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Lovely Stories

The (Post) Mistress

Review by Jane Ledwell

“You see how these letters enter my heart!” laughingly laments post-mistress Marie-Louise Faucon, played by Martha Irving. The one-woman musical The (Post) Mistress by Tomson Highway is playing at the Victoria Playhouse where the audience can, indeed, see precisely how letters enter the small-town Ontario postmistresses’ heart and life, in a visually and musically satisfying production centred on an unmissable, tour-de-force solo performance by Irving.

Set in 1968 when people wrote letters, the arrival of mail in the fictional town of Lovely, Ontario, prompts Marie-Louise to read through the envelope, intuit, or imagine the contents of her neighbours’ letters and to sing their stories in a series of cabaret songs in English, French, and Cree. Marie is that dear friend you have who comes to tea to drop dozens of names you’ve never heard of and tell outrageous stories.

Gossipy, sexy, funny, odd, and familiar stories of love and heartbreak bring to life the neighbours’ lives, and, ultimately, that of Marie-Louise herself. There is little of life left uncovered in the songs — love, loss, betrayal, reconciliation, sex, and as Marie-Louise says with relish, the “blood, guts, and mayhem” of the human drama.

Whether the letters come from Rio, New Orleans, Trois-Rivieres, Val d’Or, Toronto, Buenos Aires, Saskatchewan, Montreal, Gatineau, or across town in Lovely, they are filled with affection, humour, or grief and are all, in one sense or another, love letters. They demonstrate how one heart is connected to another and one small town is connected to the much larger world.

When I interviewed Martha Irving last month, she told me why in her view PEI and Canada need more Tomson Highway. She said that Highway is “unlike anyone I’ve ever met. He has had a tumultuous life and chooses to live in the present, in the positive things… and he loves to hear people laugh.” Highway left theatre for a while and wrote a lot of cabaret songs he was unsure what to do with. “Then he got talking to a gossipy postmistress in Ontario,” she told me with a wink, “and thought, now I can put the songs together.” The play was ultimately a birthday present for his partner, she says, and so “it comes from a beautiful place of love.”

Irving said to me, “Judi Dench famously said she would never perform in a one-woman show,” — “I wouldn’t do a one-woman show. It would be death for me. I would not know who to get ready for,” Dench said — and Irving said, “I would have thought myself the same way.” But her love for the character of Marie-Louise Faucon has brought her back to this glistening staging of The (Post) Mistress, ably directed by Catherine O’Brien, who brings fresh choreography and perspective.

Music by Holly Arsenault and Ken Fornetran is tastefully complementary and never overwhelms Irving’s expressive voice. The versatile and effective set built and painted by Ron Quesnel and Jonathan Smith makes space for a township of characters, and the costume design by Kelly Caseley deserves special mention for its deceiving simplicity. How to fit the loose threads of so many characters’ stories and actions into one pliable costume?

If The (Post) Mistress is more than a slightly kooky assortment of songs and stories of life and love, it reveals its heart in a tender twist near the end that almost integrates the narrative. But Tomson Highway knows life and love are not tidy: they are messy and funny and finite.

All this must be animated by one actor’s performance, and if you love what theatre can do, it would be a disrespect to miss Martha Irving’s captivating, comic virtuoso performance.

In the blood

Profile: Martha Irving

by Jane Ledwell

Matha Irving (photo: pixbylorne)The best Christmas present actor, director, and drama coach Martha Irving ever received was professional stage makeup from her parents. “It was a realization I came to at about 13 years of age, that all my thinking—how I processed the world—was through the eyes of an actor. So I just started to build my life toward that.” The makeup kit was a sign that her parents—Island theatre cornerstone Ron Irving and visual artist Daphne Irving—supported her. 

“Theatre was in my blood,” she admits, “but you only become an actor if that’s what you have to do. It’s a calling. If it’s a calling for you, it is a very challenging but very rewarding life. My father was in the business, so I knew what it was. I knew I’d never make any money (and that’s important to know),” she laughs.

When she got that calling to act, “I was so lucky to be on PEI,” Martha says. “My father taught at Boston University when I was seven to twelve, and I didn’t really get involved in theatre. When we came back to PEI, there were opportunities at school, and in community theatre”—even touring shows. “There was a lot of opportunity for me because PEI was small and inclusive.” 

