Starting this week, Neptune Theatre in Halifax presents The Boat, Alistair MacLeod’s classic tale of life in a small Cape Breton fishing village in the 1940s. Recently we spoke with the production’s artistic director, Thomas Morgan Jones of Theatre New Brunswick, about what audiences can expect.
What are your own roots?
I was born in Oshawa, Ontario to one parent from the United States and the other from England.
How long have you been involved in theater, and in what capacity?
I’ve had the good fortune of creating theatre for over fifteen years both nationally and internationally. I adore all theatre, and have worked with new plays, musicals, theatre for young audience, dance and many other forms as a director, playwright, movement coach, dramaturg and teacher.
How did you get involved with this particular production?
In my position as artistic director of Theatre New Brunswick, one of the most exciting and enriching parts of my work is that I can help give playwright’s voices and scripts a stage. In the 2015-2016 season, we (at TNB) commissioned a new work by Ryan Griffith, and at that time we made a three-year commitment to producing his plays. At that time, I read everything he had ever written and spoke with him at length about all of the projects he hoped to write in the future. From that group of ideas (which was huge), The Boat stood out as an incredible project to share with our audiences in New Brunswick: the writing of Alistair MacLeod through the lens of a Fredericton playwright. Ryan originally wrote this adaptation as a project when he was a playwriting student at the National Theatre School of Canada, and it was written for a very large number of actors. Ryan and I worked together to find a way to tell the story with four actors, making the production not only affordable and possible to tour, but also making the dramaturgy and the writing inventive, theatrical, and fused with a kind of economical or minimalist muscularity. We asked if Ryan would give us the privilege of premiering the work, and he said yes. So, in a way, I got involved because Ryan trusted us with his words.
What are the challenges and rewards involved?
One of the greatest challenges was finding the right way to tell the story. As a director, I am always inspired and haunted by the words of one of my mentors, “Why is it theatre?” She told me a story can be told a million ways (poem, song, film) and so if it is on stage, artists need to ask themselves why the medium of theatre is the perfect fit. Together with the designers, the actors, our production staff at the theatre and our stage manager, I believe that we have collaboratively created a staging that illuminates and reveals the story that Alistair MacLeod and Ryan Griffith have written. It uses distance and the idea of being pulled or pushed to leave or stay as a way of inspiring movement and spatial relationships on the stage. This meant a huge leap of faith from everyone involved. The reward was both a hugely fulfilling process and a beautiful production.
What can audiences expect during the run?
It’s a memory play, so it exists in the past and present simultaneously. here aren’t even really scene demarcations…the play flows like a long form poem, or like a thought, from one moment to the next…seamlessly. And so, I think audiences can expect to be in the past and the present simultaneously: as they watch the production of the play, and also as their mind remembers stories and experiences from their own past. What they can also expect are four extraordinary performances from an ensemble of actors who are offering themselves with passion and vulnerability.
What are your thoughts on the state of theater in New Brunswick and Atlantic Canada?
That’s a big question. I’ll speak to the New Brunswick part of it as it is closest to my experience - and also potentially less familiar to readers from Nova Scotia. As Theatre New Brunswick, we’re trying to find increasing ways to realize the potential of our name: Theatre New Brunswick. This has taken three forms. The first is developing and producing more works by New Brunswick writers. This season we produced Ghost Light by Saint John-born Shawn Wright, The Boat, and The Damsel in Distress Who Saved Herself by Fredericton’s Kira Smith. We also welcomed Ryan in a residency, and Wolastoq First Nation artist Natalie Sappier, both of whom are writing new works for us. The second is touring to more locations in New Brunswick as the company did for the first thirty years of its operations. This season we are touring to a maximum of five communities in New Brunswick with our shows that premiere at The Open Space Theatre (and to Halifax). Next season we will bring that number to seven communities. We look to keep building in the years ahead. And finally, we are offering a great deal of professional development workshops for actors and theatre artists. In July, we will welcome Ellen Lauren of New York City’s SITI Company to offer Suzuki Method of Actor Training and Viewpoints. All of this is to support the vibrant arts ecology that exists in the Province. Between Atlantic Ballet Theatre, Symphony New Brunswick, Connection Dance Works, Next Folding Theatre Company, Saint John Theatre Company, Solo Chicken Theatre, and our Francophone colleagues at Theatre populaire d’Acadie, Theatre L’Escaouette, and Satelitte Theatre, there is a strong and growing community provincially. Still, it can be difficult for artists to remain in New Brunswick because of a lack of consistent work. Much like the theme of The Boat it is a constant conversation here about whether to stay or to leave.
What's next on your creative agenda?
Theatre New Brunswick will announce our next season on May 4th, so that is a big one! In April, we are working with Symphony New Brunswick on a project that will play in Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John. In the Fall, I’ll be returning to The Stratford Festival as a guest instructor with their Birmingham Conservatory for a sixth year in addition to my projects here at TNB, and a play I co-wrote for young people titled Old Man and the River will be produced again by Theatre Direct as part of Persephone Theatre's 2017-2018 season.
March 21 – April 9
Neptune Theatre, Halifax