Two Planks and a Passion

Posted on January 02, 2023 | Atlantic Business Magazine | 0 Comments

The story of how Ken Schwartz and Chris O’Neill created a professional theatre company that has thrived in rural Nova Scotia for 30 years

Cast of Miracle Man, by Allen Cole and Michael O’Brien.  2014. Costumes by Jennifer Goodman. (Photo by Hal Tatlidil)

 

Let’s start with that first serendipitous magic moment, the one that sparked and spawned all the others. It’s a moment that will inevitably—at least in retrospect—lead to the 30th anniversary celebration of the founding of Two Planks and a Passion, a professional theatre company in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, in 2022. And to the establishment, in 2004, of the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts, a unique Canadian institution on a converted cattle farm that mixes arts education for young people with community and professional artist programs and theatrical productions while fostering the development of “new art from down the road and around the world in a spectacular setting in rural Nova Scotia.”

Oh yes, that spectacular setting. These days, the magic happens on a 178-acre farm filled with wildlife, ponds, forests, fields, a gorge and walking and snowshoeing trails, not to forget stunning views of the Bay of Fundy and Cape Split, in the middle of Nowhere, Nova Scotia, at the tag end of a five-kilometre dirt road with, maybe, 20 houses to pass on your way there.

How did that even happen?

But first, let’s circle back to that initial magic moment.

It was December 3, 1986: Ken Schwartz’s 17th birthday. Ken is the son, brother, grandson, great-grandson and great-great grandson of the Schwartzes, the family that founded an eponymous Halifax-based global spices company—“Say Schwartz and be Sure”—way back in 1841. Ken’s personal interests and ambitions, however, hewed closer to that of his Uncle Herman—an artist who designed the famous Bluenose stamp—than to the business side of his Schwartz forebearers.

While still a student at the Halifax Grammar School, Ken had discovered his own artistic métier—theatre. “I can barely tell you what any of the plays we produced were,” he jokes today. “It was really about a sense of belonging and community and collaboration, learning what it was to work as a team, collaboratively, to create something.”

He was in Grade 12 and already acting professionally at Neptune Theatre when he approached the local Theatre Arts Guild, Canada’s oldest community theatre organization, with the idea of launching a youth wing. They agreed. That, in fact, is why he had come to St. Patrick’s High School on that December day in 1986. He’d been invited to pitch his idea to Mrs. Murphy’s mostly uninterested school drama class. Ken almost didn’t bother to show. His parents were away, and the furnace at home had “blown up.” Perhaps another day… In the end—call it duty, prescience, who knows?—he decided to make his pitch to the class anyway.

Which is where Chris O’Neill comes into the picture.

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