All posts by Edward Staskus

Edward Staskus is a free-lance writer from Sudbury, Ontario, and lives in Lakewood, Ohio, on the northeastern edge of the Rocky River valley.

Gone Gros Morne

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“The secret to acting is don’t act. Be you, with add-ons.” Michael Sheen

“I’m going to take off now,” said Leah Pritchard. “I’m going to go. I’m going to do what I want. I’m going to leave. That’s what’s going to happen.”

It was the tail end of her last year at Gros Morne Academy in Rocky Harbour, Newfoundland. Closing in on the end of theater studies with Sarah McDonald, the teacher pulled Leah aside. “Of all the students here, the one we think would be feasible as a professional actor is the one who’s always saying they don’t want to do it. You would be the one strong enough and talented enough to actually make it.”

Leah Pritchard had other plans. She was geared up and buckled down about joining the Mounties. She meant business.

When the class mounted their year-end play, everybody’s parents coming to see the show, Sarah McDonald rustled up Ross and Marion Fraser-Pritchard. She meant business, too.

“We’re going to put her in theater school at university, so that’s the plan,” she told Leah’s parents.

“My dad did not want me leave Newfoundland and he did not want me to be in the RCMP,” said Leah.

“Fine, great, we’ll keep her here,” said her father, despite himself and his wife both being Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

“I was still very angry about being in Newfoundland, about being moved around, leaving Nova Scotia.” She was 17-years-old. “I was a surly teenager, a willful child. I didn’t want to be here anymore.”

She turned 18 her first day three months later at Memorial University of Newfoundland. “She can’t get into the theater program right away, but we’re going to make sure she gets into it,” Sarah McDonald told Leah’s father. “She was my mentor,” said Leah.

In the meantime, she snuck into theater classes.

“I was hanging with my friends one day when I got locked in the class by accident when the professor came in. After I didn’t get called out for it, after a few weeks I started answering questions,” she said.

“Who are you?” Todd Hennessey, the teacher and Head of the Division of Fine Arts, finally asked her. “Do you take this class?”

“Um, no,” she answered.

“Don’t worry,” her friends told the teacher.. “You’ll meet her officially next year.”

In her last year at Memorial University she headlined Hard Ticket Theatre’s production of “Venus in Fur.”.Todd Hennessey directed the spooky two-person sex comedy. “It takes one heck of an actress to convincingly play a character who is regarded as being a fantastic actress, and Leah Prichard nails it,” wrote Rachael Joffred in her review.

The campus she attended was the Sir Wilfred Grenfell College at Corner Brook, where the bulk of the theater program was, and which is two hours from  Rocky Harbour. Wilfred Grenfell was an English doctor who opened hospitals, orphanages, and cooperatives one hundred years ago to serve the coastal inhabitants of Labrador and Newfoundland. He was an able-bodied doughty man. Once marooned on a slab of floating ice slob, he killed some of his dogs to make himself a fur coat in order to survive.

“They wanted to keep track of me, since I was just 18.” Two years later her mother was reassigned to RCMP Headquarters in Halifax. Her father took a post in the capital city, as well. Leah Pritchard stayed lived studied and worked in Newfoundland for the next nearly seven years.

Rocky Harbour is on the far western edge of Newfoundland. The town is home to Gros Morne National Park. There is a fjord lined with cliffs and waterfalls, formed by long-gone glaciers. There are caribou and moose, rainy moody fog-bound mountains, and the tablelands, where you can walk on the earth’s mantle. The landscape is ancient.

“If you ever see tourism commercials for Newfoundland,” said Leah, “there’s always this big fjord where somebody is standing with their arms outstretched saying, “Look at the world!’ That’s where I lived. You can spend a long time by yourself there. I ended up loving it.”

A native of Nova Scotia, Leah Pritchard grew up in Lower Sackville, a fast-growing suburb of Halifax. In the 1950s it was known for its drive-in theater, harness racing track, and WW2 bomber plane ice cream stand. It is today a family-oriented commuter community.

Her parents, now both retired, were RCMP policeman and policewoman. The Force, as it is known, is both a federal and national police force. It enforces the law on a contract basis in the territories and most of the provinces. In many rural areas it is the only police force. Its French acronym, GRC, is sometimes repurposed as Gravel Road Cops.

Despite its name, the Mounties is not an actual mounted police force anymore, although it still was in the 1930s when they brought the Mad Trapper of Rat River to justice.

Her grandfather was a RCMP officer. “It’s just a family thing,” she said. “It also makes you very popular in high school, let me tell you,” she added with a booming guffaw.

She is the youngest of five children. Her sister and two older brothers were adopted by her father when he was 21-years-old. “Their dad was a motorcycle cop and died on duty. My dad fell super in love with his widow and made a bold choice. The kids were 3, 2, and 1-years-old. The RCMP has always been a part of our lives. There’s a sense of honor and tradition.”

Growing up, the family moved whenever and wherever her parents were assigned. It was how they moved to Newfoundland, when her mother was made a detachment commander there. Leah spent most of her teen years in Yarmouth, on the Bay of Fundy in southwestern Nova Scotia. The seaside town is proximate to the world’s largest lobster fishing grounds.

“You get real accustomed to small town life real fast. There’s a lot of space in and around Yarmouth to get weird.”

No matter what efforts you summon to make sense of it, the world can still be a strange place. Small towns impart a sense of place, but often feelings of self-consciousness, too. It can mean the opportunity to create your own options out of the weird mix of things.

It is where Leah caught the acting bug.

“I was at a production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” at our high school when two of the actors started laughing hysterically on stage about something and couldn’t control themselves. I thought that looks like fun.”

She took fine arts and acting classes in both French and English. In lieu of lunch the drama students staged short one-act plays at a nearby small theater, declaiming their dialogue and handing out sandwiches to show goers who needed a bite. “We were just harmless theater geeks, so the teachers let us go and do that. I started spending all my time in theaters.”

Once in the acting stream at Memorial University she discovered the program was the only one of its kind in Atlantic Canada. It combined practical and academic training with small class sizes and one-on-one attention to detail by actors directors production professionals doubling up as faculty and staff.

“It’s a fabulous program, especially learning to handle Shakespeare,” said Leah. “The Newfoundland accent is the least bastardized accent in North America, the closest to what it would be in Shakespeare’s time. It’s got that time’s rhythm and music to it.”

Many Newfoundlanders work in classic theater, especially at Canada’s Stratford Festival, the internationally known repertory theater festival that showcases William Shakespeare. “The music is in our DNA,” said St. John’s native Robin Hutton, who has performed at Stratford for close to a decade. ”We can’t have a party without a sing song.”

Natives of ‘The Rock,’ as the province is sometimes known, who have worked at Stratford include Brad Hotter, Jillian Keiley, and Deidre Gillard-Rowlings. “We’re storytellers in Newfoundland,” said Brad Hotter. “Theater is a craft handed down, where you learn from people who pass it down from generation to generation.”

Leah Pritchard’s last semester at Memorial University was spent in England, taking master classes with working professionals and seeing shows in the West End and Stratford-upon-Avon. “You see as many plays as you can, you write reviews, and you rehearse a play. When you come back you put it up. It’s the culmination of all the work you’ve done the past four years.”

One of the plays she saw in London was “The 39 Steps,” accompanied by her brother, Ian, a six-foot-six lanky young man with curly ginger hair who at the time was also in the theater program. The show is a comic treatment of the Alfred Hitchcock movie. It is played for laughs, so Leah and Ian laughed their heads off

“Most people would unanimously agree that I’m a very loud person,” said Leah. “If I’m being quiet, there’s something wrong. Ian has an even bigger laugh, a booming laugh, not subtle, at all. We were there laughing our heads off, Eastern Canadians watching a comedy. Everyone around us was quiet. Somebody said, ‘That’s not why we’re here.’ English audiences are reserved. Come on! I said. That’s exactly why we’re here. Join in the jokes, please.”

Sometimes being the loud enough voice for quiet thoughts is what works. Leah sang with the Xara Choral Theatre Ensemble on their debut CD “Here On These Branches” about northern cultures, communities, and landscapes. It was nominated for best classical recording of 2015 at the East Coast Music Awards.

It’s what she does getting ready to go on stage every night, too. She sings to herself, pop jazz show tunes by Julie London, Ella Fitzgerald, and Julie Andrews.

Back in Newfoundland with a newly minted BFA in acting on her resume, she found work as a bartender, a nanny, and an usher. “I’d get up at 6 in the morning, nanny the three kids, drop them off at their family’s restaurant, jump into a shower, get into my uniform, and go usher at the Gros Morne Theatre Festival.”

She worked in a candy store to make ends meet.

“You eat a lot of candy,” she said.

She got a job at a dinner theater in Halifax.

“You gotta do it,” she said. “It’s like cutting your teeth.”

Madrigals in the Middle Ages were a kind of dinner theater. They made a comeback in the 1970s, featuring mysteries and musicals. Actors like Lana Turner and Van Johnson performed between appetizers and dessert. Burt Reynolds owned his own dinner theater.

“You’re a performer, but you’re a waiter, too,” said Leah. “You sing and dance and run off stage to pick up six plates on a tray, deliver them, and run back on stage. You get into wicked great shape doing it.”

The bane of dinner theaters is the hubbub. “You’re a waiter as well as a performer and you have to deal with eaters. But there isn’t a fourth wall. If someone starts talking on their phone, because they don’t really give a fuck about you, you can stop and say, do you mind?”

It’s best said with an upturned nose, mock haughtiness, and a snooty English accent. “It’s not like you’re in the middle of a soliloquy,” she said.

Breaking into the arts world is often a matter of catching a break.

”My first Equity gig was in the fall after I graduated, which is very lucky.”

In late 2013, another teacher from the university, Jerry Etienne, saw her in a remount of “Venus in Fur.” He has directed more than thirty productions as Artistic Director of Theatre Newfoundland Labrador and founded the Gros Morne Theatre Festival. When he signed on to direct “The Rainmaker” at the Watermark Theatre on Prince Edward Island the next summer he asked her if she would consider signing up at the same time.

“Yes, please,” she said.

She played the plain spinster in the drought-ridden story set in Depression-era America whose family worries center on her slim marriage prospects and their dying cattle. “Leah Pritchard tunes into the right emotional channel,” wrote The Buzz, Prince Edward Island’s arts and entertainment monthly tabloid.

Summer stock at the Watermark Theatre in North Rustico on the north central coast of the island means finding a place to live and a place to eat. “The stage manager and I roomed together for four years.” She ate at Amanda’s that became Fresh Catch that became Pedro’s Island Eatery when it was taken over by a Portuguese couple. “This village has been crying out for Pedro’s,” she said. “They give you so much food, delicious, and a beer. I get passionate about their haddock.”

