Magnetic North – It’s a Big Deal!

Family-Friendly, Definitely not Family Friendly, Modern Shakespeare and more!

Last night, seeing the crowd waiting to go inside the Dunn Theatre to see Broken Sex Doll, it finally hit me: the Magnetic North Theatre Festival is a BIG deal!
It’s Canada’s only national theatre festival. It’s also Canada’s and possibly the world’s only travelling theatre festival. Productions, representing some of the country’s bet contemporary theatre, from Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Windsor NS, and other cross-country communities are, for the next week, gracing Halifax/Darmouth stages…and dance halls…and elevators!?!

If you are in Halifax or can get here for at least a few hours between now and June 29, DO IT! Check out Magnetic North’s list of productions here.

As part of our ongoing coverage, Monday we’ll share impressions of Broken Sex Doll. But don’t wait for our review. Get your tickets to it or any of the shows that pique your interest, before they sell out. There are also FREE Magnetic Encounter Events to check out.

Today, we present interviews with:

~ Jim Morrow, director of Stella, Queen of the Snow, an adaptation of the whimsical book by children’s writer and illustrator Marie-Louise Gay (suitable for young audiences).

~ Philip McKee, director of Lear, a modern portrayal Shakespeare’s play, stripped down “to a distilled and vital adaptation.”

Stella, Queen of the Snow

Directed by Jim Morrow
Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia


When and why did you first become interested in theatre?
JM: When I was a freshman at Acadia University, my new friends Bill Carr, Bruce Tubbe, and others, encouraged me to audition for a school play. I think it was Hamlet. I resisted because I thought I was a there to study Phys-Ed but after much insisting, I relented and soon changed majors from sports to theatre. After graduating from Acadia, I began touring as a professional performer with those same people as part of the Mermaid Theatre ensemble. I had no idea, in the early days, that theatre would become my life’s work but am very happy and thankful that it has.

Are they the same reasons that you continue to be involved today?
JM: I remain involved today because I have the best job in the world. I get to make plays for little children and watch their faces light up each time they enter the theatre to see their favourite storybook characters crawl, or fly, or hop to life onstage. When they come to see one of our productions, with their schoolmates or family members, they are often visiting the theatre for the very first time. Our responsibility is to ensure that their theatre experience is truly a memorable one.  

What are the challenges of the vocation?
JM: There are many challenges facing professionals in our industry, the most significant of which is the instability caused mainly by lack of resources and inadequate investment. It’s difficult for many theatre artists to find enough sustainable employment to make even a modest living in their chosen field. It’s tremendously rewarding when you are working but equally sad when you are creatively idle. I’m very fortunate to have carved out a niche for myself and I have enormous respect for others who have chosen to attempt to do the same but, anyone who enters the vocation should do so with eyes wide open. The rewards are great and the pitfalls many.

What are the rewards?
JM: Obviously the greatest reward is having the privilege to exercise personal creativity and sometimes get paid for it. However, given that theatre is not a solitary discipline but one that depends on a shared enterprise between many creative individuals working together to achieve a common goal, being a part of an extraordinary community is in itself one of the best rewards.

Is your creative process more 'inspirational' or 'perspirational'?
Jim Morrow, artistic director at
Mermaid Theatre of NS
JM: I have to say both – in equal proportions. Ideas are obviously a necessary part of any creative process, but, if you lack personal discipline and a commitment to working hard, likely your ideas will never materialize into something of which you can be truly proud. I love to come up with ideas and stretch my creative capacity but I also get a thrill out of the chase, and for me the chase is the process that defines the end result, a result that, hopefully, others will appreciate.

What inspired you to put together Stella, Queen of the Snow?
JM: Stella, Queen of the Snow is an elegantly written and beautifully illustrated book by one of Canada’s best-known authors for children. Marie-Louise Gay, who lives in Montreal, has created many books filled with delightful characters and placed them in scenes and situations that will be very familiar to many Canadian children, especially those who have spent time in the country. Her writing evokes a wistful affection for a past where children’s fun included time outside the house and into nature where freedom to explore was encouraged. I like the book, Stella, Queen of the Snow because it reminds me of my childhood and what it was like growing up in Central Newfoundland. I also was inspired to choose the book because Stella is a very strong female character who, while on the one hand is confident, impetuous, and full of fun, on the other shows loving tenderness and patience towards her younger, and much more thoughtful, and cautious, brother Sam.

