Susan Leblanc & Alex McLean

Artistic Directors of Zuppa Theatre

Leblanc: Bachelor of Arts (Hons.), Theatre, 1997; McLean: Bachelor of Arts (Hons.), Contemporary Studies and Theatre, 1996

The question, ‘what if’ is very important to us.

A long lasting collaboration, a relatively rare event in Canadian theatre, began one day when Alex McLean held auditions for a King’s Theatre Society (KTS) production he was to direct. Sue Leblanc had only just started acting but she gave it a shot. Sue got the part and as Alex recalls it, “When you meet someone who you know you can collaborate with, it’s just one of those moments when you just sort of know. And twenty years later we are still working together.”

And that collaboration has helped make Zuppa Theatre in Halifax an envelope-pushing company that one critic described as a “highly physical, devising-based company whose performances defy categorization…”.

Sue and Alex joined Zuppa in 1999, a year after Ben Stone and Sandy Gribbin created it. While Sandy has moved on to other ventures, Alex, Sue and Ben continue with the company. They share administrative responsibilities off stage but on stage Ben and Sue are the company’s actors, Alex the director. But it is how they work that has made Zuppa a success.

“We begin with an idea,” Sue says. They don’t have a preconceived notion of what that idea will become, but they count on, trust each other to build on it. “We bring where we are in our lives into the room and that implicitly affects the outcome of the show. We adapt to each other and meet each other where we are. That’s our collaboration.” 

And in a happy theatrical twist the two can trace their style of collaboration in part to the tutorials they had during the Foundation Year Program (FYP). As Alex says, “The tutorial structure is such a memorable and important part of FYP. You develop a group identity as you work through ideas together.”  Just like Zuppa.

An example: Alex had met a chef whom he thought would be an interesting collaborator for a Zuppa production. As a group they created Pop Up Love Party, a production that happens not on the stage but in restaurants.

“The question ‘what if’ is very important to us,” says Alex. What if theatre involved taste and smell? What if it wasn’t on a stage? What if there were no curtains?

Alex says, “Theatre is re-inventing itself. It’s happened before with radio and TV, and now with instant access to media that most people have, it is having a huge effect on where people go to get stories and dramatic experiences and how they want to interact with them. People are trying to figure out what the new contract is between a piece of theatre and its audience. What can a piece of theatre be?”

Just about anything it seems.

Another example, another collaboration: The Archive of Missing Things takes place in an actual library. Each member of the audience is given a laptop, headphones and a password. Live actors talk to the audience members through their headsets while they investigate the Archive of Missing Things. Kate Cayley (BAH’01) another King’s grad is the show’s writer. They brought in a computer programmer with a degree in applied theatre to build an interactive website for the production.

“We don’t put things into boxes. That’s very much how we work here,” Sue says.

Still, for all the innovation and boundary shifting they do, the world of Canadian theatre can be a precarious one when it comes to work and funding. Most of their King’s contemporaries went elsewhere to find work. And the Zuppa crew has to spend a good amount of time seeking sponsorships and grants for their productions. But the collaborators have no inclination to change. As Sue says, “For all of that, we are still really lucky. We don’t really have to work outside our theatre jobs. We do some teaching. But we don’t have to leave here.”

Lucky for audiences too.

Posted: Oct. 2016

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