Meanwhile, she worked up and down the east coast. “I’m very much an eastern girl,” she said. “I’d go insane without the ocean.”

In the spring of 2016 Leah appeared in “The Drowning Girls” at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax, a play about the real-life early 20th-century British wife killer George Joseph Smith, who married three women in succession and drowned all three in succession. “There was a lot of sitting in water for long periods of time. There was even a splash zone by the first row.“

Later that fall she played Balthazar in “The Spanish Tragedy” at The Villain’s Theatre in Halifax. All the actors were actresses in the new adaptation and the revenge story unfolded with a plentiful dose of black humor.

By the end of the summer season of 2017, after four seasons at the Watermark Theatre, she had appeared in productions of “Blithe Spirit” “The Rainmaker” “The Lion in Winter” “Romeo and Juliet” “An Ideal Husband” “The Glass Menagerie” and most recently “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” and the perky newlywed in “Barefoot in the Park.”

“The Watermark has been very kind to me,” she said. “I’ve gotten the opportunity to do Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams.”

“Leah Pritchard and Jordan Campbell have genuine chemistry together, an innocent quality which is very watchable and perfectly suited to the play,” wrote Colm Magner in his review of “Barefoot in the Park” for The Guardian.

Some roles are more challenging than others.

“The Glass Menagerie was hard,” she said. “It was physically challenging, limping around, and I couldn’t figure Laura out, at first. She’s someone who lives inside herself, although as an actor on stage you can’t be too inside yourself. She’s a character who withdraws from the world, is quiet and reserved, and doesn’t want to be in confrontation. But on stage you need to be present, need to be seen, and need to be physically heard.

“It was weird.”

In the fall of 2017 Leah went on tour with Xara Choral Theatre’s adaptation of “Fatty Legs,” a children’s true story book about a plucky eight-year-old Inuit girl gone off to a residential school. “They called me Fatty Legs because a wicked nun forced me to wear a pair of red stockings that made my legs look enormous,” says the heroine. The larger theme is the cultural genocide of Canada’s defunct Indian boarding school system, which separated children from their traditional land, skills, language, and family.

Working with youngsters isn’t new for her. She has been a teaching assistant for Neptune Theatre’s youth theater workshops and led PEI Watermark Theatre’s youth theater acting conservatory for three summers.

Still a self-professed east coast girl, Leah Pritchard has recently moved to Toronto. The city boasts one of the liveliest theater scenes in the world, from major musicals at the Mirvish Theatres to Soulpepper, North America’s only year-round repertory company, to Buddies in Bad Times, the world’s largest and longest running queer theater.

“I want to be on the coast, but I understand the opportunities are in Ontario. I know what stages I want to be on and I’m going to keep working as hard as I can to get on those stages, by hook or by crook.”

Getting in the front door is easy to do if you’ve got a ticket. Getting in the stage door is hard to do if you’re an aspiring actor. Trying to make it in Toronto is a long uphill row to hoe.

“In Toronto no one needs to see you, no one needs to let you into the audition room, because there are thousands of you out there,” said Leah. “The way I approach my career is, there are thousands of good actors, but there aren’t thousands of me. There’s only one of me and they should be so lucky.”

Sometimes she tosses her head back when she laughs, like an actress from another time, a Myrna Loy or Angela Lansbury, who she bears a resemblance to. If she hasn’t laughed ten fifteen twenty times a day it hasn’t been a good day. “I get that I’m a young Angela Lansbury, a lot. I should be as lucky as that. I tell them I’m like a young old lady, not like how people are trying to be beautiful today.”

Looking ahead moving forward owning her career in the big city, she has several pokers in the fire, including Prince Edward Island. “It depends if there are roles for me in the plays they choose,” she said. “Five years in that theatre would be amazing. Even if they don’t, if I can manage a visit, the ocean, Pedro’s, it would be fabulous.”

She toured in the fall of 2018 with Xara Choral Theatre’s production of “Fatty Legs” reprising her work with the troupe.

This year she has found her way back to the Atlantic Ocean and Pedro’s Island Eatery and the Watermark Theatre for her fifth season, appearing in both summer shows, “Boeing Boeing” and “Crimes of the Heart.”

“She is very. very funny in ‘Boeing Boeing,'” said Robert Tsonos, Artistic Director at the Watermark.

“I’m always working to better myself as an actor,” she said. “I’m an independent artist, so I’m not desperate to be liked. I’m older, a little wiser, although maybe not very wise. I’m still only 28. How wise can a 28-year-old be?”

It”s not about to be or not to be.

It’s about the sharp-eyed actor on the way to doing what she wants who understands the first word line page in the manuscript of horse sense keenness awareness is about being unfailing about being you, adding-on but no second-handing and no pretending about what you’re doing to make yourself happen.

Photograph by Matthew Downey

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.

 

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Rock the Castle

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There isn’t anything to be or not to be about “Kronborg – The Hamlet Rock Musical” as it kicks off the 55th season at The Charlottetown Festival on Prince Edward Island. It’s all about being, being in front and making it happen. There’s nothing indecisive about Hamlet. He’s got Claudius in his crosshairs nearly from the get-go.

Lawrence Olivier, who directed and starred in an acclaimed movie adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in 1948, said it is “the story of a man who cannot make up his mind.” The Hamlet of “Kronborg” doesn’t have that problem. His world has been rocked. He has got to make up his mind.

Hamlet’s first song “That It Should Come To This” – sung by Island-born Aaron Hastelow, in a grim dazzling performance of a determined rather than irresolute prince – is performed right after the Ghost King has made himself known to Marcellus and Horatio, and Claudius and Gertrude have made themselves known to Hamlet. He soon has a good idea of the double-dealing he doesn’t know everything about, yet. From that moment on it is hands on the wheel.

The singing is brisk and strong throughout, from the leads to the ensemble. Peter McBoyle, the show’s sound designer, has worked on several musicals at the Confederation Centre, including “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The orchestra, led by Craig Fair, leading the way, gets it done down in the pit, always there as the story unfolds.

Aaron Hastelow gets it done up top up front as Hamlet.

“From seeing a ten-minute segment of the piece in a review show when I was 13-years-old, to now, it’s surreal,” said Aaron⁣. “I need to acknowledge the tireless work of Craig Fair, giving us all this chance, and Cliff Jones for writing some of the most beautiful and memorable melodies. After 45 years, it’s time to share this show with audiences once again. Let’s rock!”

The show starts off with a bang, at the end of the story, as the last of all the main characters, save Horatio, fall down dead, and a black-clad dance troupe of post-modern Greek Furies peck at the fallen, pecking out the vengeance of the Ghost King, Hamlet’s father

“To be or not to be” is never spoken. “Let it be” by The Beatles is invoked. There will be blood is what is on everybody’s lips.

Lawrence Olivier once also said, “Lead the audience by the nose to the thought.” It’s an unfortunate phrase. Who wants to be led by the nose to anything? It’s far better to smell it out for yourself.

“Kronborg” propels the audience headlong to its windswept thought on passages of brisk music and stirring song and able-bodied dance and crafty staging, the twisting plot turning high and low. There are barely two lines of dialogue strung together to transition the songs. It is in some senses like an opera, incorporating all the elements of spoken theater, but sung instead of spoken.

It’s unlike an opera, however, since every word can be understood, it never stands still for long to show off a singer, the songs being embedded in the story, and it is exciting as hell from beginning to end. It bursts with energy.

“It’s a story of family, power, revenge, and sacrifice,” said Adam Brazier, artistic director at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, where the show was resurrected on their main stage, the Homburg Theatre, playing in repertory alongside both “Anne of Green Gables” and “Mamma Mia!”

It is by far the darker, and arguably the more galvanizing, show in town. There’s something both rockin’ and rotten in Denmark.  It’s been said about rock ‘n’ roll that the devil has all the best tunes and the devil is not going anywhere. It’s also been said that shake rattle and roll and three chords are where the truth is. Whatever the truth is, the show is masterminded, exact and sparkling, never slack, always on the go.

Only the Ghost King takes his time.

The set by scenic designer Brian Smith is German Expressionist, a kind of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari castle, ramparts, a ramp and movable stairs, and arched entranceways. A forest as bleak as prison bars is lowered several times, the trees jagged and menacing, no escape. The rest of the set is minimalist, from the overhead part medieval part modernist chandelier to Gertrude’s dressing room, more suggestion and more effective because of the suggestion.

Nothing in the background gets in the way of the song and dance and narrative in the foreground.

When Honeybelle – Nicola-Dawn Brook in a red beret and man the barricades – and the players of the play within the play belt out the gospel inspired “He Got It In the Ear,” the fulcrum on which the plot rests tilts and everything becomes the gospel truth.

Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, and Ophelia pour their hearts out in “I Cannot Turn to Love” at the end of Act One. It ends suddenly. The stage goes dark.

You can’t wait for intermission to be over.

The musical was conceived and written in the early 1970s by Cliff Jones, He wrote it while working on the children’s TV show “Mr. Dressup.” A Toronto composer and lyricist, his original “Hamlet: The Musical” has been reprised several times. It played on Broadway in 1976 as “Rockabye Hamlet,” starring the rock star Meat Loaf.

It came back to PEI in concert form in 2017 in at the Indian River Festival. Cliff Jones was in the audience. Following the production at St. Mary’s Church, another concert was performed at the Confederation Centre. Shortly after that the wheels were set in motion to stage the show again.

“It’s back where it began and where, in my mind, it’s always belonged,” Cliff Jones said about the production at the Charlottetown Festival.

“When people on the Island found out that Craig Fair and I were working on “Kronborg” they all had their own story,” said Mary Francis Moore, directing the show.  “Who brought them to the show in 1974? What seat they were sitting in when they heard Cliff’s score. What it was like to work on the first Canadian show to ever make it to Broadway.”

The musical is more than just a piece of the Charlottetown Festival’s history.

“We recognize the significance the piece plays. We have dusted off the pages to create a re-envisioned production that has been fully re-orchestrated and re-arranged – new life breathed into this Canadian classic.”

The composer sat in on some of the rehearsals. “I saw what they were doing with this incredible company and with Craig Fair’s new arrangement and musical direction,” said Cliff Jones. “I’m thrilled. It’s been framing my life for the last 45 years. It’s renewed me.

“The show has always carried a special combination of being a fun, entertaining experience, but also being faithful to Shakespeare’s story.”

Kronborg is a 1400s stronghold castle in Helsingor, Denmark, that became Elsinore in Shakespeare’s late 1500s tragedy in five acts. “Kronborg – The Hamlet Rock Musical” is in two acts. Not a moment is wasted, but all the key moments are there, from the Ghost King to setting the scene of Gertrude and Claudius’s marriage, Claudius getting suspicious and Hamlet’s turmoil, the king’s plotting and the play within the play, Hamlet inadvertently killing Polonius, the banishment and the tragic climax.

