A TRUE HALIFAX LOVE STORY - Michael Howell
As a chef for more than 20 years, I have successfully negotiated the world of food and restaurants, of cooks and cuts. From Chicago to the Bahamas, from New York to Toronto,
I have plied my craft in a lot of places and drawn inspiration from those circumstances that have propelled my career.
I attended Dalhousie University in the 1980s, but many readers may not know that I started my career not as a chef but as an actor and director. In the years that the famed actor John Neville was at the helm of Neptune Theatre, I was accepted into Dalhousie’s professional actor training program, and in my second year I discovered I had a penchant for directing.
John was larger than life; unlike so many actors today, he actually was a very tall man — statuesque with a large Roman nose and resonant, commanding voice. He was an inspiration. He fuelled a passion in me to be a player and to make art.
John left Neptune in 1983, eventually landing the starring role in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), and he was succeeded by Tom Kerr from the University of Saskatchewan. Tom was a soft-spoken yet deeply intelligent man who, just as I was graduating from Dalhousie, founded the first Apprentice Directors’ Program in Canada, and I was accepted.
Launching into a career at a famed theatre was a pivotal moment in my life. Neptune held mystique, allure. Actors were unlike anyone else. They were confident, well-spoken, literate. They worked weird hours and played when everyone else was working. I worked side by side with Janet MacMillan, Bruce Klinger, David Renton, Walter Borden, Kim Coates, Clary Croft and many more. I learned confidence; if you can dream and you can create, you can succeed. That year
I directed lunchtime shows at Neptune, assistant directed Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, and immersed myself in art, in drama. It held me in its thrall for many years.
I loved that old building and walking into it through the stage door on Argyle Street at call time, seeing the actors in the green room upstairs and the dressing rooms downstairs, watching the creative process occur in the old rehearsal room, and finally, on opening night, seeing a play come to life in front of your eyes. There are lots of collaborators — designers, fight instructors, uber-cool theatre technicians and more. But as a director, everyone looks to you for vision, for shape, for purpose. You are the spirit guide. The buck stops with you, and you are ultimately responsible, for better or for worse.
A decade later, when I chose to leave the theatre and pursue a career as a chef, it was hard. When you pursue something else, you have this feeling that you have failed. Not the people, but that you have failed the theatre.
But I took solace and indeed found strong purpose in my belief that being a chef is also being an artist. You have to create, you have to supervise, the buck also stops with you and your art is fleeting. Like theatre, the moment you create your art, whether on the plate or on the stage, it vanishes, only leaving a memory of the creation.
Thank you, Neptune Theatre. I succeeded as a chef because of the inspiration of the theatre.