All the same, leaving PEI was as important as getting a start here, Martha recalls. “Here, I was ‘Ron Irving’s daughter.’ I had to do that (leave) when I was young, to get that independent identity.” 

Now based in Halifax, where she is co-artistic director of Lunasea women’s theatre company and continues her remarkable career on stage and screen, Martha is home on the Island this summer for the one-woman musical The (Post) Mistress by Thomson Highway, playing at the Victoria Playhouse. “I just love the character so much,” she says. The play, she says, “has a likable character and has music. It’s funny. It’s touching...”

Recalling her first time in the postmistress role, Martha says, “It terrified me to take this job.” The (Post) Mistress is a one-woman play: “There’s no connecting with a scene partner – the relationship is direct with the audience. Judi Dench said she would never perform a one-woman show, and I would have thought myself the same way...” But, she has discovered, “There’s a connection with the audience you don’t get with any other type of theatre. To be able to craft—and to craft for the audience that’s there that night—what they need,” is an incredible experience.

This will be her second summer in a row adding to offerings at Victoria Playhouse. After a “couple years’ break” from playing in The (Post) Mistress, Martha brought the script to Pat Stunden Smith at Victoria Playhouse as a good fit for their theatre. They agreed. “This is a new production, directed by Catherine O’Brien,” Martha says. “I’m looking forward to working with her, re-examining the script with her. I’m five years older, and I have five years more experience as a lens.” Catherine is also bringing her skills as a choreographer into the show, “an added element for me.”

Summers home are a recent tradition for Martha. “I hadn’t been on the Island in summer for about 18 years – summers are when actors are always working,” she smiles. Then, from 2008 until last year, she spent summers on the Island for Anne & Gilbert, most recently as director. That musical, she says, “was a reconnection to my roots – a charming and beautiful show,” and through the children’s chorus was “a great opportunity for teaching and coaching, a connection with kids. There’s so much talent on this Island!”

Martha says, “Because it’s an island, PEI is very protective of its culture. Newfoundland, Cape Breton, PEI—these islands are teeming with the arts. You find it on the front page of the paper, where you don’t as much in Halifax... On PEI, as my father and mother always say, there are 20 things to choose from every night. I feel lucky to be part of that.”

And when she comes home to act or direct these days, Martha’s father proudly introduces himself as “Martha Irving’s father.”

Earning the Ideal

Anne & Gilbert—The Musical

Review by Jane Ledwell

The advertising tagline of Anne & Gilbert is “Anne of Green Gables in love,” but the great fun of this musical is that it takes a mighty lot of effort to convince Anne of this possibility. In a play that celebrates the strength and sufficiency of women’s friendships, the female characters have some work to do to persuade themselves to settle for anything less than the ideal.

Anne Shirley, as played by Holly Cinnamon, is least needy of all. Thoughtful, beautiful, headstrong, and brainy, surrounded by devoted friends, it is hard to believe she even really wants the romance she imagines in her story “Averil’s Ideal,” let alone her old rival Gilbert (Cameron Kneteman) — despite his handsome, confident, and devoted mien that makes the women around him swoon. Kneteman gives a persuasive and winning performance, but the show is clear that Gilbert’s wooing is not enough.

The women of the show provide a clear alternative to romance — especially the deep friendship between her adoptive parent Marilla (Marlene Handrahan) and Rachel Lynde (Catherine O’Brien), who live and express the joy and sorrow of “Our Duty.” In her own generation, Anne’s friends are also more appealing than any of the men. The earthy, funny Diana (spirited and comic Alessia Lupiano) seeks marriage for baudy adventure and fun. Anne’s university friend Philippa Gordon (a swaggering Eva Petris) gets to have the most fun of anyone in the play, stringing along beaux. But even Josie Pye (a sly, scheming Celia Koughan) embraces education and concedes that competing for men is beneath her.

Anne has to see another side of her women friends’ experience to look beyond friendship and independence — Diana’s physical enthusiasm, Rachel Lynde’s loss and Marilla’s regret in love, and even Philippa’s surprising softness. Ultimately, after being courted in more than one graveyard by more than one suitor, it takes the voice of Anne’s birth parents from beyond the grave (the sweet, sad “Forever in My Life” which heartbreakingly brought real tears to Holly Cinnamon’s eyes and voice) to prove love possible.