There is even some ribald fun along the way, especially when a freshly re-imagined Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make their appearance. They aren’t what you expect. They are nimble and treacherous, like street cats on the prowl.

Claudius is on the prowl, too, as Act Two starts, aware of the grave threat that Hamlet presents, and he conspires with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to solve the problem. Gertrude – played by Alana Hibbert – big league but tottering by then, sings the first of her two affecting prophetic solo’s, “Somebody Wrote the Wrong Words,” as fate speeds up.

Laertes and the full company sing “Eye for an Eye” and the die is cast.

It all comes down to Claudius and Hamlet.

Costume designer Jeff Chief doubles the king and his step-son, both men in black, both lean and mean, although Hamlet is largely in wool-like fabric, softening the effect, keeping him on the side of flesh and blood, while Claudius is largely in leather, making him more reptilian. Claudius is Axl Rose meets Johnny Rotten meets villainy most foul.

The costumes are severe, Edwardian mixed with some Mad Max, while the female leads are often more flowing, leaving trails streaking behind them as they cross the stage. Anachronistic pants are used to good effect, especially when the doomed Ophelia jumps into the lap of the standing Hamlet, straddling him, hanging on for dear life.

Cameron MacDuffie, a veteran of the Centre who describes himself as a man who “lives out past where the sidewalk ends,” plays Claudius as a man who doesn’t give a damn about sidewalks. He is self-aware, as most of Shakespeare’s wrongdoers are, and not beneath self-pity, but his self is more selfish and slyly arrogant than it is anything else. He is the king and the kingdom is his person. Beyond him, nothing matters.

It is an astonishing performance.

When Gertrude sings “No Use Pretending,” which might be one of the best songs of the musical, and is certainly the most moving, near the end of Act Two, she is singing for herself, but for everyone else, too. Polonius and Ophelia are dead. The roof is about to cave in on everyone’s heads.

Fight director Anita Nittoly stages the penultimate sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes Robin Hood-style, lithe and desperate. It is thrilling and horrible, knowing there is poison. When the end comes only Horatio is left standing, and joined by the Ghost King in the ramparts, bears witness to what becomes of treachery and revenge.

“Kronborg – The Hamlet Rock Musical” breathes new life into a play more than four hundred years old, and dirty work as old as time. It resonates because it speaks to our own times.

“A nefarious transition of power has taken place in Denmark and the future is uncertain,” says Adam Brazier. “It is a story that is eerily familiar to the current landscape of the world at large.”

Early in Shakespeare’s play, in Act One, Scene 4, Marcellus says, “Something is rotten in Denmark.” The Hamlet of “Kronborg” doesn’t worry about to be or not to be. Something has got to be done. He rocks the castle to get the rot out. He gets it done.

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.

Dressed to Kill

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“Just let the wardrobe do the acting.”  Jack Nicholson

“This is my first time doing an internship like this, and it’s inspiring to be working in the field and getting the experience in an actual theater,” said Rachel Farmer.

It was last May last year and Rachel was starting as the new kid on the block at the Watermark Theatre in North Rustico on the north-central coast of Prince Edward Island. A local girl – “I was born and raised on PEI” – she participated in musical theater with dance umbrella throughout high school, and two years further on was studying costume design at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The Watermark was her first young foot in the door.

“I did most of the smaller tasks,” she recalled six weeks later as the summer season at the playhouse got underway with “Dial M for Murder.”

“I tried to do some of the dirty work, but it is a rite of passage,” explained Julia Hodgson-Surich, Rachel’s supervisor and mentor, about the labors of internship.

Interns used to be apprentices, although it amounts to the same thing, working at an occupation or trade for little or no pay in order to gain experience. Getting involved, not necessarily cracking the books, is often the best way to get the hang of things. The professional is an amateur who didn’t quit.

“It is an intern’s job to go for coffee for anyone who asks, delivering it hot and cupped in your bare hands,” Kurt Braunohler, the host of podcasts on the Nerdist Network, said about learning the ropes.

There are several imperatives interns have to follow. When uncertain, always ask, be a team player, keep a notebook, and be early, not just on time. You don’t have to be the last to leave, but don’t be the last to get there, either.

Pay attention to everything the big cheese says. Don’t complain, ever. Just don’t.

“I was Julia’s right hand,” said Rachel. “She tackled the main important stunning pieces. I worked on the suspender buttons.”

“I did manage to get her to sew all of the suspender buttons on the pants,” admitted Julia. “I’ve done that thousands of times myself. It’s how she’s going to learn to do it perfectly.”

“The handsome costumes do much to recall the postwar boom years,” wrote The Guardian in its review of “Dial M for Murder,” which sold out for most of its run.

When actors are getting into character, they are often soaking in what they are turned out in. They become what they are wearing. If you are wearing a banana suit, you become a very funny barnstormer on stage. There is no getting around it.

“She didn’t just shove me into the deep end,” said Rachel. “She helped me through everything.”

“I’m not as evil as some designers,” explained Julia. “I went easy on her for the first fitting. It was only after that that I expected perfection.”

Even though internships are often a chunk of paycheck short of real jobs, interns have to show their commitment and go the extra mile, doing everything to a T. It’s the small things that make up perfection, and perfection is no small thing.

“She assisted me,” said Julia. “When I needed a stage pin, she had it. When I said, these pants need to come in three inches, she wrote it down and got it done. We made sure everything fit immaculately.”

“The costumes by Julia Hodgson-Surich were classic and functional, with smooth lines and fabrics audience members will want to touch,” wrote Jane Ledwell in her review in The Buzz.

“We did fittings with each actor for each costume,” said Julia.

Seamstresses and costumers work with everyone from the actors to the director. The show has got to look real. Otherwise, it won’t feel real. Theater might be make-believe, but it’s got be in the flesh to make believers of the audience.

Would Superman even be Superman without his cape and costume? Would anyone believe him if he said he was Superman? No, he would just be Clark Kent, just another Joe behind a pair of glasses.

The costume department at all theaters is responsible for the purchase, design manufacture, fitting, continuity, and care of all the costumes. They create the look and mood of much of what is seen on stage. They need to be able to draw their designs, know how to translate creative vision into something more than the king’s new clothes, and know their fabrics and how to render and integrate them into the visual style of the play.

“Dial M, 1950s, everything was tailored, and some were handmade, some vintage pieces,” said Julia. “We had to order hats from England. Rachel did the alterations on the blue dress that’s at the top of the show. We made it fit like a glove. The actor could still breathe, but barely.”

At the Watermark Theatre they swap with other regional theater warehouses, since they don’t have the time or budget to make everything from scratch, and period pieces in the first and last place are hard to find.

“We go to thrift stores, looking, all the time,” said Julia.

“Seeing an actor’s face light up when we show them what they are going to wear is great,” said Rachel. “It’s the thing that makes them feel confident and in character and ties everything together, the props and set and story.”

This year’s Costume Designer at the Watermark Theatre, Julia was last year’s Head of Wardrobe. She is a designer, seamstress, and textile artist based in Toronto. “I use a lot of what I’ve learned in weaving and knitting, dying fabrics, and textile art,” she said.

She collaborates with the Cactus Sewing Studio and designs her own line of handmade clothing.

The theater runs in her family.

“I started as an intern, when I was 14-years-old, working in wardrobe at a theater my mother was a production manager at,” said Julia.

It was the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario.

Although her father, Bill, was born on Prince Edward Island, she grew up in southwestern Ontario. Her mother, Andrea, has long worked in live theater. Her father fabricated sets for theaters across Canada before becoming a metal sculptor. His installation ‘Trees of the Carolinian Forest’ is in downtown London. A display of his Christmas sculptures is set up every year in Victoria Park in the center of town.

“I started as a sewer, and when I was done with high school, at 18, I started working as a professional. I was promoted to cutter.” She’s been working ever since. “My journey has not been with school. It has been entirely apprenticeships.”

Julia Hodgson-Surich’s contract last year expired as the season at the Watermark Theatre was starting. She was making ready to be on her way. “I don’t have anything on the horizon, but if it comes up, OK, let’s do it.”

Theater professionals are always on the move, looking for their next opportunity. What makes them professionals is knowing how to cope with not knowing where their next paycheck will be coming from. In the meantime, they keep their noses to the wind, staying in touch with what productions are going on and where.

She had been working on the new season’s shows at the Watermark since March. “We talk on Skype, have production meetings in Toronto, so that we’re all on the same page. I did sketches, collected things, came to PEI, met Rachel, and basically, ‘Let’s go!’”

When she took leave of the theater, she left Rachel in charge of the costumes and the dirty work for the next eight weeks.

“She’ll do the repairs, because after every show something is broken. She’ll do the laundry. She’ll be the dresser, making sure the actors look the way they’re supposed to look every single night. It’s a lot of work. I appreciate that I don’t have to do it.”

“I came into it thinking I was a fish out of water,” said Rachel.

She had been a fish out of water not long beforehand, but she was a quick study.

“I was originally planning on going into acting,” she said. “But I realized watching movies and plays, what I loved were what costumes were being worn, and I should probably just go into costumes, so I did.  When I got to Dalhousie, though, it was intimidating, because I had six month’s experience on one outfit, and all my classmates had been sewing since they were 4-years-old.”

If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called learning. There wouldn’t be internships. There wouldn’t be mentors.

At the Watermark Theatre the costumers work in the basement. “It’s a tiny little room at the end of a hallway,” said Julia. “We have a window, but it looks out underneath the deck.”

“I love making things,” she said. “We get to sew, work with our hands. I wanted to do it since I was small. I grew up in a theater family. Babysitting was me sitting in a lightbox watching a show. I didn’t understand it, although I just loved costumes.”

The small room in the basement is where most of the mentoring goes on.

“Mentoring cuts into my work,” said Julia, “but it’s worth it. It’s rewarding. I prefer someone I can talk to, tell them what I’m up to, because then I’m talking it through. Sometimes I find out that I’m actually not doing the right thing.”

Talking things through, getting another’s perspective, often helps you to see issues more clearly, and gets your own thoughts off the same old track.

“I don’t want anyone to suffer, either. If I sense someone is having trouble with a hem, or a machine isn’t working and they’re rethreading it over and over, I will help. I won’t just let them flounder.”

“I’ve gotten so much out of it, and the Watermark is a wonderful theatre,” said Rachel.

”Everybody feels like they are a close-knit family here. You feel like everything you do has significance, like you’re not being swallowed up by the whole production, and you matter in the great cog scheme of things.”

