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The legacy of Erskine Smith

by Graham Lea

Erskine Smith & Breanna Moore (photo: Pam Price)The show is over. Audience and actors have left. Costumes are hung and props reset. I turn out the backstage lights and pull tight the backstage door. The Playhouse is quiet. After a busy production week we have just finished the first few days of Having Hope at Home. Outside the heavy air is silent save someone sliding open a screen window and frogs chirping in the background. The daily run of tourists and theatregoers has ebbed and the village sits in a Brigadoon-like stillness. My cat runs up to greet me and we begin our nightly wanders through the empty streets. Not so long ago, these strolls were also taken by my next-door neighbor, mentor, artistic director, and friend, Erskine Smith and his dog Tasha.

I first knew Erskine as a neighbor. As a child, I played with his children Emily and Jonathan. It was not uncommon to climb up to the second floor of his barn to play with props stashed away and dreaming of another chance to make it to the stage. I was enthralled by his magic tricks. To my child mind, they were not tricks but real magic. My next-door neighbor was a magician…a magician and Ronald MacDonald. How many kids get to say that!

However, Erskine’s most significant influence on my life, and that of many others, was not a trick. It was his years of tireless work at the Victoria Playhouse.  When I was younger, my mother spent several summers working in the box office. During those summers I became entranced by the theatre. I would stand underneath the ladder to the booth at the back of the theatre almost every night and watch the shows Erskine helped bring to life. The opportunity to watch performances evolve and grow became a wonderful learning opportunity.

Those nights in the Victoria Playhouse helped set me on a path that has lead to my now sitting in an apartment in Paris rehearsing monologues with theatre education experts from across the world. It feels like a Bohemian dream. During a discussion I mention the theory of chains of utterance, which underpins much of my current research. A significant part of the theory suggests that every utterance we make is shaped by all those that have preceded it: our voices are filled with the words of others. Inspired by this, I wrote in my dissertation “we are nothing but the waves our stories leave in the stories of others.”

About 10 years ago I began stage-managing shows at the Playhouse. Like watching shows every night, stage-managing provided an opportunity to watch shows evolve, interact with actors as they develop characters, and build a comprehensive understanding of how a theatrical production is created. These experiences have had significant explicit and implicit influences not only my theatrical life but also on my academic research.

My academic work focuses on exploring ways of using theatre to engage in academic research. At the heart of my dissertation is a full-length script Homa Bay Memories based on my research that I wrote with the Victoria Playhouse stage in mind. For example, the stage design I envision for my research was greatly influenced by Scott McConnell’s design for the Playhouse production of Love Letters.  This and other influences would not have happened without Erskine as impresario of the Playhouse. I have used my experiences at the Playhouse and the lessons I have learned there from Erskine and others to help push the aesthetic and artistic potential of the theatricalization of data.

I share these experiences with other academics here in Paris, bringing with me memories, learnings, and stories of my time at the Victoria Playhouse. Stories of, stories shared by, and stories facilitated by Erskine. The waves of his stories continue with and through me as I now share my work, inspired in part by his, around the world.

Despite my travels, I still look forward to returning home to Victoria, a community Erskine was instrumental in re-building. Without the Playhouse at its core, it is hard to imagine the village being the tourist and artistic centre it has become. Not only is it a place for people to visit during the days but it is home for some, and home base for many other of my generation who grew up in the village and now travel around the world. All of us, like I do, carry with us the echoes of Erskine with us wherever we go. He is forever linked in our chains of utterances.  If indeed we are nothing more than the waves our stories leave in the stories of others, then the waves Erskine leaves in the stories of others are large indeed.

A life in theatre

We asked Pat Smith to help us by suggesting some of the highlights of Erskine’s Smith’s work at Victoria Playhouse. She kindly responded with the following list, but also mentioned finding newspaper clippings from Erskine’s involvement in the Lunchtime Theatre days of the late 1970s “The work is voluminous, really,” she says.—Editor

Selections: Victoria Playhouse

1988–Ned & Jack by Sheldon Rosen, starring Erskine as Edward Sheldon and Bill McFadden as John Barrymore

1993–The Affections of May by Norm Foster, directed by David Bulger starring Erskine Smith, Bill McFadden, Jocelyn Bordeaux and Ken Arsenault

1993–Sleuth by Anthony Schaffer, starring Erskine Smith and Bill McFadden, directed by David Bulger

1996–Someone’s in the Kitchen by Gregson Winkfield, starring Erskine Smith as Jack, Pamela Halstead and Dennis Trainor and Jennifer Anderson, directed by Gregson Winkfield

1998–Sinners by Norm Foster, starring Erskine Smith, Pam Stevenson, Lisa Gallant, Greg Ellard and Lori Linkletter, directed by David Bulger

1999–The Maritime Way of Life by Charlie Rhindress, starring Erskine Smith as the mother, Pam Stevenson

2000–The Most Amazing Things a storytelling show written and performed by Erskine Smith

2002–Sylvia by AR Gurney Jr, starring Erskine Smith & Mia Ingimundson, directed by Sheila MacLean

2003–The Road to Charlottetown by Milton Acorn and Cedric Smith, starring Erskine Smith, Patrick Roach, Josh Weale, Roy Johnstone and Christina Forgeron

2005–The Drawer Boy by Michael Healey, starring Erskine Smith as the drawer boy, Ben Raynor and Wally MacKinnon, directed by Duncan MacIntosh

2006–Oscar & Felix by Neil Simon, starring Erskine Smith as Felix, with Patrick Roach, Will McFadden, Bill McFadden, Gillian Mahen, Adam Gauthier, Nicholas Kenny and Jenna MacMillan, directed by Scott Burke

2011–Till it Hurts by Douglas Bowie, starring Erskine Smith as Seymour Mann with Breanna Moore, Mark Fraser and Kathleen Hamilton, directed by Erskine Smith

“I was talking to David Bulger…and he said he first saw Erskine onstage as an apprentice at Neptune Theatre in 1964. Of course he loved directing; however, as you know, he loved even more being on stage…then, of course, there is the storytelling.”— Patricia Stunden Smith

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