At a first glance, the Bus Stop Theatre does not stand out as a major hub of performance art in Halifax.
Nestled between apartment buildings, the Bus Stop looks like just another store on Gottingen Street.
Once inside, the main foyer does little to change this assumption. A bar is placed next to the bathrooms with its limited menu written in chalk above it. Several empty bottles lay strewn on tables and chairs, along with a layer of dust that has yet to be cleaned.
But past this room a pair of doors gives way to a larger space that is entirely dark and ready to be easily changed for any performance.
This space is the beating heart of Halifax theatre.
“We’re an anti-censorship space,” said King’s alumna Clare Waque, the managing director of the theatre. “We have wonderfully different groups that work here.”
The Bus Stop rents out its space to any performance group that can afford the rental price, which can run from $155 to over $1 000.
“We probably have eight or nine rentals of the Bus Stop Theatre every month,” said Waque. “We need to have that level of rentals or we can’t really pay our bills.”
Despite the constant flow of rentals and the prominent role the theatre plays in the acting community, the Bus Stop lacks the manpower to create bigger business. It relies solely on volunteers for help and, at the moment, Waque is the only consistently working volunteer.
“Every position gets filled by me,” she said wearily.
The limited nature of the Bus Stop is why Waque has decided to take it to another level.
“I would love to see the Bus Stop become a co-operative and that’s what we’re doing right now,” she revealed. “If the theatre can come together as an organization, we’ll have a lot more money than through just living off bar tips.”
“If the theatre can come together as an organization, we’ll have a lot more money than through just living off bar tips.”
– Clare Waque, Bus Stop Theatre managing director
This change at the Bus Stop serves as a perfect example of the overriding theme of Halifax theatre: the constant need to adapt and survive.
Actors in Halifax, many of whom are part of the over 900 members of the Atlantic Talent Agency, are constantly searching for different ways to get involved in the acting community. While there is an abundance of shows being put on by multiple theatre companies, not many can help to support an actor’s lifestyle.
“An actor can be as busy as he or she wants,” said Keith Morrison, a co-founder of Lions Den Theatre, a local company that often performs at the Bus Stop. “Now, whether or not that’s going to pay the bills, I can’t say. There are very few people who are making a living purely through acting.”
While Morrison and his company can pay their actors small wages, larger companies like Neptune Theatre, the biggest professional theatre company in Atlantic Canada, are able to provide their actors with higher wages, spending over $700 000 in actors’ wages and consulting fees in 2012. They are able to do this mostly due to their high box office revenue, which totaled $3.1 million in 2012 according to a financial report.
Neptune is also supported by securing yearly government grants. Last August Neptune was given $654,860 in government grants in honour of its 50th anniversary.
While Neptune can secure grants due to its high profile, smaller companies find it more difficult.
“It’s hard to get a grant unless you produce some work,” Waque said. “If there’s nowhere to do that, people can’t develop themselves as artists. That’s why the Bus Stop is so important.”
While grants can be helpful, some companies would prefer to be independent.
“We’re certainly open to government funding but at this point we’d like to be self-sufficient,” said Morrison.
Morrison is not a native of Halifax; he moved here from Cape Breton three years ago. Immigration is the lifeblood of Halifax theatre as it helps to stem the tide of actors who leave the province for more lucrative opportunities.
“Everyone always wants to go to Toronto for more theatre work,” said Dan Bray, another founder of Lions Den and amateur actor. “I’ve lived there and there’s a lot for you to do, but you’re also competing with a million other people for everything.”
“If I wanted to be a professional actor, there are probably more opportunities in Toronto.”
The allure of work in other provinces is a problem for all professions in Nova Scotia but one that may not be as dire as it seems. According to a Statistics Canada 2012 report, while 682 people from Nova Scotia leave the province per year, 587 people originally from the province return. This causes fluctuation in the acting community but not major changes.
“So many people are always coming in,” said Morrison. “We probably lose some very experienced people but that doesn’t seem to affect the overall product. There is such a wonderful mix here.”
Due to how the acting community changes so often, established actors are hesitant to support new companies.
“I’d like to see more support from the theatre community for Lions Den,” said Bray. “There are so many new companies that you have to be selective of which ones you support.”
“We need a tight community that will support each other,” said Waque of the Bus Stop.
While the current situation is not ideal, some are hopeful that the future will be brighter, as Magnetic North, a national theatre festival, is coming to Halifax in 2014.
“I think that’ll create a drive to produce quality theatre,” said Bray. “Hopefully there will be more money and opportunities but that’s pretty optimistic.”
“I don’t think it can get much worse,” said Waque. “I think it is getting better.”
For now, the Bus Stop and the theatre community will continue to survive without sacrificing their principles.
“We don’t do parties,” Waque said. “We do art.”