This summer’s shows at the Watermark Theatre are the classic farce “Boeing Boeing” and the Pulitzer Prize winning play “Crimes of the Heart.” Even though “Crimes of the Heart” is premised on a murder, it has been described as “an evening of antic laughter.” The wardrobe department may not be getting the actors dressed to kill like they were in “Dial M for Murder,” a spine-tingler rather than a laughfest, but they will still look their part in their new parts.

In the middle of the fun on stage this summer they will be dressed to kill.

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.

 

Walking the Plank

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“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip.” Gilligan’s Island

“I’ve sailed my whole life,” said Michelle Boyce.

A native of London, Ontario, where she grew up, where her father worked for the Board of Education, Michelle raised her own children in Aylmer, a half hour down from London and less than a half hour from the north shore of Lake Erie. There is plenty of sailing from Port Dover to Long Point to the Port Stanley Sailing Squadron. It is Ontario’s south shore.

It isn’t Margaritaville, but it’s laid back. In Port Stanley, on the shoreline, making yourself at home with lemonade or a cold beer on GT’s Beach patio, making time is watching the town’s drawbridge go up and down. Lift bridges can get stuck up, but that’s the only thing stuck up in town.

“At one time we owned five sailboats,” she said.

“The kids and I used to sail across the lake to Cedar Point every summer. My daughter and I are roller coaster fanatics. We would spend a week in the harbor at Cedar Point and then sail back home.”

During the day cannons can be heard when pirates attack riverboats at the amusement park.

Although she still calls her neck of the woods home, where she spends half the year, the other half of the year she now spends on Prince Edward Island. The country’s smallest province, PEI is almost a thousand miles east of Canada’s seed corn hinterland.

“Sailing to PEI, it got really bad before it got really good.”

It started when Michelle, her kids, and her partner, Monika Chesnut, went to Prince Edward Island in 2008.  They went for a wedding. They liked what they saw.

“We fell in love with the island. We felt at home there, so on the way home we tossed around ideas about how we could spend more time on PEI. We’re an entrepreneurial family. We dreamt up the sailing business.”

The sailing business is Atlantic Sailing PEI, weighing anchor out of North Rustico on the north-central coast of the island. The three-hour cruises start at the dock, boarding the only sailboat in the harbor, turning out to sea, looking for dolphins and whales. The sunset sails are on the romantic side.

It’s OK to bring a bottle of champagne and get cloud nine.

Two years after first setting foot on PEI, Michelle and her daughter Jessica took the first step toward turning their dream into reality. “We knew nothing about the marine industry on PEI, but we went ahead,” said Michelle. The person with a vision is often more single-minded and hale than somebody with all the facts.

The facts can be helpful, though, sooner or later.

“We went on a sailing trip, from Lake Erie, across Lake Ontario, and up to Montreal. We spent a couple of weeks there and went up the river to Ottawa. Near there we stopped at a marina and found a 38-foot boat we fell in love with.”

The name of the boat was Folie. It was going to be the boat Atlantic Sailing PEI would sail the starry-eyed to idyllic sunsets on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It wasn’t meant to be, however, maybe because folie is a French word meaning, more-or-less, delusional.

“It can also mean crazy mad person,” said Michelle. “The gentleman we bought it from was 90-years-old. He had sailed it to the Caribbean and back. He had pictures. I don’t know how he did it without dying.”

Folie is a 1960s-era strong as an ox medium-sized cruising yacht capable of offshore passage. It is a serious no-nonsense boat. The first fiberglass sailboat, the Chinook 34, was built in 1956. “Who built the Folie had no idea how thick they had to make the fiberglass,” said Michelle. “They decided they had to make it as thick as wood. The thing was built like a tank.” Since indestructible is what they ended up needing, indestructible ended up standing them in good stead.

Michelle Boyce knows her ragtops, from stem to stern. She knows what makes them go, and she knows the free enterprise end of them, too. “When Detroit was going down, I used to buy sailboats there, sell them, and sail them all over the Great Lakes to the people who bought them.”

The first thing she did to the Folie was replace its engine. “Everything on that boat was end of life.” The engine was a Universal Atomic 4, last manufactured in the early 1980s. The Atomic 4 used to be the Utility Four, used extensively during WW2 to power lifeboats.

“I found a brand new one in a barn in northern Ontario, still in its shipping crate from the factory,” said Michelle.

After the new motor was installed, she and her daughter set off for Prince Edward Island. They planned on the trip taking two weeks, sailing to and around the Gaspe Peninsula, down the New Brunswick coast, and landing on PEI at Northport. They began accepting on-line reservations for summer cruises.

They got to Northport seven weeks later.

Halfway down the channel out of their first harbor their new Atomic 4 started to overheat. “She was red-lining on the temperature gauge. There was nothing we could do. I couldn’t stop in the middle of the channel.” They raced the boat out to the St. Lawrence Seaway, shut off the engine, and threw out the anchor.

“We spent the next five days in the middle of the seaway fixing the boat.”

The engine was undamaged, but the hoses carrying the coolant to the engine had melted. “The gentleman I bought the boat from had used crappy transparent hosing that you use for fish tanks. Fortunately, I’m anal about repairs, and I had another boat on the boat.”

One rule of thumb on the high seas is, whatever it is, if you can’t repair it, it probably shouldn’t be on board in the first place. The other rule is always have spare parts.

No sooner, however, did they make it through the Iroquois Canal lock, when the boat floundered again. This time the impeller melted. “The old gentleman was also anal, and he had left spare parts scattered all around the boat, so every time we broke down, it was a scavenger hunt. We knew he had one on board, but where?”

They found it, because they had to. In the event, ‘Regulations Governing Minimum Equipment & Accomodations Standards’ state that the owner, or owner’s representative, the captain, “must ensure that all equipment is properly maintained and stowed and that the crew know where it is kept and how it is to be used.”

After replacing the water pump, they sailed down the seaway, staying on the cruising side of the buoys, cruising the wide river. They kept the engine quiet, not dousing their sails, keeping them set to the way they were going.

It was a windy day, the waves like rippled potato chips, leaving the last lock outside of Montreal, when their steering went. “The boat would only turn right. It wouldn’t turn left. We were heading for a sandbar. One of the locals in his boat beside me was screaming, ‘Turn, turn, turn, you’re going to hit ground.’ We hit ground and came to a stop.”

“Only two sailors, in my experience, never ran aground,” observes Dan Bamford, a veteran sailor. “One never left port and the other one was an atrocious liar.”

“A cable fastener broke,” said Michelle, “which was a minor happening of all the happenings. We plugged a hand tiller on, but we were still stuck on the sandbar.”

She took a low-tech approach to the problem. Michelle had lowered the sails, but now got them back up, and when the wind blew into them it threw the boat over. “The wind in the sails took the boat off the shallow water,” she said.

“The goal is not to sail the boat, but rather to help the boat sail herself,” John Rousmaniere, one time editor at Yachting magazine, has pointed out.

They pulled into a marina, filled their tank, and got started, except they couldn’t get going. “They filled our tank with dirty gas. I got it running off a jerry can, running a hose directly from the carburetor to the can, bypassing the tank on the boat. But then, we weren’t twenty minutes out of the harbor when we picked up a rope on our prop.”

She was done with problems for the day. “The wind was going in the right direction, so I just threw up the sails and we sailed from Montreal to Quebec City.”

They ended up floating in one spot off Quebec City for five days. “The wind died and we had no propulsion,” she said. “Our cooler went warm and we were eating dry reserves. We didn’t have any idea the tides were going to be 24 feet. There was either a 10-knot current going this way or a 10-knot current going that way. The current was so crazy there was no rowing our dinghy to shore. We couldn’t dive under the boat to get the rope off our prop, either, too much current.”

When the wind finally picked up slightly they slowly hove into a marina on sail power.

“My daughter chickened out, and so even though my holding my breath under water days are long past, I dove in and got the rope off the prop.”

At the next marina they followed a friendly local in. He had a sailboat similar to theirs. He waved to them. “We’re fine following you,” she shouted across to him. “You’ll be safe,” he shouted back.

He got stuck.

Then they got stuck.

“Fortunately we were stuck in mud and stayed afloat,” said Michelle. “He ended up on dry land. “

The next day, having gotten unstuck, back on the St. Lawrence, they fought a following sea all day. “The waves behind you throw your boat this way and that. It’s hard to steer. At the end of the day I was exhausted.”

It might be why she misread her charts.

“I thought I was in 25 feet of water at low tide. Actually, I was in 25 feet of water at high tide. The water all disappeared in the middle of the night. My daughter and I were sound asleep when, all of a sudden, BANG! We were sideways.”

Waking up with a start, she saw their cats, Cali and Pablo, jump from the bed to the wall, which was now the floor. “They were totally confused.”

Keeping her wits about her, she remembered a story the man they bought the boat from had told them, about the same thing happening to him in the Caribbean. “He just went to sleep when it happened, the water came back, and it was fine. So, that’s what we did. We made a bed on the wall and went to sleep.”

In the morning the tide came in and the Folie floated up and away. “It is a tough, tough boat,” said Michelle. ”It was fine. We had pretty much worked out the bugs by then.”

At least, she thought so. “A tale of a fateful trip, aboard this tiny ship, the mate was a mighty sailin’ lad, the skipper brave and sure.” Assumptions, on the other hand, are like termites.

They picked up Monika, her partner, at Riviere-du-Loup, a city near where boats turn towards Atlantic Canada. One of the best places for whale watching in the world is at the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park offshore from Riviere-du-Loup. Beyond the small town are scattered even smaller towns hugging the coastline, and lots of forest.

“Every so often you’ll see a town and a church steeple. There were almost no other boats around, just the three of us on the Folie, when a superfast black Zodiac came on our horizon. He circled me until he got behind me, and started coming up my wash.”

There were no markings on the Zodiac. There were four men, clad in black, on the boat. Michelle got on her radio.

“Vessel approaching, please identify yourself.”

There was no response.

She tried again. There was no response. She tried the Coast Guard. “I have a vessel of unknown origin approaching me, unknown intent, mayday, mayday.” There was no response. She grabbed her flare gun.

“He was coming up my tail. Pirates are a real thing,” she said. “Since we’re a floater, our decks were lined with water and gasoline cans. I had a pirate plan, which was open a gas can, throw it at them, and shoot the flare gun, lighting them on fire.”

It was when they came within range, the flare gun cocked, that the blue lights on the boat blinked on. It was the police.

“Slow down,” one of the policemen shouted.

“Whatever,” Michelle muttered.

“Where are you going?”

“Prince Edward Island.”

“Where are you putting into next?”

“There,” she said.

“Where’s the man on board?”

“Pardon me?” The man on board was news to her.

