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The original precedent for Neptune Theatre was Nova Scotia's first French language theatrical presentation, Marc Lescarbot's Le Theatre de Neptune en la Nouvelle-France in 1606.The impetus to found a repertory theatre in Halifax was spurred on by the Canada Council's encouragement of establishing regional theatres in the late 1950s. Local Halifax politicians supported the endeavor, believing it would aid city development and help to attract additional tourists. Neptune's first repertory season was in 1963-1964. Neptune was also the first completely year-round theatre in Canada.
In the early years, Neptune produced a variety of plays in an attempt to appeal to a broad audience. However, attendance numbers typically were only around fifty percent of capacity and the theatre started to experience the first of many financial hard times. Subscription series were introduced in 1967 to help counteract these problems. Neptune was also supported by a variety of grants, including some from the Canada Council as well as from all three levels of government.
Neptune has produced many Canadian-authored plays, including several commissioned specifically for them over the years. From the start, Neptune attempted to reach a wide audience by touring one or two productions each year on a regional basis, beginning in 1963. The first nation-wide tour was in 1967. Neptune also produced several world premieres in its early years, including Michael Cook's Colour the Flesh the Colour of Dust (1972).
In the early 1970s, the decision was made to have a single season from November to August rather than continuing the year-round schedule. It was too expensive to maintain a full company for that time period. It was also difficult to attract many of Canada's best performers to stay in Halifax for long periods of time. Therefore, rather than attempt to remain a repertory company, Neptune became a stock company during this time.
In the 1971-1972 season, Neptune's Studio Theatre was created. This second stage produced more experimental works as well as workshop-style productions. It was dependent upon government grants and, due to a lack of such monies, disappeared after the 1973-1974 season. It was later reinitiated by Tom Kerr in the 1985-1986 season under the name "Neptune North," and later in the 1990s as the "Studio Series."
The community took an active interest in Neptune. This was first concretely demonstrated by the creation of The Tritons, or Children of Neptune. This was a group of young people who wanted to know more about Neptune and it served as the forerunner of the Theatre School, later established by Tom Kerr in 1983. In 1973-1974, a Student Theatre Company was formed jointly with the Halifax School Board. However, it was quickly abandoned after only two seasons.
During these early years, it became progressively clear that the physical resources of the Neptune Theatre, namely the building and theatre equipment, were lacking. This acknowledgement was the start of a quest to improve these facilities. Various renovations were conducted over the years, but the desire for a new theatre building remained a passionate goal. Studies were conducted and plans were drawn up in the early 1980s to create a joint Neptune and Art Gallery complex on the Halifax waterfront. These plans were abandoned due to a lack of financial backing. Neptune also considered redeveloping the existing building with the addition of a second stage during the 1980s. This dream finally came to fruition in 1997 with the construction of a wholly renovated building, complete with a second stage.
The financial situation worsened as the theatre's deficit mounted from 1974 to 1977. In 1978, Artistic Director John Wood was replaced by John Neville (Artistic Director 1978-1983), who worked to correct the financial situation by instigating several changes and programs. New managerial staff was hired to help improve the financial area through new subscription campaigns and by appealing to the business sector for sponsorship.
An actor of international stature, Neville helped to promote Neptune locally and abroad. He kept himself visible to the greater community by acting in several plays and helped to increase Neptune's community exposure with the creation of the Young Neptune Company, a professional company that conducted extensive school tours throughout the region. Neville also instituted the artist-in-residence program in 1981-1982 and attempted to increase the accessibility of theatre to the community with the lunchtime productions. These productions became difficult to maintain alongside main stage productions and were phased out after the 1983-1984 season.
Tom Kerr maintained the Young Neptune Company, the artist-in-residence program, and also added the Apprentice Directors' Program in 1983. He also founded the Neptune Theatre School in 1983 with the help of Irene Watts.
Today, Neptune remains a multi-faceted organization with main stage productions, Studio Series productions, a Young Neptune Company, and a successful Theatre School. There will surely be many more seasons to come.