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Studio Ensemble member Alissa Grams reflects on the College’s traditional Concert of Remembrance, and Canadian theatre’s tradition of celebrating our identity, history, and honouring those that came before.
As the oak leaves scatter across our streets and cul-de-sacs, the winds of change remind us of our warm, peaceful summer days now bygone. Colours change from spring green and sky blue to more reflective and warm tones, burgundy and golden oak leaves scatter themselves among the orange maples and fallen acorns. The season tells us to remember and to honour what we have.
In life at the College, there is more to tell us to remember and honour.
The Canadian College of Performing Arts’ annual Concert of Remembrance has been in rehearsals for the past few weeks, a tradition that has been a community contribution since the College’s inception. The Concert of Remembrance brings the students together in the camaraderie of an ensemble that gives back to the community.
The first song we learn each school year is the rendition of our national anthem. The maple leaf is worn proudly over our hearts where it belongs. We will never forget.
As much as the concert is a learning experience and an introduction to new students on how we learn and rehearse at CCPA, the concert’s focus on community outreach resonates with students as we embark upon the tour to visit places such as St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Berwick House and the Trafalgar Pro Patria Legion. Meeting and visiting with church members, senior citizens, and veterans teaches the students of the meaning and importance of Remembrance Day in a tangible, genuine way.
As a third year student at the College, I have participated in the Concert of Remembrance the past two years. To me, the concert signifies and embodies the reason we create art: to share and connect with our community, to tell stories worth hearing, and to give a message that will resonate with audiences. As a student, the Concert of Remembrance has immersed me in new and exciting styles of music ranging from an acapella jazz arrangement of Billie Holiday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” to the Scottish traditional “The Parting Glass” to Billy Joel’s heart-wrenching “And So It Goes”.
As many of us embark on adulthood, we come upon the age that, one hundred years ago, would have made us eligible for conscription and call to duty. As we leave our homes and families in other cities, provinces, and even countries to seek our education in the arts, we are learning what it is like to part with what we treasure most. And as actors, we are adept at taking our experiences and understandings and using them to put ourselves in the shoes of someone else, perhaps the shoes of a soldier who had to part with what he or she treasures most, to fight for the country they love.
This fall, I am currently working with the “Company C” Studio Ensemble on our second play: Unity (1918), written by Kevin Kerr. This Governor General’s Award winning play takes place at the tail-end of World War I – with one scene even depicting the town’s discovery of the news of the end of the War. In the play, we meet characters whose lives have been changed by war, and even a wounded soldier returning fresh from the fighting. The play is narrated by Beatrice, a 21-year-old diarist who documents the growing fear and trepidation surrounding the end of the world and the impending flu, as well as her own and her younger sister’s sexual coming-of-age revelations. The soldier Hart has been blinded in battle, yet still retains a fresh, quick-witted and open attitude towards life and the people he meets. We also meet a 15-year-old mortician named Sunna, an Icelandic girl who struggles to fit in with the townspeople and prefers to keep company with the dead.
It is not new that Canadian theatre pieces reflect on our country’s history, particularly on World War I and our involvement and growth as a country through the era.
Jake’s Gift is a multi-award winning Canadian play written and performed by Julia Mackey. Jake’s Gift was brought to CCPA last fall, and all students got to attend the one-woman show. It’s story centres on the growing relationship between Isabelle, a 10-year-old French girl who lives on Juno Beach, and Jake, a Canadian World War II veteran returning to the beach for the first time since battle. A heart warming piece about the legacy of remembrance and the importance of recognition and gratitude, Jake’s Gift emphasizes that inter-generational relationships lead to inspiring teachings.
Jake’s Gift regularly tours and has been since 2007. This Remembrance Day, Jake’s Gift was performed at the Presentation House Theatre in North Vancouver, BC.
Another staple piece in the Canadian theatre repertoire is a play called Mary’s Wedding by Stephen Massicotte. Set in a dream on the night before her wedding, Mary revisits her relationship with her first love Charlie, who went away to fight in World War I. The love story within Mary’s Wedding is one of purity, understanding, and of giving permission to live and love freely, even if that is not with each other. The setting of World War I gives plot, depth, stakes, and circumstance to the story, as well as employing to the audience that those who fought for Canada were still young and hopeful, innocent and full of plans for their lives.
Perhaps the most notable play centred around Canada’s participation in war is Billy Bishop Goes to War, a mix between a play and a musical, written by written by John MacLachlan Gray in collaboration with Eric Peterson. One of the most widely produced plays in Canadian theatre, the two-man play dramatizes the life of Canadian World War I fighter pilot Billy Bishop. The original 1978 production toured across Canada and even spent some time Off-Broadway. A colourful and varied telling of Billy Bishop’s journey through WWI France, the play extracts real events in history to both educate and entertain audiences.
A close to home production of Billy Bishop Goes to War was recently performed at Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre here in Victoria, starring CCPA’s very own alumni and staff member RJ Peters, who plays Billy Bishop among 17 other characters, and Gabriel MacDonald on the piano, yet another CCPA alumni.
Theatre-goers want the actors on stage to transport them to another world and put them in another person’s shoes. Sharing tales about times of war and the sacrifices people made helps to keep their memories and stories alive. Overall, the Canadian experience is one that Canadians want to see on stage. We love to celebrate our identity and history, and to honour those that came before. In essence: we remember.