Tom Kerr, artistic director of Neptune Theatre since 1983, has had a difficult job. In a theatre that depends heavily on box office receipts just to survive, a balance between innovation and economics doesn't come easy.

Interview by John Stevenson


This is Tom Kerr's last season as Neptune Theatre's artistic director. In the spring he will be moving to Toronto where he'll working with another former artistic director of Neptune, John Neville, at the Stratford Festival. He leaves behind a few notable accomplishments, among them a number of house and box office records, a theatre school of his own creation and a new alternative theatre company, Neptune North. He also leaves behind considerable criticism from both inside and outside the theatre community that he has not used enough local plays or players and that he took the safe road when he should have taken artistic risks.

I spoke with Tom Kerr soon after the opening of his latest show, Victory, written by Canadian playwright Tom MacDonnell. Victory follows a Halifax family through the last days of WWII and the V-E Day Riots.

Stevenson In what theatrical tradition do you see Victory? I ask because it seems more of a musical revue than a play and somewhat lacking in dramatic conflict.

Kerr I do see it as part revue and I do see dramatic conflict in it. I started off hoping I would see it totally as a play, and as we progressed, I found I wanted to do it in a revue style. I took the chance. I didn't know if it would come off. I personally think that it does. In one place I don't think it does come off, but that doesn't bother me. If that much comes off, I'm very thrilled with it.

I think we have to be a little courageous and imaginative and daring. Some people may have different definitions of what that is ...

I think there's an awful lot said about the futility of war, and you don't have to. write it in eighteen acts, if you say it well. There's a scene between Flo Patterson and David Brown, when she says that VE day is not a victory for her. It was broadcast on CBC's Morningside, and Peter Gzowski really raved about it. I'll be very happy with that, but I wont be smug about it. I think there's work to be done.

Anytime you have a brand new work, there's always room for rewrites. Mr. MacDonnell and I have been in constant touch. There are four or five scenes he wants to rewrite from scratch.

Stevenson Why does the play take place during the V-E day riots? The show certainly doesn't concentrate on them.

Kerr The play is about wartime Halifax, and the riots to me were a catalyst that changed the idea some of the characters had about the war. If I had wanted to do it about the riots, Tom MacDonnell has a suburb radio documentary which has been acclaimed nationally. I could have done that. It might have been much safer than what we did, but it wasn't interesting. I researched the riots, just as I would research the rise and fall of Nazi Germany if I was doing a Brecht, and I didn't find the cause of the riots interesting.

I was more interested in trying to explore how people endure the sort of war-time pressures that no other city in Canada felt. I don't know if we even got that far with it... There's a lot more to do, from many angles.

Stevenson Many people, including Dalhousie theatre professor Alan Andrews, have criticized Neptune for being unimaginative. What do you say to those critics?

Kerr Well, this town has more critics than buses, more than any town I've been in, in Canada.

I don't necessarily choose my own season. I would love to do Ibsen's Peer Gynt, or The Cherry Orchard, or Brecht's Mother Courage. Do you really see me doing that in this theatre, in the only game in town? Would I do that to suit Alan Andrews? When we were planning for Torch Song

Trilogy, everyone said, you'd better not do it, you'll get run out of town. I do Sexual Perversity In Chicago, and they say, better not, too many "fucks" in that. And then one critic of the many in town says that we have a light seasoni I mean, Torch Song Trilogy, Children Of A Lesser God, and Sexual Perversity, and that's a light season? I mean, what would they like?

Stevenson Many people would like, as you say, some Brecht...

Kerr I would love it. I would adore it. But how many of the critics would come? That's what gets me about it. You know, I think Alan Andrew's criticism would be my criticism...

I consider West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet in repetory for the first time professionally in the world quite daring.

Stevenson Does that bother you?

Kerr No, because I think he's quite right. He has to say these things. If I'm in this job, I have to accept it. At the same time, I've got much more practical experience than he does. I'm not doing theoretical work here.

As I said, I would love to do Edward Bond and Brecht. I'm sure he would like to see that too, so we totally agree on that. The thing that does bother me is that when we did The Crackwalker, our critics stayed away in droves. Where were these great people with all their wonderful adventurism? I'll see a lot of them at the opening night of Anne Mortifee, or Victory. And, quite frankly, I'd prefer to see them at The Crackwalker.

So I think I share a lot of thoughts with some of the critics. If those people didn't take the time to criticize, it would be a much duller theatre than they think.

Stevenson What sort of professional theatre do you think the city can support?

Kerr I don't know what the city can take. I really don't know that. As I've said many times, I would love to see a theatre across the street that did collectives, and one up the road that did only classical works. Maybe then I'd be doing something else.

