Hapax Theatre has ambitions for a long life in Victoria.
SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO, in the spring of 2002, one of my Belfry 101 audience education program students asked me where he could go and do more theatre after he graduated from Vic High. I sent him to Langham Court Theatre, where he has since volunteered on stage and off in over 40 productions. This former student of mine is now the youngest recipient of the Langham Honorary Lifetime Membership Award, and his youthful portrait can be seen hanging alongside elders in the theatre’s lounge. Chad Laidlaw is the student’s name, and he and his now wife, Heather Jarvie, met while working together at Langham.
Heather’s story also involves a commitment to the performing arts, but starting at an even younger age. She was performing professionally onstage as a dancer while still a child, and as a competitive highland dancer she won both national and international medals. Jarvie is also a pianist and trained with Robert Holliston at the Victoria Conservatory of Music. After training in theatre at Capilano College in Vancouver and at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York, Jarvie realized her interests lay in that direction. Back in Victoria, she became one of the youngest directors ever to lead a show at Langham Court. She went on to be an artist-in-residence at Pacific Opera Victoria and at the Icelandic Opera in Reykjavík (while Laidlaw finished his M.A. in linguistics there).
Chad Laidlaw and Heather Jarvie
Following another contract as development officer at the POV, and as guest producer of the Fringe, she and her husband decided that what they really wanted to do was to start a theatre company.
Hapax Theatre launched last year, with Jarvie as artistic director and Laidlaw taking on technical challenges such as lighting and sound design. The word “hapax” (hah-pax) is a linguistic term meaning that a word only appears once within a given body of text. The company presented two shows in its first year: Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor’s A Beautiful View and a hit one-man play at the Fringe Festival, The Boy in the Chrysalis. This year the company is producing three plays: MacIvor’s In On It (in April); Constellations by Nick Payne (July 5-12); and, in November, local playwright Janet Munsil’s Be Still, a fictional play inspired by the multiple-exposure work of Victorian photographer Hannah Maynard. A fourth Fringe production, a musical version of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven,” is called Nevermore.
I met the couple for coffee to hear more about their plans for Hapax. They agreed that starting a theatre company is a foolhardy venture, but expressed their commitment to establishing the company, and to keeping it in Victoria. “This is the city that provided us with so many opportunities when we were starting out,” said Jarvie. Laidlaw agreed, adding, “We want to be a part of building the theatre community here, with good projects and with good people, and to operate our company ethically and professionally.”
“Staying and working in Victoria should feel like an option for young and emerging theatre artists,” Jarvie told me, “rather than having to move to Vancouver or Toronto.” And while the company has just gained its non-profit status, it will be another year before Hapax is eligible for grant funding. So up until now their shows have been self-funded, with the goal to break-even or to make a small profit to share with the actors. As with many Victoria artists, it is the day job that makes the theatre work possible, and Laidlaw’s job with Canada Pensions fits the bill. Fortunately, it is a job he enjoys, and it allows for the small budget productions to happen.
I asked them about the type of plays they are drawn to, and Laidlaw said, “We are careful not to reach beyond our grasp in choosing small cast plays that will work with minimal design requirements in a black- box space.” Jarvie added that she is always looking for plays that offer “interesting stories told in interesting ways.” They are also looking for good roles for emerging artists and for a majority of Canadian plays. Daniel MacIvor is a favourite, for example. When asked why, Jarvie replied, “You never get to the bottom of his plays. It was so rewarding doing table work with the cast of In On It. The more we looked at it, the more we didn’t know.” Jarvie’s directorial approach involves a lot of time spent at the table doing line by line, or even word by word, script analysis. “Words alone can make up the magical beauty of what we do,” she said, “so I put a lot of emphasis on table work and on attention to detail.”
I wondered out loud if her focus on interpreting the script with actors, before getting up and blocking it, was connected to her background as a piano student. She responded that although she had never made that connection herself, it made sense. When working with her piano teacher Robert Holliston, for example, they might spend an entire lesson on a couple of bars of music.
I can attest to the effectiveness of this painstaking approach. I saw the second night performance of In On It, a two-hander by MacIvor that traces the meta-theatrical development of a play that is also the metaphor for the tragic end of the playwright’s relationship with his lover. The actors’ precision with the text was visible to me, as was Jarvie’s focused direction and the effective use of light and sound provided by Laidlaw.
Hapax has been working in rental spaces for their productions, making use of the Theatre Inconnu space in Fernwood, for example, or Fringe spaces during the festival. We discussed the ongoing issue of a lack rehearsal and performance spaces in town. One of their long-term goals is to operate a small or medium sized performance space. Jarvie described their vision as “an arts hub available for companies to rehearse and perform. It would be ideal if we could create a space like this and open its doors for other companies.” Laidlaw agreed, but also worried out loud that, “The biggest threat to creating new spaces is the loss of spaces that could, with vision, become workable theatres.” They expressed their dismay at hearing that the former Victoria Truth Centre on upper Fort Street, which would have made a very viable performance space, was going to be torn down for yet another condo development.
Near the end of our engaging conversation, I pointed out that a number of plays the company has chosen were plays that Laidlaw saw at the Belfry during his time spent working with me as a Belfry 101 student. These plays include two of this season’s picks (In On It and Be Still) and a play the couple mounted in a restaurant space a few years back, The Weir by Conor McPherson. Laidlaw told me that the memory of these professional productions had stayed with him and led to his recommending them to Jarvie for Hapax to produce. For a theatre educator like me, hearing this from a former student, well, I have to tell you that it does not get much better than that.
You can read more about Hapax Theatre at www.hapaxtheatre.com.
Monica is delighted that the Belfry 101 program has continued long after her departure in 2006 and is now marking its 20th anniversary this year.