Anne & Gilbert owns The Guild and benefits from the intimacy of the performance space — the heads in the front row are just under the cast’s high kicks. It is delightful to hear the unmiked singing, especially when the songs’ harmonies and counterpoints come together. Musical director Tara Littvack’s keyboard was slightly heavy in the mix the evening we attended, though the vocalists made themselves well heard.

The show’s director and choreographer, Brittany Banks, brings a terrific backstory to her work, having started out auditioning for the premiere season of Anne & Gilbert and having played numerous roles on and off the stage in the evolution of the show. She cannily chooses best aspects of past performances and knows how to make the most of the wide, narrow stage, and Bryan Kenney’s set that wastes no square inch of The Guild. Banks is forgiving of broader dramatic gestures than the songs and story need to capture the audience — for instance, Anne’s seeming ideal mate, Roy Gardiner (Geordie Brown), is too much the mustachioed villain — but she will settle into trusting the strength of the material.

And the cast and crew have such good material to work with. I love the clever, tuneful, lively, and affecting songs and book by Jeff Hochhauser, Bob Johnston, and Nancy White. In songs such as “You’re Island Through and Through” and “Carried Away by Love,” they get at something true and essential about Anne and the Island, the inextricability of Anne from her place and her community of friends. The shows strengths ring clear in this year’s production.

Anne of Green Gables—The Musical™

Review by Jane Ledwell

“What was I thinking?” The panicked thought raced through my brainpan minutes before the familiar overture of opening night at Anne of Green Gables—The Musical™. I had leapt at the opportunity to introduce the show to our six-year-old son, Sam. He’d never seen it, despite his older sister’s lifetime devotion to the show from the rapt age of three. As he whirled and jumped in his seat, I remembered why we hadn’t brought him before: he’s impossibly active, curious, talkative, impetuous. Not guaranteed to Behave Appropriately in Public.

Why, why had I agreed to review the unstoppable Anne, in the 52nd season of its limitless run in the Charlottetown Festival, and why review it in a year with two youthful PEI leads as Anne (Jessica Gallant) and Gilbert (Aaron Hastelow)? Not to mention beloved Island performers as Mrs. Rachel Lynde (Marlane O’Brien) and Matthew Cuthbert (Hank Stinson)?

A quick glance behind us revealed my ants-in-the-pants kid was directly in the line of sight of the show’s director, Wade Lynch, until recently a neighbor. As Mrs. Lynde opened the book with a knowing wink, I may have winced with worry that even the gentle, lovable parts of the show would be played tongue-in-cheek and provoke all the mixed feelings Anne does in a literary Islander…

I had nothing to worry about. This year’s Anne is wonderful, led by Jessica Gallant, who has absorbed every kind of Anne performance ever performed on PEI and glows with them all, with a beautiful smile of genuine wonder and delight, and a delightful singing voice. Gilbert, so rarely a worthy rival to Anne, is very strongly played by Aaron Hastelow, who raised a literal cheer with even Gilbert’s soppy solos. After 28 seasons with the Charlottetown Festival, no one could love Anne more evidently than Hank Stinson, and that is the core of his job as Matthew Cuthbert. His foil, Marilla, is played with welcome good humour by Charlotte Moore. The scene-stealing Miss Stacy sails on stage in the pregnant person of Josee Boudreau, with a rich-voiced rendition of “Open the Window.” And Marlane O’Brien’s Rachel Lynde has earned her relish in her role – she grew the cucumbers.

The production spins along faster than Matthew Cuthbert’s buggy, streamlined to essentials to quicken the pace in recent years, with richer naturalistic elements in the sets by Doug Paraschuk and projections by Sean Nieuwenhuis (including subtle red soil and one brief, stunning moon-and-stars set).

This year’s choreography by Robin Calvert stands out, a match to the company’s extraordinary dancing, and complements Wade Lynch’s direction, which impressively uses the show’s momentum and still draws out unforced performances and authentically comic moments. Always on edge for the school concert, I was delighted that the triumphalist, racist pageant played for “comedy” was set aside for a performance of the “Pageant Song” that touchingly features the adorably talented Children of Avonlea with all the pride and none of the freneticism.