From the first moment I arrived here, my feeling was that the city should have more alternative theatre. I called a meeting of every theatre that called themselves professional. There were about twenty-two people around the table here. Eva Moore from the Nova Scotia Drama League was the only non-professional. I suggested to them that they find a common place to perform. I thought that maybe if three companies staged two shows each, that would be a kind of alternative theatre that wouldn't be Neptune. But none of the pros did it. The one that purchased the space was the only non-professional there, Eva Moore.

I also think the university theatre is very important to the community. They're the ones who can really afford to be experimental. Most regional theatres cant afford to do that, or to do the classics.

Stevenson Neptune depends on box for a large portion of it's revenue. Is box office the major consideration when you plan your season?

Kerr You've obviously done your research, and you know that Neptune has one of the highest attendance percentages of any theatre in Canada. So I could answer yes, but I think that would be the wrong answer.

Audiences are quite fickle, you know. The last good show sells the next one, and a bad show could kill a season. I took over after a season which I think everyone agreed was not the most illustrious of John Neville's years here. In planning the next season, I had to build for what I thought would happen. I opened with a big musical and a Shakespeare. The second year, I did the same thing. Now this year, I didn't want to do the same thing, so I took a chance on Anne Mortifee. Why? Well, she's a tremendous performer with an idea. Did it work? I don't know, maybe it didn't. But do we take those chances? Yeah, we do.

I think we have to be a little courageous and imaginative and daring. Some people may have different definitions of what that is. Daring for Mr. Andrews may be very dull productions of what he considers great works, but that's not my idea of it. I consider West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet in repertory for the first time professionally in the world quite daring. And I think it's daring to ask some of the kids who are getting raves in the Toronto production of Cats to try Shakespeare. I think it's daring when we take kids right out of the Dalhousie acting program and put them on tour with young Neptune.

Stevenson Doesn't Neptune do most of it's casting out of Toronto?

Kerr Well, if you read the programs, you wouldn't say that, because it's not true.

Before John Neville left Neptune, I came here to direct a show, and I invited all the local theatre artists to coffee. Quite a crowd came. The first thing they told me was that John Neville didn't use local artists. Well, I had come prepared for that, and I had brought a program from each of the past three artistic directors. John Neville had used more local people than any of the others. In the program I had, for a production of Medea, Neville had used sixteen locals out of eighteen artists. Since then, I've used the highest number of local artists of any artistic director in the twenty-three years of Neptune's history.

From the first moment I arrived here, my feeling was that the city should have more alternative theatre.

Stevenson But you can't hire them all...

Kerr No. The first year I was here I had sort of a personal problem dealing with the fact that I couldn't put all the local theatre artists to work. I had to realize that with only six plays a year, you couldn't do it. You would get the customer saying, we don't want to see him again. I had to adjust to that.

Stevenson It often seems that the best artists Halifax produces leave the city for Toronto or Montreal.

Kerr Well, I've worked in most major cities in Canada, and I don't find that problem unique to Halifax. Any actor worth his salt would want to get the influences of other cities, with other directors and designers and actors. On the other hand, and again I think it's not unique, there are people here in Halifax who say they're not going to go anywhere else, and who want to make a living in theatre. I think that's expecting a lot. I believe that if you've got the talent, you'll be working everywhere, and if you're smart, you'll want to.

For example, I think that we have three great, and I mean top, Canadian actresses who come from Halifax and work across the country. One of them is Florence Patterson, who's been nominated God knows how many times for the Actra Award. Another is Joan Gregson, who was in Noises Off and Children Of A Lesser God. They're superb. I have trouble getting them to work because they're always working.

Stevenson Have you been frustrated working in Halifax?

Kerr No, not a bit. I've loved it. Well, I'm frustrated right now because I'm leaving, and I feel that the next season could have been very exciting. I would have loved to have done a classical rep for three big shows, and maybe three original shows as well.

No. I'm not the least bit frustrated. In fact, I could afford to be very smug when I've broken, two years in a row, twenty-two years of house records

Space has been a frustration. It would be wonderful if we had a little more space. The technical staff here go right to the limit.

Stevenson There has been talk for many years now about a new building for Neptune, on the waterfront. Whatever became of that?

Kerr That is a buck that has been passed for many years now. When I came here, I was asked, do you want a theatre on the waterfront? My answer was, which part of the waterfront? Where is this lot? Who owns it? Now everyone keeps mum about it, and it seems we're deciding about it. Someone is keeping mum about the fact that they haven't given the lot to us. The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia was given a place on the waterfront. How long did that last? Three weeks?^

I think it is one of the biggest red herrings the Maritimes have ever seen. It's time people realized that there never was a place on the waterfront. I consider the thing utter bullshit. I'd like to be more practical the waterfront isn't there and, eventually, we're going to need more space. What are we going to do?

New Works, March, 1986