“You guys are by yourselves?”

Michelle. Monika, and Jessica looked from one end of the boat to the other. “The cops finally left us alone.” The Zodiac sped away and the Folie got back on track. Time was their enemy.

“The whole time we had all these bookings in North Rustico. We were booked solid. Every single day I wasn’t on the island I was hitting the refund button.”

They hadn’t got much farther when their alternator blew, stuff started to seize, belts got red hot, and smoke filled the boat, which ended up sideways to the waves. “We instantly got into our deal with it mode.” Jessica ran the jib up, Michelle stabilized the boat, the smoke cleared, and they found a spare alternator, although they were starting to run out of the other boat on the boat.

By the time the Folie flooded a few days later she was already starting to wonder what the difference is between an ordeal and an adventure.

They had dropped Monika off near Dalhousie, New Brunswick, so she could pick up her car and rendezvous later on PEI, when they noticed with a jolt that the boat was half full of water.

“It still wasn’t over!” said Michelle. “One of the grease fittings, a cap at the prop shaft, had popped, and water was shooting into the boat. The bilge pump was pumping like crazy, but it couldn’t keep up.”

It was sink or swim.

She grabbed a length of rubber hose, some clamps, and a broom handle. She stuffed the handle into the rubber and stuffed the works into the hole. “I clamped it tight so water would stop coming into the boat.” They pumped the seawater out, but by then it had gotten into the engine oil. “It turned it into chocolate mllk. It was like a chocolate milkshake.” They sailed to open water, threw the anchor out, and the next day replaced the oil.

They could see the oxidized red of Prince Edward Island in the far distance.

Taking it easy in a bay one morning, having coffee, they watched baby belugas approach the boat. They are sometimes called sea canaries because of their high-pitched twitter. Big whales were blowing in deeper water. A herd of seals slipped in close to the sailboat.

“The cats were running around the boat,” said Michelle. “The seals were lined up beside the boat, their noses stuck up, and the cats were on top of the boat with their noses stuck down, trying to figure each other out. It was like first contact.”

When they once and for all pulled into Northport on the west end of Prince Edward Island, they were beyond a shadow of a doubt on the island.

“I’m not a quitter,” said Michelle.

That is when they found out the harbors they were going to sail in and out of were too shallow for the Folie’s keel. They also found out there wasn’t a crane-lift big enough to lift their sailboat out of the water. It couldn’t stay where it was. Boats on PEI get winterized in the fall and summerized in the spring. Setting and forgetting your pride and joy from January to April in the water is leaving your boat on the frozen hot seat.

The first thing Michelle did was to channel the Professor, one of those marooned on Gilligan’s Island. A science teacher, he could build anything, hammocks and houses, so the castaways could live comfortably. He rigged up washing machines, supplied water, and generated electric power, using nothing but indigenous coconuts and bamboo, although he was never able to repair the Minnow.

“The hole on that boat defies all of my advanced knowledge,” said the Professor.

Michelle built her own 10-ton hydraulic trailer with which to back up, get under the Folie, pick it up, and carry it away.

“There must have been thirty guys standing around there watching being brutal.”

“Do you know what you’re doing?”

“That’s not going to work.”

“You’re going to kill yourself.”

“Are you sure that’s going to work?” asked Monika, who had joined them, getting butterflies.

When she had the boat on the trailer and the trailer hooked up to her pick-up, and was driving the boat away, to be stored away safe and sound and out of sight in Summerside for the unforeseeable future, none of the bystanders were there anymore.

“They scattered like flies,” she said. “Not one of them was there for I told you so.”

The second thing she did was drive home to Ontario, pick up her 29-foot sailboat, the Calypso, and haul it back to land’s end, across the Confederation Bridge, and to North Rustico.  To this day the Calypso is Atlantic Sail PEI’s bread and butter, three cruises a day, private charters, and special events.

“Awesome experience,” said Donna Burgoyne.

“Monika and Michelle were fabulous hosts, very knowledgeable,” said Andre Pelletier.

“Elle nous fait decouvrir la faune marine et les magnifiques paysages de PEI,” said Sabrina Bottega. “Avec Michelle, c’est super capitaine.”

“The Folie drained us, in more ways than one,” said Michelle. “It almost bankrupted us. We had to refund tens of thousands of dollars, although we ended up doing some tours at the end of the season.”

Before landing at Northport, they spent the day anchored off West Point. “It’s where all the windmills are,” said Michelle. It’s where ship yards built sailboats long ago. It’s where sightings of a sea serpent still happen. It is where buried treasure is reportedly buried, still a secret.

Michelle made herself at home on her back in the sun on the deck while Jessica lolled at the stern.

“There is nothing like lying flat on your back on the deck, alone except for the helmsman aft at the wheel, silence except for the lapping of the sea against the side of the ship,” Errol Flynn once said.

The three-bladed wind turbines on West Point go around and around. There are 55 of them, rock steady as long as the epoxy sails stay full, at the West Cape Wind Farm. Tilting at windmills is quixotic, like running in circles. But if you can stay the course, and square the circle, making your energy making it a go, you might end up where you wanted to be all along.

When Michelle Boyce stepped off the plank she landed on the sure-footed red sandstone of Prince Edward Island.

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.

 

 

From the Lighthouse

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“If you are a lighthouse, you cannot hide yourself. If you hide yourself, you cannot be a lighthouse.”  Mehmet Murat ildan

When Mary Smith picks up a fiddle, she’s got about 20 years of life with it behind her. When she picks up a guitar, she’s got about 70 years behind her. When she plays the mandolin, organ, or piano, it’s anybody’s guess.

“We always had music at home,” she said. “My dad played mouth organ and step danced. When I was growing up there was no TV, so the thing to do was have house parties.”

Home was the North Rustico lighthouse on the north-central shore of Prince Edward Island, and later a house her father, George Pineau, built up the road on Harbourview Drive. George and his wife Ruby rolled up the oilcloth on weekends. The kids were sent to bed.

“They would have three or four couples come over, cook up a big feed of salt fish and potatoes, and play music,” said Mary. Her father would jig for dancing and play ‘George’s Tune’ on his harmonica.

“We used to sneak down the stairs. I always wanted to be a part of it. I thought, if I can get a guitar, and learn to play it, I could stay up and play for them. My dad wanted me to play a fiddle, but I wouldn’t bother with it. I kept asking for a guitar, and eventually he ordered one.”

It came from Sears, Roebuck & Co. It was a Gene Autry Round-up guitar. Gene Autry was a rodeo performer and crooner. He was “The Singing Cowboy” in the movies. His name was inscribed on the guitar. A cowboy riding herd swinging a lariat above his head was stencil-painted on the front. She still has it, although it’s not part of her gear on the road nowadays.

“I learned how to play a few chords.”

Square dancing was popular in her neck of the woods, and even so there were several good fiddlers, there were no guitar players. As she became more accomplished on her Round-up, she began accompanying fiddlers at local dances.

The North Rustico lighthouse was her home when she was a child. Although not many children are born at home, it was where she was born. She didn’t go far that first day, was tired by the move, and slept the rest of the day.

Only about 1% of babies today are delivered outside of a hospital. Until the 20th century most women gave birth at home. When someone was ready to go, her friends and relatives and a midwife would help. As late as 1900 about half of all babies were still brought into the world by midwives. By the 1930s, however, after the advent of anesthesia, only one of ten were delivered by them.

Not many were delivered by a neighbor, either.

“There was nobody else around,” said Mary Smith. “If you stayed home to have a baby, somebody had to help out.”

The lighthouse was built in 1876 on the North Rustico beach, a pyramidal white wooden tower and attached living space. Eight years later it was moved to the entrance of the harbor. George Pineau was the keeper of the lighthouse from 1925 until 1960, when the beam was automated.

“My grandfather was lighthouse keeper for many years, and my father was the keeper for 34 years. I lived in the lighthouse until I was 8-years-old.”

Mary grew up on the harbor road, where she has moved back to and lives to this day, as a kid running the mile-or-so up and down the street from one end to the other with her kid brother and sister. Fish factories canned lobster and salt fish, shipping it to the United States and West Indies. Fish peddlers loaded horse-drawn wagons and small trucks, selling cod, herring, and mackerel door-to-door.

A three-story hotel stood on the rise across the street from the present-day Blue Mussel Café.

“My Aunt Angie bought it, tore it down, and built a house with the lumber. My dad was laid back, but his twin sister was a fiery person.” Her father was a fisherman, working hard, but enough of a go-with-the-flow man to be able to live to 103 before he was laid to rest.

In the summer Mary fished for smelt and sold them for a penny a dozen to tourists. When she had a pocketful of pennies she ran to the grocery store on Route 6.

“You could buy a lot of candy for three or four cents.”

There were two schools serving the community, one Protestant and one Catholic. “In them days the Protestant and Catholic relationship wasn’t great,” she said. When the Stella Maris school in North Rustico burned down in the early 50s, classes were organized in the church until the school was rebuilt.

“I was in grade 10 when I quit,” said Mary. “You can’t quit now, but we went to work early back then.”

Many secondary students dropped out of school. There were plenty of entry-level jobs in agriculture and the fisheries. As late as 1990 the dropout rate on Prince Edward Island was 20%. Today, it is 6%.

She moved to Ontario, worked, came back to PEI, met her husband-to-be, Al Smith, a Nova Scotian who was seasonal fishing out of the town harbor, and they got married when she was 18-years-old.

When they had a son and made their home, at the far end of the harbor mouth, it was in North Rustico. “We had a deep-sea fishing business.” Fishing, along with farming and tourism, drive the economy on the island. Shellfish like mussels and lobsters are the mainstay. Mary kept house, raised their son, and lent a hand with the gear. She mended nets, repaired pots, crafted trap muzzles. She mixed their own cement runners for weights to sink the pots.

“The twine in the traps, what we called the hedge, we used to knit all those by hand. Nowadays they buy all the stuff.”

She stayed on shore more often than not. She was prone to seasickness, a disturbance of the inner ear. It especially wreaks havoc with balance. Christopher Columbus and Lord Nelson both suffered from it.

One day, just as that year’s fishing season was about to start, Al Smith’s hired man told him he was moving west in search of better prospects. He would have to look for another helpmate right away. “Well, Mary would never go because she gets seasick,” said one of their neighbors. That evening she told her husband, “I guess I’m going fishing in the spring.”

“Oh, God, it’ll be too hard for you,” said Al.

“There’s no women fishing in Rustico, and they say I can’t do it, so I’m going to go,” said Mary. She shortly became the fishing fleet’s first girl Friday.

There are several ways of battling motion sickness. Cast off well-rested, well-nourished, and sober. Insert an ear plug in one ear. Keep your eyes on the horizon. Riding it out is sometimes, unfortunately, the only remedy.