To be there on opening night, surrounded by the cheering family, friends, and fellow artists of the local cast and crew, young and old, was inspiring. Anne has not only indomitably allowed a theatre festival to flourish in tiny Charlottetown, it has raised and developed a generation of aspirant performers of incredible ambition and international talent.

And my six-year-old? Loved it. Everything from the happiest to the saddest moment. Behaved admirably, mostly. Sitting still is impossible for him, but what is he but a true kindred spirit to the energetic, unpredictable Anne? “Okay, Sam,” I thought quietly. “Never change.”

Gracing the stage

Profile: Gracie Finley

by Jane Ledwell

Gracie Finley (photo: Buzz)I think the old saying that things improve when you get older, for me anyway, is true,” says actor Gracie Finley. Tempted back to the stage of the Watermark Theatre after an almost thirty-year leave from her acting career, this summer, in her fourth season back, she plays two major roles.

“I had been away from theatre a long time,” Gracie recalls. Beloved as the first Islander to earn the leading role of Anne of Green Gables—The Musical, it was because of this past role that a few years ago Duncan McIntosh (then-artistic director of the Charlottetown Festival and later founding artistic director of the Watermark Theatre) called Gracie at her home in England with nice things to say about her years-earlier performance.

“We became very good friends. A few years after, my husband and I bought a cottage at Stanley Bridge… And that was one of the first years of (what became the Watermark) Theatre.”

After two seasons of dropped hints, “I think it was the third year, Duncan took me to dinner and said, ‘So, Gracie, I’ve been looking at doing Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, but set on PEI in the 1970s… What would you think of playing the lead?’

“Well, I love Chekhov…” Gracie says in a voice that conveys she was instantly, already convinced, “and I went home and thought, why not?” She returned to the stage that summer in the Chekhov adaptation The Shore Field, and as the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland.

Gracie says some friends cautioned, “Aren’t you afraid to come back? They saw it as a big risk… But I think it does you good to give yourself a healthy scare—and a challenge. I wasn’t frightened so much as excited.”

She says, “The best part about being here [at the Watermark Theatre] the last few years is that I’ve gotten to play some of the best roles in theatre for a woman my age,” she says, including Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter and the nurse in Romeo and Juliet.

“This year, I’ll be playing two of the most fulfilling roles,” she enthuses, as the medium Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit and the faded-glory mother Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie.

Blithe Spirit she describes as “funny, improbable, ridiculous, and slightly camp, and her character is “a ‘jolly hockeysticks’ type of English lady—a stereotype, mind you—louder than loud, domineering, they know best about everyone.” The Glass Menagerie she describes as “Tennessee Williams at his finest,” dealing with “the human condition, relationships, family, struggle, certainly—and hope—and the terror of coping with life, a life that is full of disappointments.” Amanda’s character, she says, “is infused with a lot of humour—desperate humour, but poignant.”

Gracie is clearly in love with these characters, and her love does not end with them. She says, “I love this little theatre so much. It has its ups and downs, and I would love to see people give us a chance…

“This small space here,” Gracie says, gesturing to the Watermark stage, “tries to fulfill something I went to the theatre for—sharing an experience together on the stage, reaching a timelessness.” It’s a mission that goes beyond entertainment.

Gracie appreciates that her acting life has had multiple acts and scenes. “My best Anne was when I came back and played her in my thirties,” Gracie reflects. “I was too close in age the first time I played her. I think I felt sorry for her at times, and that was not Anne—she didn’t allow herself self-pity. In my thirties, I could step back and have such a better perspective on it.”

In this act of her life, Gracie says, “The hardest thing is that my husband travels back and forth from PEI to England, but when he’s here and family comes to visit, at six o’clock, they’re pouring a glass of wine, and I’m going to work.” But, she counters, “I feel very lucky to be back working again, finding that again.” There’s no need to write a final act yet.

Feasting on stage

Profile: Sherri-Lee Darrach

by Jane Ledwell

Sherri–Lee Darrach (photo: Buzz)Sprightly Sherri-Lee Darrach says she is “ready for anything,” and in her roles as a performer, director, and artistic director of the Feast Dinner Theatre, she has to be. “Life’s really good,” she offers. “We all have to work, right? So we might as well do the things we love doing,” she says—and that requires improvisation, in more ways than one.

