Halifax's theatre community lets an outsider in
How Jeremy Webb hopes to remake the largest stage company in Atlantic Canada
Outsider, immigrant, a "Come from Away."
British-born Jeremy Webb has been called each of these (and more, he would take hearty pleasure in telling you) over the course of his nearly 20-year theatre career in Halifax. But when it was announced earlier this year that Webb had been chosen after a national hunt for the next artistic director of Neptune Theatre, the largest theatre company in Atlantic Canada, people said something new.
Jeremy Webb, they said, was a local.
For Webb, an entrepreneurial artist who has performed across the country and been lauded for his work onstage and behind it, it was this – not winning one of the most coveted theatre posts in Nova Scotia – that solidified his belief that he had genuinely won the acceptance of his adopted hometown.
Webb's homage to Halifax, though, had long since begun. It was two years ago when Webb commissioned what will be his last "local" play before he moves on to Neptune. Newly appointed to the top job at Halifax's Eastern Front Theatre in 2015, the artistic producer began looking through his calendar with an eye to upcoming historical events that lend themselves to productions fit for the stage. He noticed that the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion was on the horizon.
A First World War-era disaster that killed more than 2,000 people and injured an estimated 9,000 more, the explosion on Dec. 6, 1917, was the product of a collision between two ships – one of which was loaded with explosives – in the upper Halifax Harbour. Entire communities literally collapsed; barely a window in the city is said to have survived the blast. It holds a place in history for being the largest man-made explosion prior to the development of nuclear weapons; fallout from it has inspired reams of books, both fiction and non-fiction, essays, documentaries and other works over the past 100 years.
For the centennial anniversary, Webb decided to bring it to the stage.
"Eastern Front's mandate is to create Atlantic Canadian stories created by Atlantic Canadian artists," he said in a recent interview. "Logically, it should be the theatre company in Halifax that creates a play, a brand new work, about that event."
Webb commissioned local playwright Karen Bassett to produce a new piece to commemorate the disaster. Bassett found her inspiration long before she was tasked by Webb. It happened unexpectedly while she was on a tour of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic with her youngest son. While the pair stood admiring a panoramic photograph that depicted the harbour before the blast, Bassett was struck by the juxtaposition of industrialized military factories and railroad tracks alongside a wigwam, which was visible, although just barely, on the distant shore.
Bassett hadn't realized there was a Mi'kmaq settlement in Halifax before the explosion. The community, which had been located in Tufts Cove, which was decimated by the explosion, would become central in her play.
The end result, called Lullaby: Inside the Halifax Explosion, is a unique and emotional production that has been touring schools and community stages across Nova Scotia since August. It will cap its run this month with a three-week production in Halifax at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, which has been transformed into a theatre to host the show until Dec. 10.
The play is dedicated to conveying the little-told experiences of marginalized communities which were affected by the historic disaster and explores how past segregation has shaped present-day Halifax. "We still see that today," Bassett said. "Halifax is not racially integrated like other big cities."
Webb was an instant champion of her vision. "What is beautiful about this story is that it is approaching the explosion from a different angle," he said. "The story hadn't really been told from the African Nova Scotian point of view or from that of the Indigenous Mi'kmaq community," he said, adding: "They had a settlement … that was obliterated."
Lullaby features three characters (played by Lisa Nasson, Troy Adams and Mauralea Austin) who meet moments after the blast. The director is the Halifax writer, director and actor Koumbie.
When he makes the jump to Neptune, Webb is widely expected not only to continue his commitment to local talent, but to deepen it. He said that he will still hold casting sessions in other cities with strong theatre communities, such as Toronto, particularly for the big-budget productions. But he will keep an eye firmly trained on his hometown options.
"I know the community better than most. If there is a play and I know all the roles can be handled here; all the roles will be handled here," he said. "I've spent a lot of time over the last number of years creating and helping others to create work here in the Maritimes. It's very logical and definitely my plan to enhance the nurturing of new work."
In addition to more Canadian and Atlantic Canadian content on the Neptune stage, Webb hopes to bring more diversity in the form of story content and the makeup of actors and writers commissioned to tell them in the upcoming season.
"Most importantly for me, there are stories and representation from all communities in Nova Scotia, so it's a very diverse season," he said. "There will always be some criticism … over the fact that I'm another white, middle-aged British man running a theatre company," but he adds: "I'm trying to change who I represent as best I can."
Webb has a reputation for being unafraid to stick his neck out. His career is a testament to that – always entrepreneurial, Webb launched his own companies and created a body of work, including a one-man adaptation of Dickens' A Christmas Carol that has been an annual smash hit in Halifax since 2003 (actor Rhys Bevan-John will take the reins this year).
"I'm a little more commercial than some artists in that I have an eye on the bottom line," said Webb, adding that has also been part of his formula for success. "You do the big musicals … so that you can help to strengthen the company financially to afford the smaller, lesser-known shows that fewer people go to but you want to do to feed that creative urge."
Nancy Morgan, executive director of the non-profit group Theatre Nova Scotia, said that while the province has a strong and growing theatre industry, strong local stories have not always added up to a boom at the box office. "It can be a risk for theatre companies to produce them … because it's not as easy to market them," she said. "If there isn't a known entity that helps the general public understand why they should come in the door, the local stories can be more of a struggle."
Webb is determined to create success – for both him and others – on his new stage. "I haven't had to work a Joe job since I moved here," he said, grinning at how things have managed to work out. Then, one last qualifier: "Touch wood."
Lullaby: Inside the Halifax Explosion runs through Dec. 10 at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax (easternfronttheatre.com).