Susan Leblanc laughs from a set of scaffolding and snow fencing that stands about 11 feet high. She’s just finished her second-to-last performance of The Debacle in its fall remount at Armbrae Academy.
The play about family and loss was developed by Susan and director Ann-Marie Kerr, her close friend. It takes place in an attic where a woman desperately tries to preserve memories of her sister by literally freezing them.
“We talked about what was important to us and what preoccupied us because we wanted to make something that was close to us,” Leblanc told me the first time I spoke to her—back in November 2011.
The play’s been nominated for many awards without any wins, hence the cheeky name of its “always a bridesmaid” remount. Susan, 39, performs the solitary role, Margaret.
But she’s also an artistic director of local theatre company Zuppa Theatre, with her close friends Alex McLean and Ben Stone. She’s a teacher too, running workshops and participating in programs at Armbrae Academy, Dalhousie and in the Halifax Regional School Board.
She’s also, as of nine months ago, a mother.
With her daughter, Françoise, not sleeping through the night yet, she says it’s hard to rile up the energy to perform. She’s dedicated to the show, though, and she’s managed it.
Leblanc’s life has always been theatrical. When she was little, she used to create radio shows with her best friend and pretend that she was playing piano for the queen to get herself through practicing.
“I’d act out a whole thing where I’d walk in, and bow, and play my little song, which was a crappy, little song from my songbook,” she says. “And then I’d bow again.”
After three years in pursuit of a history degree, Susan switched over into Dalhousie’s acting program, inspired by a western theatre course taught by Craig Duffy, who was filling in for someone on sabbatical.
“His energy and his excitement about it all lit a fire for me,” she says.
Susan credits her second year in the acting program as the time she knew that being in theatre was what she wanted to do. It was the training, she says, and meeting her best friend and future co-artistic director, Alex, who cast her in his King’s Theatrical Society play, The Balcony by Jean Genet. The KTS, and its “black box” theatre space, the Pit, gave her insight into alternative ways of staging a show. Alex, who was a year ahead of her, inspired her.
“I felt like he must’ve thought I was a good actor, because he cast me in his play and I was a total unknown,” she says.
“He gave me a lead role in his play and I really loved that experience. He was a really strong influence on me.”
After that show, where they would dance to “Coming Together” by The Box on a Persian rug before every performance, a strong theatrical partnership began. They worked with now defunct experimental theatre troupe Primus Theatre when they came to Dalhousie to do workshops. They also became a part of Zuppa Theatre, operated by Ben Stone and Sandy Gribbin.
“[Alex and I] met, and we started working together, and we have never stopped, basically.”
These 13 years of Susan’s involvement with Zuppa, with her, Alex and Ben always at the core, haven’t been easy. They’ve been crazy, she says, and “really fun.” She remembers staying up all night working on shows in “crappy” rehearsal spaces, trying to cram in those three hours between “15 jobs.”
“When we did Nosferatu,” she says, speaking of the first Zuppa show she worked on in 1999, “we worked well into the night, and well into the overnights, because we had to grab rehearsal time when we could. We rehearsed in the abandoned hospital, the old infirmary hospital. … We were freaked out. There was no power in most of the hospital. We’d have to go through these dingy, dark stairwells and stuff to try to find our rehearsal room, with a flashlight.”
Times are better—but not perfect—now that they have funding from Canada Council for the Arts. They’ll be staging their next show, Attaining Gigantick Dimensions from Apr. 12 to 21, at the Neptune Studio Theatre. It’s highly anticipated after their hugely successful play Five Easy Steps (to the end of the world)—which won three Theatre Nova Scotia Merritt Awards—and the following The Debacle and Slowly I Turn, Ben’s solo show.
Performance is a hard job that Susan loves. Nevertheless, she admits it just comes by luck sometimes. She laughs her way through a story from the last scene of one of her favourite Dal Theatre performances—Elizabeth Proctor in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Susan wears glasses, and in the show, she didn’t have her contacts.
“(Sarah, the actress playing Rebecca Nurse, and I) would have this look across the stage at each other, just this knowing look. I wasn’t wearing contacts in the show, so I actually couldn’t see Sarah’s face, but every night she’s come offstage and be like, ‘Our look was really good tonight, wasn’t it? We really connected in that look.’ And I’d be like, ‘Mhm, it was a really good look.’ But I obviously couldn’t see her.”
About 15 years later, on that tiny, towering stage, Susan smiles through her remaining tears from the emotion of The Debacle, her glasses once again absent.
In the earliest moments of the show, Margaret looks in wonder around her, having ignored a ringing telephone that torments her periodically throughout the show.
Back in the coffee shop where I’m talking to her, Susan says, in this run of the show, she draws that wonder from Françoise, who’s at the age where she’s discovering her surroundings.
“Being a mom has cracked my heart open a little bit,” Susan says. “It’s really hard, because I love her so much that it’s painful. It’s almost painful how much I love her.”
She looks down at her daughter and smiles gently, as she has intermittently over the course of our interview.
“It does make you very emotionally vulnerable, which is only good for performance. It can only affect my performance in a good way.”
Date submitted: March 2013