
"I'm very interested in creating work that is connected to place," says Schwartz. "I see what we do here as the marriage of nature and art, and I tend to be a purist. For me, it's the 'whole' experience that matters."
Schwartz also revels in Ross Creek as a place apart from the constant connectivity of everyday life. "In a world where everything is wired, amplified and seen on a screen, this place is about bringing theatre back to where a performance is intimate and theatre is a sacred space," he says.
This year's production of Liberation Days, a wartime romance set in a small Dutch village, unfolds beautifully in the outdoor setting. The play tells the story of Emma (Jamie Konchak), a young Dutch woman who has become hardened by the loss of her father, brother and her fiance in the war. When she meets a sunny, boyish Canadian soldier named Alex (Devin MacKinnon), her heart begins to thaw.
The garden by Emma's house is central to the telling of the story. At the beginning of the play it is barren and rocky, but as the relationship blossoms and Emma, her mother (Burgundy Code) and Alex work together in it, it comes to life.
There is something very special, very real, about seeing the actors digging in actual dirt. The props are intentionally sparse—a war office is evoked by a typewriter and chair, the parson's home by a desk, doorsteps by a simple flagstone—but the natural setting is so evocative and immersive that the mind paints the appropriate set. It is pure magic.
"The phrase 'two planks and a passion' refers to the idea that all you need to make theatre is something to stand on and a good script," explains Schwartz. "It's a complex and simple aesthetic we've kept on the front burner, and I think it's more evident in our work than ever before."
The season's second play is Mary Celeste, a fireside show that uses a theatrically challenging framework to explore the idea of truth.
The mystery of the Mary Celeste has confounded people since the Nova Scotia-built ship was found adrift, sans crew but with her cargo intact, east of the Azores in 1872. Two Planks' production offers the audience 10 different possibilities, and the actors are kept on their toes by the random nature of how and who tells each version.
The sky is completely dark by the time the laughter dies down and the last version of the Mary Celeste tale has been told. Some people remain by the fire, singing, toasting marshmallows and watching orange sparks ascend into the night sky. Others follow the path of now-lit tiki torches to their cars, accompanied by the fading strains of rollicking guitar.
"On paper, this centre and what we do here sounds kind of unlikely," says Schwartz, who admits that the life of an artist who lives and works in Nova Scotia can be challenging. "I mean, why create theatre down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere?"
But evenings like this make it all worthwhile. "I think," he says, "people really have to come up here to understand."
hr size="1">Liberation Days
Tue-Thu and Sat 6pm, Sun 2pm, $29
Mary Celeste by Fire
Fri-Sat and Tue 9:30pm, $29
Ross Creek Centre for the Arts, 555 Ross Creek Road, Canning, To August 13