Al and Mary Smith fished together for four years. They fished for lobster, mackerel, cod, and tuna. “It took me four years to get over being seasick,” she said. A sure cure is sitting down under your own roof on dry land four years later.

“I couldn’t physically lift the traps, they were too heavy, but I could slide them,” she said. “My husband would haul them up and push the trap to me. I would take the lobster out and rebait the trap, slide it down the washboard to the back with the movement of the boat, and kick it off. There was rope all over, so you had to watch where your feet were, because there’s fathoms of rope and it’s going over fast.

“On a nice morning, going out to work, the sun coming up, we would look back and see the green and red of Prince Edward Island. It was beautiful. It was good work.”

When the work was done, she cast about for another kind of work.

“I always loved to draw,” she said. “So, when I wasn’t fishing anymore, and our son was grown up, I talked to my husband about it.”

“Why don’t you take a course?” said Al.

“Someday I’ll do that,” said Mary.

Someday came sooner than later and she enrolled in a two-year commercial design course at Holland College in Charlottetown, the provincial capital. The community college is named after British Army surveyor Captain Samuel Holland, offers more than 150 degree pathways, and more than 90% of its graduates find employment.

Two years later, art degree in hand, she decided she wanted to teach art. She thought, I’ll go to the University of Prince Edward Island and get a teacher’s license. She went to see the Dean of Education at UPEI.

“What education do you have?” asked Roy Campbell, the dean.

“I only have grade 10,” she said.

“Well,” he said.

She had brought a long list of courses she was interested in taking. He looked at the list. “Well,” he said, “you should be realistic. I suggest you not take more than three courses at any one time.

“That was kind of insulting,” said Mary.

She thought, he thinks I probably can’t even do three. I’ll show him. I’ll take six.

“Oh, my God,” she said. “That was a mistake. It was a hectic time.”

It got more hectic her second year, when she entered the world of 400 level courses.

“I took a course on Dante, which was really crazy,” she said. “I’m never going to make it through this. I thought about it for a while and thought the only way I’m going to be able to pass this course is if I draw it. So that’s what I did.”

She put her all into drawing the Circles of Hell. Her professor had never gotten a paper like that. “He was thrilled with it.” She got an A in the course.

“I got my teacher’s license. I proved that I could do it.”

She taught at a private art school in Summerside and lent a hand aprt-time at Rainbow Valley in nearby Cavendish during the summer season until, in 1990, her husband of 34 years unexpectedly and suddenly died.

“He was great guy,” she said.

“I decided to do a 3-dimensional sculpture of Al as he was, as a fisherman.”

At first, her plan was to make the commemorative sculpture in cement. “But then I thought, we had just gotten a new fiberglass boat, so I could do it in fiberglass.” It was an idea that would remake reinvent regenerate her from then until now.

The boat was a Provincial, built by Provincial Boat and Marine Limited in Kensington, less than 20 miles west on the north coast. “Earl Davison had a fiberglass plant in Kensington and was producing great fiberglass boats.” They are known for their speed and durability. They are sometimes called “lifetime boats.”

Mary went to Kensington to see Earl, who also owned and operated Rainbow Valley.

“I went to see him, and I said, I’ve got something that I’d like to do in fiberglass, so he said, I’ll come down to look at it. He came down to the house this one day and looked at my plan. I got a call a few days later. He offered me a full-time job instead.”

“I need an artist,” said Earl.

“Yeah, I’ll do that,” she said.

The sculpture of Al Smith got made and Mary went to work full-time at Rainbow Valley in Cavendish, a hop skip jump away from her home.

She never left. She worked 7 days a week May through September until the water safari adventure amusement park was purchased by Parks Canada in 2005. It has since been christened Cavendish Grove and become conserved land with a network of walking trails.

Rainbow Valley, named after Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1919 book “Rainbow Valley,” was 36 years of waterslides, animatronics, swan boats, a sea monster, a monorail, roller coaster, and a paratrooper, castles and suspension bridges, and a flying saucer gift shop. “We tried to add something new every year,” said Earl. “That was a rule.” The other rule-of-thumb was families with smiles plastered all over their faces.

“The most important thing you could do for somebody was to have them all together as a family and help make memories,” said John Davison, Earl’s son who grew up running around the park and as a grown man worked there. “Some of the memories you hear are from people whose parents aren’t with them anymore. But they remember their visits to Rainbow Valley with their parents and those experiences last a lifetime.”

Earl Davison had envisioned the park in 1965, buying and clearing an abandoned apple orchard and filling in a swamp, turning it into ponds. “We borrowed $7,500.00,” he said. “It seemed like an awful lot of money at the time.” When they opened in 1969 admission was 50 cents. Children under 5 got in free. In 1979 he bought his partners out and eventually expanded the park to 16 hectares. Most of the attractions were designed and fabricated by him and his crew.

“Rainbow Valley was a unique place to work, because Earl was so creative,” said Mary.

“Mary had a talent,” said Earl. “She could see things, create things, draw, and she seemed to always be able to draw what I told her about.”

He told her about rum running on the island, when there had been a total ban on alcohol from 1901 until 1948. Smugglers laid low off Cavendish in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, avoiding Coast Guard cutters, hiding kegs of hard liquor in the sand dunes and woods at night. When the kegs were empty fishermen often used them to salt mackerel in, the smells of rum and salt fish mixing it up.

She sketched out what became an animated simulated dark ride about booze and bootleggers.

“Mary designed it,” said Earl. “She did all the faces for the characters and helped dress them, too.”

At the end, an animatronic man coming home with a keg of rum in a handcart tells his protesting wife it’s molasses. “Don’t you lie to me,” she says. He takes a step between his wife and his handcart. “I would never lie to you, my smuckins, and if this here’s rum, may lightning strike me right here where I stand.”

Every day, morning noon and night, a thunderous crack of lightning struck him where he stood.

In the early 90s Mary approached Earl about mounting a music show. It became Fiddlers and Followers, which became the North Rustico Country Music Festival, which is still going strong. The music festival, staged over the course of a weekend every August at the town’s North Star Arena, concerts as well as workshops and jam sessions, brings together some of Atlantic Canada’s best-known down-home old-time country bluegrass island-fiddling folk-inspired music makers.

“We’ve never missed a year. We’re getting older, but I still get really pumped up about it,” said Mary.

Earl and the Rainbow Valley construction crew built a barn and a stage for Fiddlers and Followers, local talent was secured, and they fabricated a 24-foot fiddle to be a beacon at the front of the building.

“Earl provided the opportunity for it to start. I designed the big fiddle,” said Mary.

“It was a giant fiddle,” said Earl. In the event, it might have been even more gigantic, given the chance. “We coulda gone higher. It was Mary’s fault. She drew it to be 24 feet, so that’s what we did.”

In 2017 the giant fiddle was moved to the New Brunswick front lawn of fiddle champions Ivan and Vivian Hicks.

“Burns MacDonald and I did shows every day,” said Mary.

When she began playing with Burns MacDonald it was the first time in more than thirty years she played anywhere outside of home or at a house party.

He was the piano player. “I would be in the shop painting, doing artwork, and somebody would say, you’ve got to go for the show.” She would drop everything, grab a guitar, and run to the stage. “I never got tired.” Pete Doiron was their fiddler at the evening shows. “He was one of the best on PEI.” They played together three times a day for twenty-minute stretches.

The first time she heard Burns playing the piano she was working with her boss one floor down.

“I have to go see who that is,” she told Earl.

“I run upstairs, and it was this Burns MacDonald. I went over, stood by him and we started talking. He never stopped playing while he was talking.”

When she went back downstairs, she said to Earl, “You’ve got to hear this guy. He’s unreal.”

Burns MacDonald got hired on the spot and started playing during intermission of the Roaring 20s show then on stage. The next year he came from his home in Nova Scotia for the whole season, living in a trailer in the park. “He was there 14 years steady,” said Mary. “Everybody was just blown away by him.”

Shortly before his death Al Smith had gotten his wife a fiddle.

“We were at a show in Charlottetown and the entertainer was a fiddler. I thought, gee. someday I’m going to learn how to play a fiddle.” Her husband thought it was a good idea and bought her one. But when her husband passed away, Mary put the fiddle back in its case and put it away.

She took it out of its case after a bus tour she had organized to Cape Breton. Burns was the entertainer on the tour. “I said something about fiddles, and he said, you’ll never learn how to play the fiddle.” He might as well have thrown down the gauntlet as made a passing remark.

“That wasn’t the thing to say to me,” said Mary.

Since dusting off the fiddle she had quietly put away in the closet, and learning how to play it, she’s done well enough to receive the Tera Lynne Touesnard Memorial Award at the 2017 Maritime Fiddle Contest. “It was a humbling experience and one I really don’t deserve,” she said. “It’s a great honor, however, and one I’ll always cherish.”

She has also been made a lifetime member of the PEI Fiddle Association.

Mary came to the piano by misadventure.

She had agreed to be a co-host during an on-air fundraiser for Make-A-Wish. After finishing her stint at the station, she went home, but kept track of the auction. She noticed a keyboard valued at more than a thousand dollars wasn’t attracting many bids. She decided to prime the pump.

“I started bidding, figuring when it’s high enough, I’ll stop.” However, she got carried away. “I kept bidding. I thought, I can’t let them outbid me. Just as I put my last bid in, time ran out, and I ended up with the keyboard.”

It cost her $800.00.

“I couldn’t afford it, but it was a for a good cause,” she said. “When I got it home, I took my guitar, and since I knew the chords on it, I just figured them out on the piano. I have my own style.”

Being self-made means doing things your own way, no matter how much teamwork is involved.

When Mary Smith takes the stage at the North Star Arena, whether as one of the key organizers of the North Rustico Music Festival, or with guitar fiddle keyboards in hand, she is within sight of the lighthouse she was born in. There are 63 lighthouses on Prince Edward Island. About 35 of them are still active. The North Rustico harbor light is one of the operational ones, sending out five seconds of light every ten seconds.

Lighthouses, like music makers, aren’t narrow-minded about who sees their light. “When you play, never mind who listens to you,” said the pianist Robert Schumann. They shine for all to see. Without a guidepost, steaming into a dark harbor would be a mistake. Without music to brighten the day, getting up in the morning might be a mistake.

Music is in Mary’s bones. She plays with several groups, including Mary Smith and Friends, Touch of Country, and the Country Gentlemen. The North Rustico Choral Group, which performs for seniors, was her brainchild ten years ago.

“Music has been a big part of my life,” she said. “I’ve met so many great people, some really great friendships.” She plays in living rooms, at outdoor venues, and on motor coach day tours. She often plays at community centers.

