40 Years of Mermaid Theatre – Looking Back and Moving Forward

 Some random thoughts from Lee Lewis, Managing Director & Co-founder on the occasion of Mermaid’s 40th anniversary

It’s a nostalgic and rewarding time for me, as Mermaid prepares to send forth its fortieth spring tour.  By the time we raise the curtain on our homecoming show at MIPAC on June 9th, we will have brought the world more than 11,500 performances!  Time to boast a little . . .

Since our first awkward performances on stage at Acadia University’s Denton Hall in May 1972, Mermaid has entertained more than 4.5 million spectators on 4 continents, and earned renown as impressive ambassadors for Nova Scotia and for Canada. Certainly I had no idea, as I sat around my kitchen table with two friends so long ago, that the enterprise we launched would take on a life of its own.

Each of us brought an enthusiasm for the performing arts to a community, which had few outlets for creative expression during those days. Evelyn Garbary, a Welsh-born theatre artist and writer who was then Director of Drama at Acadia, was a vital partner.  Evelyn realized that many of her students had never seen professional theatre and that there was no path for aspiring professionals in the region to learn the craft.

Mermaid Theatre founders (L to R) Evelyn Garbary, Lee Lewis and Tom Miller

Tom Miller, an American expat and consultant to the Kings County school board, had been hired to develop an art curriculum, and to encourage teachers to incorporate these new skills in their programming. He discovered puppetry at a workshop at the former Nova Scotia Teachers College in Truro, and felt confident that local traditions of handcraft would make that art form a logical choice for the students and teachers he met with regularly.

As the third member of our triumvirate, I had immigrated to Nova Scotia from Montreal with a background in theatre administration as well as an interest in ethnology. As the mother of three kids who were attending the local school, I was dismayed to discover the lack of arts education, and the absence of attention to the culture of indigenous peoples. Tom, Evelyn and I resolved to take joint action upon learning that a new government employment program, the Local Initiative Projects (LIP), had been announced.

I sat down to write what was to be the first of many, many, many grant applications.  We proposed to provide entry-level professional training for university students with an interest in drama, as well as to enhance arts in education opportunities, We were successful in our bid, founded the company, hired nine graduating students from Evelyn’s drama classes, and chose the name Mermaid, which we felt was both fanciful and nautical.

In May 1972 we presented our first performance of THE NOSE at Aldershot School near Kentville, a school where Tom regularly taught and whose enlightened principal was willing to cancel gym classes in the interests of promoting the arts.  Our daily fee for presenting two performances totaled $15 – somewhat less than the fees we now command.

"The Nose" - 1972 (Pictured: Rob Black and Tom Miller)

Acadia’s administration was highly supportive of our early efforts, in appreciation, no doubt, of Evelyn’s exceptional energies and vision.  We rehearsed – without charge – at Convocation Hall, taking down and removing our sets and props each day and storing in the basement of Denton Hall. The office remained in my home for almost ten years, allowing me to meet  – most of the time – both domestic and professional obligations.

It soon became obvious that we could not continue to rely on the University for rehearsals, so Evelyn constructed a large garage-like structure at the back of her Main Street home. There, with cigarette in hand and with tea at the ready in her kitchen, Evelyn changed the lives of everybody with whom she came in contact.

After experimenting with different formats and stories, we discovered that the use of puppets and masks allowed us to explore the supernatural, magical and imaginary world much more effectively than the delivery of straight dialogue.  We also directed our efforts to young people and family audiences, a new and previously neglected field in Canada. Our approach was novel, and within two years had begun to attract attention outside the Province.

The rest, as they say, is history – some of it stormy, most of it exhilarating. You can read about it on the various pages of our website.

We’re proud of the distinguished alumni who began their careers on stage with Mermaid following studies at Acadia, foremost among them Jim Morrow, our Artistic Director, and Lisa Gleave, our General Manager. A good many performers, designers, production workers, and technicians got their professional start at Mermaid, and were inspired to seek a life in the arts after seeing one of our performances.  It pleases me enormously that we now have five people in our employ whose parents were earlier involved with Mermaid.

All Aboard! "Very Hungry Caterpillar" company in Singapore, 2011

And what a wealth of adventures they’ve enjoyed on their way to work!  They’ve been stranded by whiteouts in Hopedale, Labrador, and have floated down the Mekong River in Viet Nam. They’ve eaten freshly boiled goose in the Inuit community of Salluit, and the world’s finest dim sum in Hong Kong and San Francisco.  They’ve hiked to see the Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains, and the Temple of the Sun in Teotihuacán.  They’ve witnessed the sunrise in St. Anthony in Newfoundland and Labrador, and watched it set in Malibu. On their commutes across the continent, they regularly visit such cultural meccas such as Elvis’ Graceland home, New York’s Carnegie Deli, the casinos of Las Vegas and the L.L. Bean outlet store. They’ve performed calmly on stages around the world, knowing that celebrities such as Beau Bridges, Bill Gates and Jodie Foster were in the audience with their families. And they’ve returned home bringing memories and honours.

So perhaps you’ll understand why I’m reluctant to retire. I’ve now spent more than half my life as a puppet executive, and look forward to the challenges that tomorrow’s email may bring.

I salute my colleagues, and wish them Happy Birthday.

Lee Lewis

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