What can audiences here expect to experience?
JM: Audiences will see a show that has everything you would expect in a Mermaid production including a beautiful story, fun characters, lots of puppets, strong visual elements including projections, and exquisite music composed by Mermaid’s sound designer, Steven Naylor.

What are your thoughts on the current state of theatre in Canada?
JM: As articulated before, there are fairly significant challenges facing the industry but it has always been this way and in spite of these obstacles, our industry continues to grow and diversify. Despite inadequate investment, young people are enrolling in theatre programs in increasing numbers and small independent theatre companies are popping up all over the country. Thankfully, young theatre artists are completely shifting the conventional play creation paradigm and challenging traditional practices and conventions by exploring new ways to express their ideas on stage. No longer is it true that a play has to begin solely from the written word and performed by trained actors. What is emerging from this collective curiosity is an ecology that is forward thinking, full of exploration, and not afraid to take risks regardless, whether their efforts are supported or not. As in any community, it is the risk taker and innovator who shows others the way and this is certainly true in our community. We need to encourage our innovators by supporting their practices and investing in their creativity. This is an exciting time to be working in the theatre industry in Canada and I feel that the future is bright.

What can we be doing better?
JM: We need to grow audiences and encourage a greater exchange between the general public and the narrative that is acted out on our stages. To help achieve this we should begin by encouraging more access to the arts, and integration of arts practices, in education by providing opportunity, and the resources necessary, for young people to explore their creativity throughout their education in a meaningful and comprehensive way. Not only will this engagement make better students and better people, it will also foster a greater appreciation for the arts as a necessary component of a truly healthy community.

What's next on your creative agenda?
JM: I’m very much looking forward to presenting our newest play at the Stages and Magnetic North Festivals in Dartmouth. The first performance will be this play’s world premiere. I am curious about the reaction audiences will have as they are transported back into wintertime, now that the weather is just beginning to finally get warm again. I will also be listening carefully to reactions and apply the knowledge to the remounted version of this show that begins rehearsing in September for a six-month North American tour.
Mermaid is now a truly international company and much of our time is spent negotiating the details of tours to countries around the world. We have just recently returned from extended visits to central Canada, the United States, South Korea, and the Kingdom of Bahrain and will be heading back to Central Canada, the US, Singapore, China, and my home province of Newfoundland in the fall. We continue to teach puppetry workshops to young people and provide intensive training and mentorships to professionals through programs offered in our Institute of Puppetry Arts and our Theatre Loft, and organize a full slate of performances at our 400-seat theatre as part of the MIPAC (Mermaid Imperial Performing Arts Centre) series. I’m pleased to say that we will also be touring our very popular curriculum-based, immersive theatre production called Code Green to schools in Nova Scotia in the fall. This production is designed to introduce young students to the important issue of species at risk.

Stella, Queen of the Snow

June 21: 2:00pm
June 22: 12:00pm

Alderney Landing Theatre

Clare Coulter in LEAR. Image: Guntar Kravis

Directed by Philip McKee
Featuring Clare Coulter

When and why did you first become interested in theatre?
PM: I was taken to the theatre as a young person by my mother. She got a subscription to the Tarragon Theatre so that she could take me to theatre. This continued when I was a teenager. I saw a production of Endgame by Samuel Beckett directed by Daniel Brooks at the Tarragon Theatre, and I felt very moved by this play.

At around the same time I saw a production of The Designated Mourner starring Clare Coulter, and I found it equally compelling. In Grade 9, in high school, I acted in a play. I continued to act in plays throughout high school. Somebody once said to me, being shy is about not knowing what to say. When you are acting in a play the experience of shyness is different because you already know what to say.

I studied Psychology at McGill University with the intention of becoming a therapist. By the end of my degree I was less interested in this, and having directed a show (Endgame by Samuel Beckett) at the McGill Little Theatre, I thought that I could be good at it in a way that I couldn’t be good at acting. I returned to Toronto and produced and directed four shows before attending The National Theatre School of Canada to do their directing program.

