By Ed Staskus
Before they turned the Victoria Hall into the Victoria Playhouse, and before they spent the next thirty years transforming the theater into ‘PEI’s Longest Running Little Theatre’, Erskine and Pat Smith bought a house in Victoria. The house, in which Pat Smith lives to this day, had bathrooms, running water, and electricity.
Their house in Point Deroche, where they had been living for three years, had no bathroom, no running water, and no electricity.
Victoria is a village on a sheltered harbor on the south shore of Canada’s Prince Edward Island. It is an arts community of family-run businesses. The year-round population is just a few heads above a hundred. Point Deroche is a pocket-sized community on the north shore. There are some summer cottages and a quiet gulf- side beach.
No one knows exactly how many people live in Point Deroche.
“Erskine and I homesteaded there,” said Pat. “We lived in a house that had been built in one day.”
Reggie and Annie McInnis, a brother and sister whose home burned down, built the emergency house in Point Deroche. “They were subsistence farmers. They had no money. They were poor people, but kind and generous.”
The McInnis’s gathered driftwood, had it milled, and cobbled the house together. They nailed the roof down when the sun was shining. It served as shelter against a rainy day.
“It was unfinished on the inside,” said Pat. “You could see all the wormholes from the sea worms that had eaten into the wood.” As small as the house was, there were three rooms and two more upstairs. There was a well and the Smiths built an outhouse.
“Erskine hauled in a Silver Moon wood cook stove.” In the wintertime the stove never went cold. “That’s how we heated the house.”
Erskine Noble Smith, a native PEI-man, lived the length and breadth of Canada. His father was in the Armed Forces and was routinely transferred from base to base. Military brats are time and again drawn to the stage because they’ve learned how to make a fast impression at the drop of a hat.
Pat Stunden Smith moved to Prince Edward Island from Montreal to work at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown, the provincial capital. “I applied to work in the art gallery, but ended up as a tour guide,” she said.
After graduating from university she applied again and was accepted as an assistant curator. She worked at the gallery for several years.
“Then I got itchy feet.”
She traveled, lived in Toronto, and returned to Prince Edward Island. She enrolled at Holland College School of Visual Arts and trained in weaving and silver work. Erskine Smith met his wife-to-be the one and only time she ever appeared on stage.
“I had just moved back to the island, and I thought I needed to meet people, so I joined the Drama Club. I never wanted to be on stage after my first show, which was Brigadoon, but Erskine was in the audience, and we met at a party afterwards.”
Brigadoon is a musical about a mysterious village that appears out of thin air only one day once every one hundred years, and where a man and woman stumble onto each other and fall in love.
“There’s a nice little house in Victoria for sale,” Erskine said to his wife one night after work. He was working in children’s theater, lunchtime performances, and cadging shows around the island. He had taken on the role of Ronald McDonald, as well, becoming the jump suited big shoe big heart clown character for the whole of the Atlantic Canada region.
“He went to every parade and every hospital for seven years,” said Pat. “Kids loved him and he loved kids. He could just touch people. He had children die in his arms.”
The next day the family drove the family car through the heart of the crescent-shaped island to Victoria.
“After my daughter Emily turned three, and I got pregnant with my son Jonathan, no running water became an issue. We were young, but I was tired of washing diapers by hand, and my parents were desperate to help us find another house.”
The Smith family looked at, walked through, and ran the taps in the house. “Yeah, this is a good move for us,” they all agreed.
Victoria is a handful of blocks one way and a handful of blocks the other way. The Victoria Hall, built by a local carpenter between 1912 and 1914, was built at the exact center of the village. It is a wood shingled building with a gambrel roof. For more than seventy years it was where lobster suppers, quilting bees, and community council meetings were held.
It was home to the Red Cross and the Women’s Institute.
“The identity of Victoria is in the buildings that have been here for generations,” said Stephen Hunter, for many years the chef and owner of the Victoria Village Inn.
But, the Trans Canada Highway bypassed Victoria in the 1960s and many businesses left. The village declined as people moved in search of work. “It went into a lull for about two decades,” said Henry Dunsmore, owner of the Studio Gallery.
“When we moved here the hall was a community hall, but it wasn’t being used by the community,” said Pat. “It was empty.” Except for the New York City performing arts troupe that came some summers and put on shows.
“The village loved them, but they left a mess. They were kids, renting an old house, and living the life of Riley, although they had nothing. They raided the Women’s Institute room in the hall and took everything, dishes, silverware.”
While Erskine Smith tromped up and down the Maritimes in his red oversized Ronald McDonald shoes, Pat Smith started up a kindergarten, which she soon moved into the basement of the Victoria Hall.