“In dinner theatre, we make some of the best actors,” she says, with a killer smile. “Every night is live and every night is different. It’s the best job in the world.”

As a teenager at Three Oaks High School, Sherri-Lee thought she would apply her quick reactions and lightness on her feet as a police officer. She had plans to go to the Police Academy, until year-end skits arranged by her teachers set her on an unexpected path into performance. “I started taking every lesson I could, every audition I could. I had a plan to go to the National Theatre School… but then I met a boy, and he was from the Island, and he had a business here… So I went to college and took computers and business. And I married him, and we had two kids. We’re not together anymore, but I have had the best 18 years.”

She says, “As an actor, I started late and didn’t get to theatre school, so my experience is hands-on and on-stage. I had to catch up, so I had to start running! I did a little bit of everything—stage, voiceover, film.”

She had auditioned unsuccessfully for dinner theatre in her late teens. When she was 25, the voice teacher she was studying with insisted she try again, and this time she was cast in a show. “I was newly married. I worked at a bank. I quit my job and did dinner theatre,” she says.

After time off for babies, more dinner theatre, and successful roles in ACT productions such as Evita and The Blue Castle and more, the opportunity to learn directing came from two directions at once, from the producer of the Feast Dinner Theatre Don Groom and from then-artistic director of the Acting Conservatory at the Watermark Theatre, Duncan MacIntosh.

Sherri-Lee loves directing. “I don’t ever go in and say, ‘Here’s what I want you to do.’ I ask, ‘What do you have?’ and then ‘How can we build on that?’” I have the experience as an actor to know what I needed onstage… As a director, I can put in motion what was in my brain that I might not be able to produce myself. I want to specialize the skills and build on the unbelievable talent here.”

With a new business she has begun, the Atlantic School of Performing Arts at the Harbourfront Theatre, she is working with talent in new ways again—with students “from four to forty-five,” and with teachers from multiple branches of performance. She’s also taking classes at UPEI because as a teacher “it’s important to always be learning.”

For the summer, the focus will be the dinner theatre production Scandalous, (“the name says it all,” she says), then (“just as we start getting comfortable with one show…”) on to a new show in September, with an improv-based Revue Dinner Theatre “after dark” production.

“Dinner theatre is its own beast,” Sherri-Lee says. “It makes you very hard-working—and agile,” she reflects. “You learn that even in situations you think are the worst moments, you can make the best moments. I work customer service at the TD Bank during the day, and that’s all about reading body language and keeping ‘on’ all the time.”

Sherri-Lee says, “Personally, I think it’s something every performer—actor, singer, dancer—should do, if you want to get better at your craft. The training we have there is so unique… I can’t teach you what it’s like to be live every night, to get out of your comfort zone—the audience teaches you that.” Sherri-Lee is looking forward to putting a lot of audience-teachers in front of dinner-theatre performers this summer.

The shooter

Profile: John Hopkins

by Jane Ledwell

John Hopkins (photo: Buzz)“I’m quite laid back, but also quite driven. It’s a real dialectic,” laughs John Hopkins. The filmmaker required the pull of patience and persistence to spend five years on a feature-length documentary on the Bluefin tuna, to be released by the NFB this coming fall.

Filming the massive tuna, which John describes as “the world’s most evolved fish,” “demanded more than one season,” John says: “Tuna are living animals. They’re here for a few weeks, and then they’re gone.”

The story of these fish, he says, “is a hugely important story internationally. It’s a mystery story in many ways.” First, the mystery of how the tiny community of North Lake, PEI, became “ground zero of the international sushi economy” – a story that required John to fly to Japan, “following the story from the beginnings with the actual guys involved.” The central mystery today: “Why is there a 90% decline in tuna stocks, while people here have never seen so many fish in their whole lives?”  John explored this question with scientists but most importantly with “the people of North Lake telling their own story.”

John says, “It’s an emotional film. I’m sensitive – I look at every image, and I feel it.”

John didn’t even set out with a plan to film thousand-pound fish off North Lake. He also didn’t expect to turn last year’s deluge of snow into an opportunity to take part in his first 3-D shoot, with camera and crew on toboggans and snowshoes for a film production based in snowless Alberta. But that cold adventure contributed to the film, *40 Below and Falling, which earned a major Lumiere Award from the Advanced Imaging Society for achievement in 3D.

