It's a sunny Sunday morning outside Neptune Theatre's carpentry shop, an inconspicuous spot tucked away on Creighton Street in north end Halifax. With the smell of sawdust mingling with the freshness of spring's potential, a group of volunteers work together lugging carefully crafted rectangular flats of wood---there are 52 of them in all, each 14 feet tall---from the shop and into the back of a waiting truck. Their final destination is Dartmouth's Alderney Landing Theatre, where they'll be assembled into the set for Homage, the latest play by 2b theatre company.
Even playwright and 2b's co-director Anthony Black, surveying the maneuvering, admits he was surprised by the scale of the set, especially as he wraps his head around getting it installed in the theatre---a venture he says will require the lifting of each flat over the balcony's rails in order to squeeze them into the performance space. But it'll be well worth it. Once installed, the pieces will form an 80-seat theatre-in-the-round built to feel like a monumental wooden sculpture; one that the audience will be seated inside. It will be a fitting experience.
After all, Homage is a play about the value of art, the question of legacy and (surprise!) public sculpture. It's based on the true story of Haydn Llewellyn Davies, a Canadian sculptor who came to art-making in his 50s after leaving a successful career as an advertising executive. Black was inspired to write the play after reading a Globe and Mail article in 2005 about Davies, who was then embroiled in a dispute over one of his public sculptures.
Polishing off plates of eggs and large mugs of coffee at a crowded Halifax breakfast spot, Black and co-artistic producer Christian Barry, who also co-directed the play, laugh as they think back on their decision to contact Davies and tell him about their idea of putting his story on the stage. "We Googled his phone number," says Barry, remembering the call, "we had total butterflies in our stomachs." Fortunately, Davies, who was in his 80s at the time, was keen on the idea. He, Black and Barry then met in Toronto, where they talked for hours over tea.
But it wasn't until early 2007 that the plans for Homage really kicked into high gear. Black and Barry were at Stratford when they ran into the guy in charge of new play development. "He asked us what we were up to," says Black, "and suggested working with us on one of our projects." That soon got them an invitation to workshop an idea. "And that," laughs Black, "meant I really had to write a draft."
Because sculpture is at the heart of Homage, the duo later approached architect Peter Blackie for ideas about how to integrate a sculptural element into the set design. "The challenge was to come up with a piece that would support the subject matter of the play, but walk a fine line where it didn't defuse any power of the play," says Blackie, who had done some film production work but had barely dabbled in set design. The team settled on a Stonehenge-inspired abstract design made of wood that would achieve the magnitude the plot required, but which could still read as fragile and transparent when lit from behind.
"It was really the idea of permanence and impermanence," says Blackie, gesturing at a delicate drawing of the impressive set in his notebook, "that was the real idea that we worked with."
Steering the conversation to avoid giving away the play's ending, Barry describes a story that's firmly based in questions of art ownership and legacy. "It touches on themes of what we leave behind...and what we expect to leave behind, not just as artists, but as people, whether it's art...or children. It's a play about man versus time, in a way. It contextualizes our aspirations to leave something behind when we're against the vast and onward march of time."
"And entropy and the inevitability of decay," adds Black with a smile.
As theatre people, both Black and Barry are acutely aware of the effect of impermanence on their art form, referencing theatre's "ephemeral nature," along with the fleeting nature of art and ideas. "The event really only lasts for an hour and a half, and that's it," says Barry.
"Our only hope for continued existence is for it to live on in the minds of the audience." (Laughing about the play's limited run, Black jokes, "Talk about impermanence, eh?" quickly adding that he hopes the play will have a touring life.)
Homage's world premiere will feature performances by David Hughes as Davies and Barbara Gordon as his wife, Eva, along with Hugh Thompson, Ann-Marie Kerr, Gordon Gammie, Hugo Dann and Karen Basset playing a community of more than 20 characters. Unfortunately, Haydn Davies won't be in the audience on opening night. In an unexpected plot twist, he died last March at age 86 from complications related to liver and lung cancer. Perfect Homage, however, will still be paid.
Homage, March 22-29 at Alderney Landing Theatre. Show dates, times and tickets at 2btheatre.com.