“Don’t quit your day job,” play-actors are often warned. Pat went on to teach kindergarten for fifteen years. Since so many entertainers are the voices of cartoon characters on TV and in the movies, her classroom might have been a kind of informal inadvertent in-house training ground.
One day in 1981 Frieda and Loren McLelland, who owned a craft shop in the village, visited the Smiths. “Is there any way you could get the theatre going again?” they asked. “It would be good for the community.”
“It hadn’t occurred to us,” said Pat.
“Yeah, I think we can do it,” said Erskine.
“Actor people, do we want any of them?” asked the community council cross-examining the proposal.
“It wasn’t all easy sailing. What made the difference was that we were living in the community,” said Pat. “If they weren’t happy they knew where we lived.”
Where they lived was a few minutes walk from the Victoria Hall.
Erskine Smith recruited himself as actor and Artistic Director. “He looked after everything that happened on stage. Storytelling was who he was.” Charlene McLean and Bill McFadden came on board. Pat Smith became the General Manager, running the box office, searching for funding, writing press releases and programs, and everything else. “It’s a small community theatre. When things need to get done everybody needs to be on board 100%.”
They strategized, developed a mission statement, and opened a bank account. They recruited a Board of Directors.
Then they took a close look at the hall.
“It looked completely different,” said Pat.
The stage was painted black. The Women’s Institute had been using the stage for their suppers. The walls were painted, too, and the ceiling was false. “They had an oil furnace up in what is now our parts room and they pumped the heat down through the ceiling. We took that false ceiling out.“
The seats were hardwood pressed-back chairs. They were attached to two-by-fours because the floor was raked. The back legs of all 153 seats had been sawed down three inches and bolted to the two-by-fours. “The back legs had to be shorter so the seats would be level,” said Pat.
“We had a fund-raiser and auctioned off those chairs. I don’t know where, but they all actually went.”
The theater lacked a proscenium, which is the arch that frames the stage. It is the metaphorical fourth wall, a kind of window around the set. They are helpful to actors because on the other side they can pretend to not hear what the audience is saying, or not saying. It helps the company to mind their own business.
The proscenium was fashioned by chain saw and grinder. David Bennett, a set designer, did the job on his own after everyone else had gone home. “He was a creative guy. He marked the pine boards with a magic marker, did the initial cuts with a chain saw, and then used a small grinder,” said Pat.
“Everybody pitched in to make sure things worked.”
They tracked summer sunset times to make sure they knew when the theater’s windows could be opened during a performance. “We didn’t get air conditioning until 2004,” said Pat. “The windows were darkened and as soon as it got dark outside we would open them so there would be a cross draft in the auditorium.”
The Victoria Playhouse mounted its first show the summer of 1982. “All there was on the island at that time was the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, and then we did what we needed to do and there was the Victoria. It was a very different landscape back then.”
Opening nights only happen once. After all the preparations and rehearsals you’re on your own. The lights go down and the curtain goes up. It helps, however, that opening night is for your friends and community. There were just enough seats in the new theater for them.
The Victoria Playhouse’s first season ran two months. It featured three plays running in repertory. The plays were Dear Liar, The Belle of Amherst, and The Owl and the Pussycat. “The Owl and the Pussycat want to get married – but they’re in the middle of the sea! They reach the land where the Bong Trees grow, and alight to find a vicar and a ring.”
Everybody was on board and everybody was all in. Everything came alive. Pat and Erskine Smith pulled it off.
Theatergoers go to plays because they want to have a great time at the theater. The best show halls, like the Victoria Playhouse, are more like verbs than they are nouns. It’s an event as much as it’s a place. It’s where the drama comedy musical happens, bold funny truthful. You can’t bail out of a story once it’s gotten going, even though most shows at small theaters are just a few characters in a room living it up.
What happens in a lifetime can sometimes be random and disordered. The walk of life is learning about the going by going. In performance on stage the story about what’s happened is put into order and fleshed out. When the season ended Erskine Smith went to work reading plays for the next season, which in time came to mean eighty performances seven days a week all summer long. He continued to do so for thirty years until his untimely death in 2013.
“Erskine was a real storyteller,” said Pat. “Oh, yeah, he loved stories. As long as I knew him, we would go to parties and all of a sudden everyone’s in the kitchen and there’s Erskine telling stories.”
Erskine Smith was the glow in the kitchen, the man in the smoke of the campfire, the storyteller who loved the stage. Pat Smith made sure the nuts and bolts were in all the right places. Today their son and daughter, Jonathan, set carpenter and scenic painter, and Emily, Assistant General Manager, spend the off-season on Prince Edward Island getting ready for the next season.
Standing in the wings while the show goes on Erskine Smith would be happy to see who’s working in the wings.
Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.