The Neptune Theatre has an “A” level. This is where the administrative offices are located, on the floor above the main foyer. There is a long, carpeted hall, its walls spotted with glossy promotional posters of past shows and interrupted by offices on both sides. At the hall’s end is the Pratt & Whitney studio, a large, comfortable space with scuffed floors and a bank of windows looking out over Argyle Street. It’s here, on Valentine’s Day, the four-person, five-character cast of the new 2B Theatre/Neptune Theatre production Soul Alone has their first stumble through the script.
Tense would be the wrong word. The atmosphere is taut. The energy is up, and the performers are pacing. It’s 10 days before opening night, seven before previews. The director, Anthony Black, offers a few words of encouragement sotto voce, but projecting with “…try and get that into your minds and bodies.” The stage manager asks if he’s ready. “As ready as I’ve ever been,” he says. And it begins.
The set is minimal. The actors hit their marks, and quite suddenly one is enveloped in the story. A couple’s daughter is taken ill. She is in a coma. Then her sister, a twin, begins to behave strangely.
On the centre of the stage is a flat, rectangular game board. It’s covered in cells and numbers, not unlike hopscotch. In the middle stands a model of a human head, such as the kind used in high school biology classes, with a cutaway brain easily removable in colourful pie slices.
This board appears in a central scene of Soul Alone. On one side, lean academic Dr. Ian Grey (Conor Green) argues his clinically scientific perspective of the nature of human consciousness and on the other, a petite redheaded girl (Allison MacDougall) who claims her body is housing her twin’s soul, argues her more pragmatic agenda. As the discussion continues, the characters slowly move from the outside to the centre of the board, to the head, by making salient points for their argument, bringing up both Descartes and hard, medical fact. It’s a game, a chess match and a moment of symbolism, exercised with a bit of humour, in the midst of a serious drama. It’s typical of the kind of chances that Soul Alone takes with structure and narrative.
Soul Alone is a big show for the Halifax-based, independent 2B Theatre, started by Black and his friend, fellow writer/director Christian Barry. The co-production with Neptune allows for 2B, which has produced work such as Manners of Dying, Cherry Docs and Etiquette, to reach a much broader audience than they have before. Soul Alone is a flagship for 2B to let people know what they can do and will continue to do in successive shows, whether in a Neptune space or elsewhere. It’s also the first professional show for the talented young performer Allison MacDougall, and the first Halifax boards being trod on by Ann-Marie Kerr, a director, actor and teacher, who also happens to be Black’s wife.
Black co-wrote Soul Alone with Toronto writer/performer Green. The story is about a couple, the open-minded father Ron (Michael Pellerin) and the psychiatrist mother, Natasha (Kerr), with twin 14-year-olds, Samantha (MacDougall) and Angela (also MacDougall). When Samantha has a brain aneurysm, it seems that her personality, her soul, displaces Angela’s. Angela thinks, or rather, believes she is Samantha, though there is a great deal of debate as to what is actually happening, between the parents and Dr. Grey, who is taking care of the Samantha’s comatose body, as well as from Samantha/Angela herself. What follows is an exploration into issues of identity, of spirituality, of what is real and tactile and what is ethereal without being high-handed or overly academic. Black and Green consulted a variety of experts when writing the play, including Black’s cousin, who is studying neuroscience. “I didn’t know just how much intellectual heritage there is behind this question, of the relationship between the mind and the body, from Plato through Karl Popper,” says Black.
Following the stumble through the cast and director are relaxed, eating lunch in the studio. MacDougall has brought “aneurysm cookies,” chocolate-chocolate chip delights with a red streak of icing to represent the burst blood vessel in her character’s brain. But for a few line readings, the actors are now breathing inside their characters, and the show is well on its way to being complete. The research, the brainstorming, the long hours of practice have brought them here, and though Black knows there are many hours of work yet to be done, the dark-haired, 28-year-old has an easy way about him.
