by Heather Debling
There's a lot of things you don't think of when writing a play. The practicalities of it. When I was writing The Maple Leaves, it seemed important to not get bogged down in the details, to hold back something necessary to the story because of uncertainty of how it could be staged. It would be up to someone else to (in the now infamous words of Tim Gunn) "make it work."
But now, as a first-time producing playwright, I'm faced daily - often hourly - with a new challenge entirely of my own making.
Based on real-life WWI concert party groups like The Dumbells, The Y Emmas, and The Maple Leafs, The Maple Leaves tells the little known story of soldiers who performed shows near the front lines to entertain their comrades and boost morale. These performers, as Jason Wilson writes in his book Soldiers of Song: The Dumbells and Other Canadian Concert Parties of the First World War, "sought to reach the individual soldier, in the interest of helping him survive the war" (p.1).
When my director, Gada Jane, and I decided to submit the play to the SpringWorks Indie Theatre and Arts Festival we proposed a minimally staged version rather than a reading. A basic set, a few props, and some costumes to evoke the period. Simple enough - in theory.
But even a minimally staged version of the play becomes quite complicated when you factor in the musical performance numbers, the quick changes between the on-stage and off-stage worlds of the characters, and the finding of WWI uniforms, patterns for period-like dresses and undergarments, and shoes big enough for the two male actors playing female impersonators - not to mention the odd whizz-bang that has to go off in the background.
Whenever I start to get too stressed about all of these practicalities, I remind myself of the soldiers the play is about who put on performances in much more difficult and trying circumstances. They were experts at making it work. Sets and costumes for early shows were often improvised, with footlights fashioned out of candles and biscuit tins and wigs out of rope or horsehair. According to The Virtual Gramophone, groups like "The Dumbells played in the most ramshackle, makeshift, and even dangerous, of circumstances" (para. 12). And though some men were eventually excused and focused solely on putting on shows, many of these soldier-performers continued to serve or were returned to active service from the concert party groups.
All I can hope is that our production captures some the spirit of these men, and the joy they felt and offered to their comrades when putting on their shows.
The Maple Leaves plays at the SpringWorks Indie Theatre and Arts Festival at Factory 163 in Stratford on Wednesday, May 15 at 6:00 p.m. and Saturday, May 18 at noon. Performers Mischa Aravena, Chris Coculuzzi, Scott Garland, Devin Herbert and Daniel Roberts. Visit www.stillwaters-productions.com or www.springworksfestival.ca for more details.
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