“I see Mary’s performances at Sunday Night Shenanigans,” said Simona Neufeld, a local music buff and fun fan.

“Life would be pretty dull if you just sat at home and watched TV,” said Mary.

“I guess being born in a lighthouse, I have to be brighter. You have to keep going.”

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.

 

Making the Landmark

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There are thousands of moving parts to restaurants, from sourcing good food for the larder to wage and safety regulations to clearing the tables. Keeping the doors open is an exercise in controlling chaos. That’s why Calvin Trillin, the New York City food writer, has said he never eats in a restaurant more than hundred feet off the ground.

It can be a way of life, a labor of love, and Dante’s Inferno all rolled up in one, especially if you are the owner and chef at the same time.

Restaurants are fine dining with a reserved atmosphere and noisy gastropubs and clam chowder shacks on the beach. All restaurants, from fast food to fine dining, need stoves and ovens and grills to prepare food. And no matter what kind of a restaurant it is, unless it’s a street takeaway or a food truck, it needs chairs, tables, and booths.

“There was a neighbor of mine up the road in Crapaud, a farmer, who had built tables for a little church fair,” said Eugene Sauve, the owner and chef of the Landmark Café in Victoria, a seacoast town on the Northumberland Strait side of Prince Edward Island. “I asked him if he would consider building tables and a whole bunch of chairs for me. A week later he said, I’ll do it for two thousand.”

A dozen some tables and forty chairs were made. It was 1988. “I didn’t have a formal plan, but it was all visually in my mind,” said Eugene. “I knew I wanted a big round one. The tables and chairs in the front and back dining rooms are still the originals. The big round table is still in the front.”

The Landmark Café, in the centuries old building that had once been Craig’s Grocery Store, opened on the day long-time Victoria resident Hope Laird drove her three-wheeled bicycle through the grand opening ceremonial ribbon. Almost everyone in town was there.

“When we were kids we used to call Craig’s Store the Landmark,” she said. “Say meet you at the Landmark and all the kids would meet you there.”

“So, that’s what we called it,” said Eugene Sauve.

Restaurateurs open eateries because they are conversant with the business, are self-motivated, and are usually people with people skills. They are foodies who want to match a menu with what they love to do. Sometimes they are people who just like getting their hands wet and dirty, like to be on their feet all day, and like to work long, long hours.

Opening your own sit-down means pulling up your pants, pilgrim. It takes gumption and hard work the spread out hours you are on your feet. It takes nerve, too. 50% of all restaurants go south inside of three years. After a decade more than 70% have closed their doors.

Why do friends let friends open restaurants?

“I remember having nightmares opening this place,” said Eugene. “All my friends were saying, you’re crazy, you’re wasting your money.”

What Eugene Sauve’s friends didn’t know was that he had worked in restaurants since he was 16-years-old, and had an outsize appetite, to boot. A business centering on an all-you-can-eat business plan made all the sense in the world. “Growing up I played a lot of hockey and I was always hungry,” he said.

“My father was very formal. He was a banker. He would come home from work, go upstairs, get out of his suit, come downstairs, sit down, and only then was supper served. So, I volunteered to help in the kitchen. I had three sisters, but they weren’t interested. My mom was an amazing great cook. One night dinner would be Japanese, another Italian, another French.”

He helped her and helped himself.  “Every time my mom turned her back in the kitchen I was eating.”

In the early 1970s Euene Sauve’s father, Eugene, Sr., was transferred from Quebec to British Columbia. He was the first French-Canadian to become vice-president of a major bank in western Canada. Eugene’s sisters, as they grew up, went into banking, too, following the lead of their father.

“I was the only one who got away,” said Eugene.

Before his father was a banker, he was a football player in high school and later joined the Canadian Navy.

“After his military service he became a loan officer in a bank. Sometimes loans would only be ten or twenty dollars and he would literally hound guys for fifty cents. It was right after the war and every penny counted. Since he had also once been a boxer, he was an ideal collector.”

After leaving home in the mid 70s Eugene was on the road and staying in a small coastal town in Portugal. It was where he found out for himself what good food was, the kind of food he describes to this day as something that “snaps and cracks.” It was the kind of food three decades after opening the Landmark Café he continues to procure and make and serve.

“When I was in Portugal the fishermen would come in, take a little nap, get dressed up, and walk around the plaza, drinking coffee and booze. Their women would go to work, sardines on the barbeque, dipped in olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, with a big crusty roll. Those are my images of good food, good simple food.”

There’s a difference between good table manners and good food. No one needs a silver spoon to eat the best food.

By the 1980s, although his wanderlust had not, and has not to this day abated, he found himself living, working, and newly married in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. “Julia was from New York, performing in a modern dance company. That’s how we met.” He was soon working in the performing arts and the father of the first of two children.

But his children didn’t grow up in PEI’s capital city. Charlottetown is the province’s largest city. They grew up in Victoria. It is one of the province’s smallest communities.

“Erskine Smith, the director of the theater in Victoria, phoned me in April one day, out of the blue,” said Eugene. “He said, I’d like to have you at the Victoria Playhouse, would you come out to talk?”

The seaside town that is Victoria, once known simply as Lot 29, was founded in 1819.  Besides landing fish, its livelihood was shipping potatoes and eggs to Europe and the West Indies. Today there are some year-round residents, but not many more than a hundred. Summer is what animates the former seaport of family-run fine and folk-art galleries, artisan chocolate and coffee shops, and the Victoria Playhouse. The Landmark Café is kitty-corner to the theater.

The town in April is quiet wet cold.  “I had a half-hour, I walked around, and I instantly felt something here, something about this place. I got the job, and a month in someone at the theater says to me, there’s a house on the corner. I think the guy wants to sell it.” By the end of the summer Eugene Sauve and his nascent family were living in Victoria.

Two years later he approached Annie Craig about renting her grocery store to him for a new seasonal café to serve the theater’s playgoers.

“She had the post office, a bit of pension, although she wasn’t making a living at the store. But, she said no,” said Eugene.

Two months later he approached her again. “This time I asked her if I could buy it. She said no, again.”

Annie Craig spent winters knitting sitting in a rocking chair in the back corner of the store. “Under our carpet you can see where she wore the floor out, rubbing her feet as she rocked,” said Rachel, Eugene’s daughter. “She wore through the tile and into the wood.”

The Craig’s Grocery Store building was almost two hundred years old. It had been gambled away in a card game and had once been sold with the bill of sale hand written on the back of a pack of cigarettes. Before it was a grocery it had a history of cobbling, butchering, and bootlegging.

Annie Craig called back the next spring. “You know what, I will sell to you,” she said.

“How much?” asked Eugene Sauve.

“Twenty thousand. I’m going to be firm on that,” she said.

“You got a deal,” he said.

“20 grand,” he thought after hanging up the phone. “Where am I going to get 20 grand?”

Entrepreneurs need capital to get going, but banks don’t like lending to start-up businesses. “They have no historical income,” said Tom Swenson, chief executive of an American bank. “If you are proposing a start-up business, you are de facto proposing something that doesn’t meet typical bank underwriting standards.”

If it’s a food-related business, they like it even less, because restaurants have high rates of default, no matter how much people like eating the food or how well known the chef might be. A healthy dose of skepticism is the default setting of most banks, or at least it should be. Many start-ups look to their families for cash.

Eugene Sauve looked to his father, who was family, and a banker, too.

“My father lent me the 20 grand, since I was determined to open it for exactly that amount of money,” he said. “But I had to bring him in as a partner. It cost me 50 for 20 the six years he was my partner, which was pretty darn good for him, which explains why he was a banker.”

He stuck to his budget by buying end-of-the-roll carpeting on the cheap, cadging no cost paint that had been returned because it was the wrong color, and doing a lot of the heavy lifting himself. “A buddy of mine was an electrician. I worked with him. That‘s how it all fell together.”

His first stove was an old 4-burner Enterprise. The galvanized range hood came from a bakery going bankrupt. He was the dishwasher, sous chef, and chef. The kitchen had no air conditioning. “It used to be so hot in here it was unbelievable.”

The Landmark Café in Victoria opened in the summer of 1989.  In the movies they say things like, “If you build it, they will come.” In real life not everything is scripted. “The first day was really scary,” said Eugene. “I wasn’t sure if anybody was going to walk in.”

But if you build something good somebody is going to pay good money for it.

“The best Caesar salad I have ever experienced. The flavors were amazing. And the seafood pasta was melt in your mouth delicious,” said a man finishing his seafood pasta.

“I had been searching for a great seafood chowder,” said a woman in a print skirt. “After four other places this was the very best I’ve had on the island so far, just delicious.”

“I usually go with the flavorful Acadian meat pie, but yesterday I tried the special, a fish burger,” said a frequent diner. “It was delicious.”

When you’re serving people delicious food they don’t complain.

Not much beats delicious. Sunshine and fresh air are delicious. Kissing is delicious, tastier than sex. You don’t have to think about rotisserie chicken to know that it’s delicious. Authentic fresh yummy ingredients like island beef, island fish, and island produce are what make the Landmark Café a landmark when Eugene Sauve prepares and brings them to the table.

A decade-and-a-half after opening, in the mid-aughts, the family, son Oliver and daughter Rachel having joined the labor force, expanded the Landmark Café. “We lifted the whole building, since we had a problem with storage and there was no basement, which we needed to grow,“ said Eugene.

“We added 40 seats and that changed everything, since we were turning people away. The air conditioning in the kitchen got done, too. I’m the chef here, anyway, and I need to stay cool. That way we serve more food and everybody’s happy.”

For all the changes and renovations, the original chairs and tables built by Crapaud farmer George Nicholson thirty years ago are still what many diners sit on and eat at in the Landmark Café. In the course of time, however, things happen, chairs and tables sometimes taking the brunt of it.

Opening the restaurant one morning after a stormy night Eugene Sauve found a note addressed to him.

Dear Eugene,

Please accept my sincere apology for the disorderly behavior I displayed last evening. Enclosed is a cheque that I hope is sufficient for the purchase of a new table. It’s been awhile since I’ve let myself loose like that and I’m only sorry it was at your expense.

Signed, Pam

The next day he wrote back.

Pam, the table is going to be fixed with a little glue. There’s no problem. You are always welcome here.

Love, Eugene

Who doesn’t want to stop and eat and drink and kick back somewhere where the chairs are time tested and sturdy and the table is always set for you?

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.

 

Show on the Road

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Erin McQueen isn’t blonde, doesn’t often wear pearls carry a silk hand fan or suit up in gilded dresses with bows at the breast and puffed sleeves, and rarely looks perplexed. She does, however, speak with an English accent, which comes in handy when you’re a blonde sporting a string of pearls in a posh dress in the Restoration-era play “The Man of Mode.”