“The first phase of this project began at NTS”—The National Theatre School, in Montreal—“in 2003,” Black reads in a slightly stentorian voice from his playwright’s notes. “To create a workshop text through structured improv and experimentation.” The show continued to be workshopped last May in one of the many spaces in the labyrinthine Neptune Theatre, and then again in November. In May it was quite a bit longer, more an episodic collection of ideas and scenes that jumped in and out of conventional storytelling and timelines, without the more rigid, streamlined story arc in which it now appears. All the thematic elements were there, but it was unclear whose story was being told. Now, the questions are framed and characters are defined by their actions as well as words, though a certain delicious ambiguity remains, particularly in the final act. “We sort of let the formless questions form themselves over the summer,” Black says, off script. “In November we tried five different ways of reordering the scenes. We even tried running all the scenes backwards, like Pinter’s Betrayal.”
Blind River, Ontario-born Ann-Marie Kerr has a wealth of national and international experience in theatre which she brings to bear in this show. The 40-year-old is a graduate from both the theatre program at York University in Toronto and the Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, and has worked with Soulpepper Theatre and co-created and performed work with Theatre Smith Gilmour, both in Toronto. She’s involved administratively with the Magnetic North Festival and has taught theatre at Dalhousie, the National Arts Centre and at NTS.
It was there, a little over four years ago, that she met Black, though she’s quick to point out he wasn’t one of her students (“He dropped out before the first day because he found out a more famous teacher was teaching the same course. The last day I was there we had our first conversation”). They married in the summer of 2004 at Black’s family home near Mahone Bay. Kerr can’t hide the thrill of finally doing a project here in Halifax. “It feels like coming home to my new home, my new life. It marks the beginning of my relationship with the theatre and community at large. And I’m so excited to be directed by Anthony. It’s the first opportunity I’ve had to work with someone in an intimate way, and to be encouraged in ways he knows I have. I know… it’s kind of grody.”
Anthony Black was born and bred here in Halifax, in the west and south end, the son of former Maritime Life CEO and recent Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Bill Black. He grew up in a household that greatly encouraged creative thinking and expression as evidenced by his brother and sister, both of whom sing, write songs and play guitar. Anthony plays and sings as well, but his writing goes into theatre instead of music. He attended York in the theatre program in the late ’90s, some years after Kerr, before meeting her at NTS. It was at York he met Conor Green and recognized a kindred creative interest that has endured, bringing them to this collaboration. “I was interested in meeting really talented people so I could mooch off their ability,” Black jokes.
Soul Alone isn’t the only thing Black and his cronies have under their hats. In March, he will star in Invisible Atom on the Neptune stage, though in this case 2B Theatre will be producing the show itself, and only renting the studio from Neptune. Invisible Atom is a one-man show Black originally staged at Festival Antigonish in the summer of 2004, about a man looking at his life in flashback on the moment he chooses to jump off a bridge. Kerr will direct, as she did in 2004. If there is any doubt as to the couple’s triple-barrelled ability to switch roles between acting, writing and directing, these two productions will smack it down. “It will give our audience a rare opportunity to get a sense of continuity,” says Black. 2B Theatre “is usually a year between productions and so it’s hard to keep us in people’s minds. This is good opportunity to give them a one-two punch.”
Neptune Theatre’s mandate includes the intent “to foster young talent and enrich our community.” They certainly are doing so in this association, a first with a local independent theatre company. Neptune executives would not comment on whether this is the beginning of more of such collaborations or represents a change in their creative direction, but sitting in the cavernous Neptune rehearsal studio, his actors arrayed about him, Black is simply excited to be under their wing and for the opportunity for 2B to launch this show from the Neptune stage to points beyond.
“I told Ron”—Ulrich, Neptune’s artistic director— “about this play, and he was interested in it,” says Black. “They’ve pretty much let us do our thing.” Black hopes there will be additional collaborations between Halifax indie theatre and Neptune in the future. “I hope that this show is a hit for lots of reasons, but one of the big ones is that it would be great for original shows to be coming on here, good original shows. I hope this is one of them.”
Soul Alone, February 24 to March 12, Neptune Studio, 1593 Argyle, 8pm (4pm & 8:30pm Saturday, 2pm & 7:30pm Sunday) $15-$35, 429-7070