In 2018, Laura-Beth Bird left her job at a local restaurant to pursue her dream of starting a theatre company. The 24-year-old theatre artist had a plan and the savings to start her first show. Then, reality hit.
“I ended up having to use that money to live for two months, which kinda threw a wrench in the whole system,” Bird said. “So, I had to go back to the drawing board.”
Born in Shropshire, England, Bird’s family moved to Canada when she was 10-years-old. Her family settled first in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, then later Saint John, New Brunswick. Bird relocated to Fredericton to study at St. Thomas University, where she graduated from in 2017.
When her plans went awry, Bird began to wonder if her theatre company would become something that only happened on weekends.
“I was miserable in the job I was in. Anyone who saw me knew it,” Bird said. “I was panicking thinking that I would have to go back to that. I was going to be forty…doing my art on the weekends because that’s maybe when I could get the days off. I didn’t want that life.”
The “kick in the butt” motivated Bird to apply for Planet Hatch’s ARTtrepenur-in-Residence program. Bird was accepted into the program and started her three-month residency in June. The residency ended with an evening of new play readings. It was the first public event hosted by Fredericton’s newest theatre company, Grey Rabbit Theatre Co.
“Planet Hatch helped me network with larger business communities in the region,” Bird said. “That in turn helped me with strategic funding and planning for five, ten years down the road.”
In the fall, Bird participated in ArtsLink NB’s CATAPULT Arts Accelerator.
Bird has also received support from Fredericton’s theatre community.
“Everyone has been helpful about knowledge and experience,” Bird said. “If they know people, they will put me in contact with them. If we continue to create that sort of practice, it makes people more successful in the region.”
Bird realizes trying to launch a theatre career in Atlantic Canada is somewhat unorthodox.
“Many of the people my age are leaving to Toronto or New York because they feel like they have no opportunities left in Atlantic Canada to be artists,” Bird said. “In the last year, I have been researching ways to make this work. I don’t want to move right now to a big city where I will be a small fish in a big pond. I would rather be a medium fish in a medium pond.”
“That means I take scripts being created here — by emerging and professional artists — and help them reach either stages by myself producing them or matching them with other producers in the area. If it doesn’t work for mine, it may work for Eastern Front or Neptune Theatre.”
Does Bird agree that Grey Rabbit could be considered both an incubator and a presenter?
“Kind of, yeah,” Bird said. “At this moment, I feel like as I’m learning these things, I am also sharing it with my artistic community, because I want my artistic community to thrive as well.”
In December, Grey Rabbit, in partnership with Theatre St. Thomas, held a workshop for artists seeking to professionalize their artistic practice.
Have all the developments of the past year changed how Bird views herself as an artist?
“I don’t really notice a difference. My friend does. She told me I look healthier and happier, which is hilarious for me. I’m not doing anything different,” Bird said. “I think I am more confident and much more ambitious than I was. I am not willing to let things go. I have to chase after it. If I don’t chase after it, it’s not going to happen. I am more tenacious and cognizant of the way the world views me because what I’m creating is an extension of myself.”
Bird’s idea of what it means to live as an artist has changed since starting on this path with Grey Rabbit.
“I’m going to go work on my art which is my business,” Bird said. “ If I have a consistent income, I have more freedom to practice my art. Having a stable business gives me freedom to create. I don’t have to worry about if my power is going to be shut off.”
So far, Bird sees her time divided 60/40 between the business operations of Grey Rabbit and its artistic end. “I spend a lot more time filling out grant applications and writing than I do creating. It’s just the season that I’m in.”
This year, Grey Rabbit is launching The Vardi Puppet House. The children’s puppet theatre will tour Atlantic Canada in the summer.
“A Vardi is a gypsy caravan that is pulled by horses. They were things I came across as a child, and I’ve always loved them,” Bird said. “The puppet house is designed to look like a gypsy caravan. It will be bright red, with wagon wheels. There will be windows that open on the side for the performance. It will have that classic painting technique used on most caravans, and I will use Punch and Judy stylized puppets.”
Bird describes the puppet house as a platform that “lends itself well to public events” and is ideal for helping grow a viewership base.
Grey Rabbit is currently accepting new scripts for The Vardi Puppet House. The submission deadline is February 28th, 2019.