Staged by the Fountain School of Performing Arts at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the comedy by George Etherege is about a notorious man-about-town trying to slip-slide out of his love affairs and win over the young spunky seemingly virtuous heiress Harriet.

The play hit the bright lights way back when at just the right time. William Shakespeare had died 60 years earlier. The screws tightened by the Puritans had been recently loosened and women were finally being allowed to play female roles on stage.

There’s nothing like a gal in a gal’s role, rather than some scruffy cross-dresser.

“The make up and costumes are totally different from any other show we’ve done,” said Erin, then in her final year at the school. “Having the period costumes is really exciting. It’s a total transformation. The play truly is an authentic glimpse inside the intricate dating scene of 1676.”

Although she paced her prowling at a good trot, cast arched looks in the stagecraft of 17th century love stories, and had at it with barbed one-liners, like everyone else in a play that is all innuendo and intrigue, unlike everyone else in the play her English accent was neither feigned nor all wrong.

Even though she graduated from high school in Canada, spent four years at Dalhousie University, earning a Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Theatre, lives in Victoria on the south shore of Prince Edward Island, and her father is Canadian, she isn’t, not entirely Canadian, not exactly.

Erin McQueen is British, born and bred in Bristol.

“It’s right on the border with Wales,” said Erin.

Iron Age hill forts and remnants of Roman villas dot the southwestern British landscape. In the 11th century the town was known as Brycgstow, easier to pronounce then than it is now. The port was the starting point for many of the voyages of discovery to the New World in the 15th century. Today the modern economy of the city is built on aerospace, electronics, and creative media.

Unlike most cities, it has its own money, the Bristol pound, which is pegged to the Pound sterling. “Our town, our money,” is what they say in Bristol. Since money is a matter of belief, it’s best to believe in what you’ve got.

“There are a lot of art festivals,” said Erin.

“They do a scavenger hunt every summer with ceramic animals. They started with gorillas, giving giant ceramic gorillas to artists, who painted them, and businesses sponsored them in their shops and on sidewalks, where you had to find them. They have a theatre festival, too, but that only started when we left.”

She was 16-years-old.

“The first time we came to Canada we went to see Halifax, where my father was born. It also happened to be the 150th anniversary of ‘Anne of Green Gables.’ My sister Caitlin was a massive fan. My parents finally said, ‘OK, we are in Halifax anyway, we’ll just pop over to Prince Edward Island.’”

She was 11-years-old.

“We did the tour, all the Anne of Green Gables things,” said Caitlin McQueen. They stayed in Victoria, a small village of maybe one hundred residents near the Westmoreland River. It is much, much smaller than Bristol, which is the 8th largest urban area in England, home to nearly a million.

”I remember saying to Erin, I know I’ve never been here before, but I feel like I am coming home. I feel like I am supposed to be here. It is a dream come true.”

“I don’t really know what happened after that,” said Erin, “but the next year and for a couple of years after, we came back, and we always ended up in Victoria.”

While on a return trip, Andy and Tania McQueen, Erin and Caitlin’s parents, bought a lot overlooking the village harbor. In 2012 the family immigrated to Canada. They commissioned a house to be built, to be completed for occupancy the following spring. That winter was the winter they almost went back to the UK, back to England, back to Bristol.

“We spent a year living in Hampton, just up the road, in a rented house that had no central heating,” said Erin. ”I’m honestly surprised we didn’t move home that winter, because it was horrible.”

The winter months on PEI can be cold, temperatures averaging below zero in January and February. There are many storms, veering from freezing cold rain to freezing cold blizzards. The February 2013 North American blizzard started in the Northern Plains of the United States. By the third day of its arrival in the Maritimes there was heavy snowfall, wind gusts were hitting 100 MPH, more than a thousand flights had been cancelled across eastern Canada, and all Marine Atlantic ferries were suspended.

There was nowhere to go, anyway.  There are few things as democratic as a snowstorm. It’s the same everyone everywhere weather.

“I feel like many people on this island have done that, lived without central heating, but British people aren’t cut out for Canadian winters in unheated houses. I had a comforter on my bed and many, many blankets. I often wore two pairs of pajamas.”

The McQueen family stuck it out.

“The main reason we didn’t move back to England was probably pride,” said Erin. “Obviously, you can’t move back after five months because your whole family back home would be saying, ‘Oh, so that didn’t go well?’”

The McQueen family cats stuck it out, too.

“They are rescue cats, Callie and Zebedee, and we got their vaccination papers together, and applied for pet passports. My uncle said, ‘Why don’t you just get new cats?’”

“You did not just say that!” said Tania McQueen. “They’re part of the family.”

“Let me tell you, though, cats do not like emigrating,” said Erin. “It traumatized them a little. The only other animals on the plane the eight-hour flight were two dogs, a little thing that barked all the time, and a big, quiet German shepherd. We’re still making up for it six years later.”

The cats slept in front of the fireplace in the living room in the rented house from morning to every next morning from the beginning to the end of winter. Unlike the upstairs rooms, there were no doors downstairs shutting the living room off from the kitchen and two back rooms. They made doors out of blankets to conserve the heat in the living room. The cat litter box was in one of the small rooms, behind a blanket door.

“They would wait quite a long time, and then dart behind the blanket, and as soon as they were done, run back in to the fireplace.”

The school buses stayed the course. Erin enrolled at Bluefield High School to complete her last two years. The family had waited leaving England until she finished her first set of high school exams there.

“It’s a big thing,” she said. “Everyone in the country takes the same exams. You study for them for two years. It’s what you’re working up to that whole time.”

Bluefield High School is in the small town of Hampshire. A $2 million dollar addition in 2000 enlarged and modernized the school, which as well as secondary education trains in carpentry, welding, and applied technology. All of its classrooms feature SmartBoards and there are two computer labs. The sports teams from badminton to hockey are all called the Bluefield Bobcats.

The school is thirteen miles and 90 minutes from Victoria.

“The bus went everywhere, so by the time I got there I didn’t really know where I was, because we had gone all over the island. My first day we did orienteering, even though the school is just surrounded by forest and potato fields. It wasn’t like you ever came across any houses. It was very different from Bristol.”

Her plan had been to study fashion design and costume, but her plans changed. “They didn’t have any sewing or couture classes. They did have drama, so I thought, I guess drama is where my theatrical tendencies are going to have to go.”

After graduation she enrolled at Dalhousie University, majoring in anthropology, keeping acting in the back of her mind. “I took acting as an elective and later auditioned for the program. If I get in, I’ll think about it, I thought. I didn’t think I actually would. And then I did.”

In order to find the unexpected it’s best to expect it. You can’t plan for it, but it’s what often changes your life. ”All creative people want to do the unexpected,” said Hedy Lamarr, the glamorous Hollywood starlet and designer of a patented frequency-hopping radio guidance system for torpedoes. Even though she once said “Any girl can be glamorous, all you have to do is stand still and look stupid” – her smart invention was the precursor to GPS, secure WiFi, and Bluetooth technology.

“My sister is the anthropologist, no acting, although she’s fascinated by actors,” said Erin. “She thinks she might do a research project about them one day. Actors never know what the future holds. They’re rarely employed for a long time, always on the way to their next role. It’s living on the edge. It’s the idea that you could love doing something so much that you choose that over stability or financial security.

“That’s what I want to do.”

It’s taking the show on the road. “I’m just going to start auditioning in Halifax. There are so many small weird theatre spaces. I’m thinking of potentially writing a fringe play.” She has no plans of pursuing the discipline of anthropology.

Her four years studying the arts and sciences of theater at Dalhousie University were matched by four summers working in theater in her newly adopted hometown.

“My parents saw there was a job at the Victoria Playhouse. I needed to work in the village. It was the perfect job, since although I do now drive, I couldn’t drive at the time. I could meet people in the industry, too.”

The Victoria Playhouse, in the middle of town, in what used to be the Victoria Hall, seats about 150, and has been producing and presenting live theater and performance events for thirty-seven seasons. In 2007 it was designated a ‘Historic Place’ on the Canadian Register of Historic Places. History gets made every summer seven days a week on its stage.

She worked the refreshment stand her first two summers.

“I don’t do that so much anymore,” she said last summer. “You could say I’ve moved up.”

She worked part-time in the box office, then went full-time, and worked front of the house. Odd jobs became must-do jobs. “I helped one of the actors run their lines, and then I did that a couple more times.” When the stage manager was conscripted to do lighting cues, she went backstage. “I gave the actors their places, which was exciting. I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure the show goes on.”

Sometimes the lighting cues are on the sturm und drang side of the curtain, occasioning careful calculation. Higher than normal water temperatures in the Gulf of St. Lawrence can and do morph into massive thunderstorms, roiling the island. It is batten down the hatches and check the flashlights.

“In villages like this, in bad thunderstorms, power goes out,” said Erin. “The doors are going to open in twenty minutes, the power keeps flickering off and on, and the management has to make a call about whether you think you can make it through the show.”

She became one of the emcees at the front of the stage, pointing out the exits, encouraging donations to the theater, and introducing the play. After the show was over was her favorite time. “It might sound corny, but at the end of the show, when we get to open the curtain and the applause, and afterwards the actors are happy, a kind of high, even with small crowds, that they brought a story to life and created some magic for the audience.”

After her employment contract at the Victoria Playhouse expired at the end of October, she moved back to Halifax, where she went to university, and where there is a red-blooded theatre scene. It is zesty and diverse, ranging from Zuppa Theatre, whose performances defy categorization, to the Neptune Theatre, whose performances outpace categorization.

“Some of the actors who worked at the Playhouse live in Halifax, so that’s quite cool,” she said. “They came to my shows at Dalhousie and I went to their shows.

“Acting, that’s my plan.”

If in the event a professional acting career doesn’t pan out, she is determined to keep her foot on the boards, front back or in the wings. ”If I wasn’t an actor, I’d be a secret agent,” said Thornton Wilder. Erin’s secret is all parts of the theater business interest her, from acting to directing to writing to the nuts and bolts.

“If I’m not acting, I will definitely be doing something in theatre. It’s plow ahead.”

It’s keeping your hand on the gospel plow.

“A part of me is intrigued by stage management,” she said. “Stage managers are another level of human being. They’re like super people with super powers. They’re the people you go to if you have any issues, personal, professional, or logistical. One of my stage managers at Dalhousie had a locker full of extra clothes and every kind of medicine you could imagine. They are prepared for anything.”

A career in the arts often means being a jack-of-all-trades.

“I am very into doing whatever I can,” said Erin.

If you want to accomplish anything something everything, you have to be willing to do whatever it takes, maybe not blood, but certainly sweat, and probably a locker loaded for bear, to make it work, to make it happen.

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.