The Bus Stop Theatre doesn't look like much. Ask for a tour, and managing director Clare Waqué will show you the small but newly renovated lobby; the short but newly painted black box stage; the cumbersome 70-year-old safes in the back room, remnants from the venue's former pharmacy days and her office, a small desk in an unfinished basement, with pipes hanging so low they seem tailor-made for the five-foot, four-inch manager herself. "Right now there's no money in the business to pay anyone for the actual operations," explains Waqué, 24, who's helmed all the renovations herself since buying the space this past March. "There's no operating budget. So we work contract-to-contract, and that's when we're able to pay ourselves."
The Bus Stop is practically devoted to poverty. Look into its beyond-reasonable rental prices, and you can see why it's becoming the focal point for so much of Halifax's emerging theatre scene. There's the Queer Acts Theatre Festival, which started at the Bus Stop last year because of its location on Gottingen Street, an area recently dubbed Halifax's "gay village;" or the barely year-old Once Upon a Theatre Collective, made up of eager university students with little to no money of their own. "We're pretty much all volunteers except for when someone's renting the venue," says Evan Brown, the theatre's technical director and one of five individuals who help run the place. "And then when someone rents the venue, then we're kinda flipping the coin to see which one of us gets paid."
And then there's the Atlantic Fringe Festival, putting up six plays at the Bus Stop starting next week. It's the Stop's third year with the festival, and Brown puts it best: "It doesn't get more fuckin' fringe than us." That relationship is more valuable this year than ever: after approximately 14 years, Neptune's Studio Theatre will not be part of the festival's venue roster. "They wanted to basically do a ticket system, and there would've been a charge for that," explains Atlantic Fringe director Ken Pinto, adding that Neptune's system would have necessitated raising ticket prices for each performance therein. Neptune's sales and marketing manager, Jennie King, responded that this rule was put in place sometime late last year, and has since been squarely in effect for all renters "to help balance out our costs."
This makes the Bus Stop arguably Fringe's most established theatre space, relative to the Khyber, Cooke's, DANSpace and the Plutonium Playhouse. "It's a really great opportunity for us to sort of find our clientele," Waqué says of the festival. "Often we have people that do a Fringe show here who will come back."
She's referring to Once Upon a Theatre Collective---a handful of Halifax-born university students who met teaching at the Neptune's summer camps. They started the collective after creating and debuting 11:11 at the Bus Stop for last year's Fringe, and have since returned to the Gottingen venue several times. Their latest collaboration will be a series of short plays on August 26, with proceeds helping the Bus Stop afford new stage lights---a gesture to thank Waqué for the support she's given the collective since its inception.
"I don't want to feel like I have to go to Toronto to have a career," says Lesley Smith, one of the collective's founding members. "What I would love to see, is if there were more Haligonians who are interested in theatre who weren't associated with theatre, and, 'Instead of spending 12 bucks at the movie theatre, I'm gonna go spend 10 or 15 or 20 at the Bus Stop.' That's what I want to see happen."
Once Upon fits the Bus Stop's mandate: promoting artistic expression in Halifax, regardless of age or money. It's a mandate that was set out by Howard Beye almost seven years ago, when he first bought the north end building and began personally renovating it into a black box theatre. Since then, it's housed many of the city's top theatre companies---DaPoPo, LunaSea, 2b, Eastern Front---and was only put up for sale about 18 months ago, when Beye decided to pursue other projects.
Lee-Anne Poole, who would later co-found Plutonium Playhouse with Thom Fitzgerald, took over management for about a year. She raised the venue's professional profile, but couldn't raise the money to buy it outright. That's when Waqué stepped in: "It fit into what I wanted to do in terms of international development studies and philosophy, in some strange way," she says, referring to her university degree. Waqué had worked for a property management firm during university, and when she graduated, the firm had planned on selling her properties, presuming she would leave the city. Instead, she urged them to sell the properties anyway, but used the money to back her investment in the Bus Stop.
Waqué plans to take her vision one step further this year by officially turning the Bus Stop into a non-profit, community-based organization. They're hosting an open forum to publicly explain the idea on September 20, with whiteboards hung across the walls for anyone to walk in and write down suggestions. "It's a space for emerging artists to present things in a professional manner," she says. "And those emerging artists should be a part of the creation of the space."
"We're not distinguishing who's professional and who's amateur," Brown adds. "We're a rental venue. We're affordable. We're for artists."