The Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia may have reached the Big 4-0, but it’s showing no signs of slowing any time soon.
What started as a conversation around Sara Lee Lewis’ kitchen table evolved into a travelling children’s theatre company that has reached more than four million youngsters across four continents.
Lewis, one of three founding members of Mermaid, was on site for the puppet theatre’s 40th birthday celebration, which drew hundreds of guests to the company’s Gerrish Street headquarters earlier this month.
“I’ve been here since the first hour around my kitchen table and it’s been very rewarding,” Lewis said in a phone interview.
Lewis, along with fellow drama enthusiasts Tom Miller and Evelyn Garbary, saw Mermaid as a way to educate, entertain and employ. Lewis wanted kids to take an interest in the indigenous cultures of Nova Scotia and Garbary, a drama professor at Acadia, aspired to help her students jumpstart their careers.
“Evelyn, over dinner at my kitchen table one night, said she was looking for a way to help her graduating students get their foot in the door in professional acting,”
“She said, ‘Why don’t we start a company for my students?,’ and I said, ‘Why don’t we start a real company?’”
Grant money from the federal government helped the Wolfville-based trio get Mermaid started in 1972. The original touring crew consisted of Lewis and nine ofGarbary’s students. Miller handled the design elements and Garbary proved to be a gifted script writer. They rehearsed at Acadia and toured Nova Scotia in a converted school bus in Mermaid’s early days — the days before their cozy theatre company would grow to surpass their wildest ambitions.
“We thought we could be one big happy family on this school bus,” Lewis chuckled.
That was no longer an option when word spread of the talented puppeteers charming audiences across Nova Scotia. In two years, Mermaid received invitations to perform at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and many well-respected venues in Montreal.
“We had no idea we were any good because we worked in a vacuum here, but when we played outside the province people said, ‘This is very interesting,’” Lewis recalled.
“The big breakthrough came in 1980 when we played in a World Puppet Festival in Washington and many people saw us there and, after that, we had regular work throughout the United States and Canada.”
Mermaid outgrew their headquarters in Wolfville and moved into the former Stephens’ department store in Windsor in 1987.
Mermaid’s home is nothing less than enchanting; life-sized puppets greet guests at the door and colourful backdrops invite audiences to become fully immersed in the wonder of it all.
“The big breakthrough came in 1980 when we played in a World Puppet Festival in Washington and many people saw us there and, after that, we had regular work throughout the United States and Canada.” - Sara Lee Lewis
Lewis, who wears the hat of managing director, says Mermaid’s unique adaptations of children’s literature have earned the company international recognition. The award-winning theatre company has performed in such foreign destinations as Japan, Mexico, Australia, England, Northern Ireland, Holland, Scotland, Wales, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Ireland.
“The outside world knows about us,” Lewis says.
“We are now the most active family audiences theatre in Canada and one of the most active ones in North America.”
Lewis admits she never dreamed Mermaid would be so admired. Quoting her mother’s explanation of how she survived 40 years of marriage, Lewis said, “The years have just flown, but some of the days were very long.”
As long as Mermaid will have her, the 74-year-old Lewis intends to be a part of the non-profit theatre that employs eight regular staff and up to 50 contract workers in the busy touring seasons.
When the time comes for her to step down, Lewis is confident her capable colleagues will continue to make her proud.
“Mermaid is in good hands.”