I like theatre because it is a creative event, for spectators and makers, that is fundamentally relational. The mechanism by which it works is just people relating to one another. The Theatre has always felt like a space in which to work out problems. Its capacity to create living, dynamic metaphors allows one to look at life in new ways that reveal what has otherwise been taken for granted.

Are they the same reasons that you continue to be involved today?
PM: I make theatre today because I am still trying to figure things out. It is space to try to talk to yourself and others about how life is strange and sometimes beautiful and pretty mysterious and absurd and difficult and fun.

Director Philip McKee

What are the challenges of the vocation?
PM: Scarcity. Not having enough money to do what you want, in the theatre. Uncertainty. Confronting, and trying to respond positively, to theatre’s marginalization as a relevant cultural medium.

What are the rewards?
PM: Getting to make things with other people, and sharing those things with other people, and having peoples’ incredibly generous support while you do it.

Is your creative process more 'inspirational' or 'perspirational'?
PM: It’s both. Someone in the company has an idea, and then we have to try to figure out how we can try it to see if it works or not.

What inspired Lear?
PM: LEAR is inspired by my desire to work with Clare Coulter. We had collaborated on several projects, having first met her as one of my mentors at NTS. I wanted to find another project that we could collaborate on. The problem was that there are no roles with any substance for woman who are passed middle age. So I decided ‘to hell with it’ we will take on the big man role, and figure out what that means. The show we have made has been the response to the challenges associated with making this choice, as well as the response to the challenge of staging Shakespeare at all in the 21st century. The material itself is from such a fundamentally different time, the question we have always asked our selves is ‘how can this material be used to communicate with a contemporary audience?’, especially with the poverty of resources available to independent theatre makers.

We believe the story, archetypes and implications of events in King Lear are relevant to an audience in the 21st Century, but the question for us has been, how can we offer it to an audience in a way that feels relevant.

I applied to the HATCH residency at Harbourfront Centre in 2011 and we did an initial workshop and presentation before premiering the work after further development at World Stage 2013 at Harbourfront Centre.

What can audiences here expect to experience?
PM: An audience can expect to experience a truly unique version of a potentially familiar play. The audience will be surprised and challenged. Our approach to story telling is formally experimental, but our intention in being formally innovative is to offer the heart of the story to an audience. LEAR is contemporary theatre that is finding new ways to foreground the humanity of the characters in this classic story.

What are your thoughts on the current state of theatre in Canada and what can we be doing better?
PM: I think it is important that young directors and theatre artists are given opportunities to work on classics in an experimental way. It is very, very difficult to write a good play, and I often feel the expectation is that every new piece of writing will work.

With classics you have something that works, which allows the director to experiment with new forms, new ways of communicating with an audience, with sound foundation of the story, characters, themes and ideas of the classic text supporting them.

In Germany, for example, you will very often see adaptations of classics as part of a theatre’s programming, but not just in the big, more conservative theatres, but also in the most avant-garde performance venues. The understanding is that these stories can be invented in an infinite number of ways. The archetypes that are already familiar to an audience offer language and understanding that is already shared between the creators and spectators.

This tradition of adaptation keeps a theatre community in touch with it’s history, while searching for ways to continue to evolve in the present.

I think it would be great if more directors were given the kind of opportunity that I have had, and were able to work on classics in radical ways. In order for this to be possible, it has to be understood that classical adaptations created by Canadian artists is Canadian work. Too often I think the idea of “Canadian Work” is limited to a play WRITTEN by a Canadian playwright.

What's next on your creative agenda?
PM: I have been developing an adaptation of the Ancient Greek Tragedy THE ORESTEIA called BLOODY FAMILY at The Theatre Centre since 2012, with actress Tanja Jacobs and Co-Director Rose Plotek. After two years in the Theatre Centre’s Residency Program we will be premiering the work in Toronto in September.

There is a continuity between LEAR and BLOODY FAMILY as well as adaptations of The Brother Karamazov (BROTHERS Summerworks 2011), and La Voix Humaine (Zoofest 2009, MTL). The ambition to is try to take what was is exciting and transgressive and universal in these classic texts and make it uniquely accessible to modern audiences.


June 21: 2pm 

June 21: 8pm
June 22: 4pm 
June 23: 7pm 
June 24: 7pm

Spatz Theatre at Citadel High School

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