Authors: Robert Chafe
Butler’s Marsh and Tempting Providence
© Copyright 2009 Robert Chafe
Introduction © Copyright 2010 Michael Crummey
Playwrights Canada Press
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For professional or amateur production rights, please contact:
Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland
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St. John’s, NL A1B 4J9
Cover image of Melanie Caines by Justin Hall, courtesy of Artistic Fraud.
Cover design by Blake Sproule.
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Playwrights Canada Press acknowledges the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund and the Canada Council for the Arts, and of the Province of Ontario through the Ontario Arts Council and the Ontario Media Development Corporation for our publishing activities.
I expect that
would never have come into being if not for the fact that Jillian Keiley (founder of one of the country’s most innovative and fearless theatre companies, Artistic Fraud) is terrified of flying.
Jill and I first met at the Labrador Creative Arts Festival in Happy Valley-Goose Bay in 1998. The week-long event invites professional artists in all disciplines to run workshops with school kids from across Labrador. The night before she flew back to St. John’s, Jill was already stressed about the thought of getting on the plane. I gave her a copy of my second book,
, a collection of stories and poems about outport Newfoundland. This will keep your mind off it, I told her. I meant it as a joke, but Jill claims she read the whole way home and never gave a thought to the imminent crash that usually occupies her time during a flight.
A few months later she contacted me to suggest adapting parts of the book for the stage. Eventually
Salvage: The Story of a House
went up in an old merchant residence in St. John’s, the audience moving from room to room in groups of eight to hear a series of three-minute monologues. Each small group carried a map that told them which room to move to next, a hundred people jigsawing through the narrow hallways, the actors on the move between pieces as well. Everyone saw the same show, but each in a different order.
I remember thinking, when Jill first described this Rubik’s Cube of an idea to me, that there was no way to make the logistical nightmare work. I was wrong, of course. And as I’ve learned from that experience and my subsequent run-ins with Artistic Fraud, Jill’s mind operates in a realm completely different than my own.
* * *
When Jill and Robert Chafe invited me out to lunch three or four years ago, I was expecting the unexpected. Several times after the
show Jill had mentioned that she might be interested in adapting “Afterimage” for the stage. Fill your boots, I told her, though privately I thought it was a ridiculous notion and would never happen.
The story is part of
Flesh and Blood
, a collection set in a fictional mining town that is remarkably similar to the place where I was born and raised in central Newfoundland. I have only the vaguest recollection of how the story came to me and how it took shape, but there were a number of real-life anecdotes at the root of it: a French woman who worked at the hospital in Buchans and told fortunes in her off-hours; a family friend who was badly injured in an industrial electrocution; ball lightning entering an outport house through the stove and circling the room until it was swept out the door with a broom. Why these completely unrelated events began circling one another in my head is a mystery to me. But they created a gravitational field that pulled in dozens of other stray incidents and stories I’d heard: the worm that curled up and died when held in the palm of the seventh son of a seventh son; the kids of an ostracized family who passed on a contaminating “touch” if you came into contact with them; the travelling photographer who went door to door in Buchans when I was no more than five or six years old. The episodic nature of the source material made for a story told in a series of brief scenes weaving back and forth across a number of time frames, many of them offering variations on images of fire or electricity. Not the kind of thing that seems to be crying out for a theatrical treatment.
Over lunch, Jill explained her plan to build an “electrified” set with a copper floor and copper-wire walls with a live current running through them. She wanted to wire the actors’ costumes in a way that would allow them to complete a circuit in order to spark off one another or illuminate light bulbs by touch or mimic the flash of a camera. She sketched a few things on napkins, talking at length about the difference between AC and DC currents. I knew enough about Jill by then not to dismiss the lunatic notion outright.
Robert, likewise, took it all in without batting an eye. He and Jill have been collaborating for years, and nothing she suggested seemed to give him the slightest pause. I’ve been following Robert’s work since moving home to St. John’s a decade ago, from his one-man show,
Charismatic Death Scenes
, to the brilliant bare-bones period piece,
, to what was his most recent work with Jill at the time,
, a risky meta-narrative about a blind man trapped in an apartment with a wall mirror that alternately reflects the room’s interior and the blind man’s thoughts. He was being charged with writing a script based on my story that incorporated an electrified stage and an as-yet-unwritten original score setting some of the show to music. He seemed perfectly calm about it all.
The central conflict in “Afterimage” revolves around an orphan trying to figure his place in a peculiar family, a child who feels excluded by his normalcy and takes extraordinary measures to fit in. Robert’s plays, it seems to me, are always about people trying to make connections, about an individual’s struggle to find their place in a world that on the surface might suggest they don’t belong. And for all the choreography and stage wizardry Jill employs, story is central to her shows. The pyrotechnics are always meant to illuminate or act as a metaphor for the human drama at the heart of the piece. If there was a pair to make something of “Afterimage” on stage, I was sitting with them.
They spent a long time that afternoon talking about staying true to the spirit of the story and how they planned to translate that to the theatre, but they needn’t have bothered. They had me at hello.
* * *
I was in Toronto for the premiere of
at the Harbourfront Centre in April of 2009. It was a surreal experience to watch the play unfold, to have a vague sense of connection to characters and lines and images in the play and at the same time to recognize that the story as it was presented belonged wholly to someone other than myself.
Robert invited my input and involvement at all stages of the adaptation, but with the exception of some general conversations I left it to him. The little story I’d published was already more than a decade old and I’ve long since forgotten what interested me enough to write it. Robert and Jill had found something of their own in it and the best I could do for them, and the play, was to get the hell out of the way. And though there’s an undeniable family resemblance between the short story and the theatrical incarnation, they are completely different creatures, with their own personalities and idiosyncrasies. This current version of
has been workshopped and rewritten since its debut and in some ways has moved even further afield of what the original story was. Which makes it more true to itself.
At the Harbourfront after-party, I was offered congratulations by a steady stream of well-wishers. I felt like a father handing out cigars in the waiting room while the mother recovers from the shock and awe of labour somewhere in the bowels of the hospital. I may have unknowingly planted the seed, but everything that followed in the gestation and birth of the play—everything that really matters—is the work and heart and vision of Artistic Fraud, and of Robert and Jill in particular.
Lise: the mother of the Evans clan
Winston: the father
Theresa: the oldest
Jerome: the youngest
Leo: the middle child
Maggie: a nurse
Connie: a young woman
Leonard: a photographer