A motto John inherited from a mentor is, “You really want to keep on throwing spaghetti at the wall, and eventually one will stick.”

John has been throwing spaghetti for a while. He started with radio documentaries, editing with a razorblade. “I was amazed by the editing process, being creative with space and time,” he recalls.

Later, he went to Carleton University - as a mature student, since he had dropped out of high school in Charlottetown. “I thought I had been accepted to Carleton’s journalism school. I went to register, drove up with all my possessions in a red Bobcat station wagon. There were 600 people in front of me in the line, and when I got to the front, they had lost my name. They said, Listen, go to the end of the line and think about what you want to do.” When he got to the front of the line again, he said, “Put me down for film.”

John remembers, “I did a double major in film and political science. Seeing all those great movies was fantastic, but I’ve always been a hands-on kind of person. It got painful to watch good movies. I really wanted to make them.”

He carried on to Sheridan College, where he was taught by profs from the Escarpment School of filmmakers, “pushing the edges of the media. Your imagination could go in any direction, and they never put the reins on you,” he remembers.

In his third year, the free trade debate was raging in Canada, and John says, “I knew free trade would be a disaster. I had to go out and fight that, even though I was in college.” He connected with political science friends from Carleton and started an anti-free trade documentary. “We got a camera on weekends from a company doing commercials for Consumers Distributing,” he laughs.

When he finished the video, his step-father Reshard Gool had had a stroke. “It was a negative time for the family,” he says. He left school to take the anti-free trade doc on a road show, billeted in city after city by the United Church of Canada. At one stop, in Calgary, he even found himself shaking hands with Brian Mulroney. He leaned in and told the Prime Minister, “I don’t like what you’re doing to Canada.”

John was supposed to be in Thunder Bay when he realized he had to finish film school. He had almost been thrown out in his long absence. Flying back to Sheridan, he though of an idea on the plane: a film about a photographer in a society where time is money. “You get a bill in the mail that deducts 20 minutes of your life,” he says.

He made the film, Portfolio, using film stock he got from film companies he asked for test rolls. The film (“extraordinarily, because it was shot with a bunch of f**ing goofs”) “turned out to be a quite interesting film. I was sleeping in the editing room, I covered myself in outtakes for a blanket. But people seemed to like it. It won the best film award at Sheridan.”

The problem was, “it ended up costing me $8,000 I didn’t have. I used my brother’s credit card. But I gave him an executive producer credit.”

John submitted the film, to the Atlantic Film Festival in 1989 and forgot about it, and one day he got a call from Dave Ward from PEI. “Your film! Your film! It won everything. It cleaned up,” Dave reported. “It beat all the feature films and won the festival, and I thought, ‘Geez, maybe this is my calling.’ I tried to sell it to the CBC to pay my brother back. They bought it and gave me the $8,000 to his great relief.”

But, John says, “When I went to pick up my award at Sheridan, I was so angry about how I was treated when I went back (after the anti-free trade tour), I stood up on the stage in the tuxedo I wore as a flambé waiter (I was also a flambé waiter) and I quit, as a statement against the administration.”

John’s next film Johnston… Johnston was a short starring Lenore Zann and Henry Czerny, which John describes as “Walter Mitty in a time warp in a drama of office politics.”

Actor Lenore Zann signed on first, after reading the script. She said, “I’ll do the movie, but I’m going to be The Boss. I hadn’t written that part for a woman, but it’s great to cast against type...” She suggested Henry Czerny, whose star was on the rise, for the role of “Johnston.” With Lenore, John “drove across the Don Valley Parkway at 11:00 at night. (Henry Czerny) came down in his bathrobe and said he would look at it.”

The advice John got at this stage was, “Don’t jump off a skyscraper with paper wings.” He went out and raised $125K to do the short film, “which was unheard of back then… Because I raised the money, I had a crew of 30, wardrobe, makeup… There were 77 extras on set, everyone asking me what to do next. It was quite a jump in terms of filmmaking experience.”

But then, John says, “When I came back to PEI, I was not sure I wanted to get into drama. I had a documentary background… I decided to pursue documentary.” He left the actors and extras behind in Toronto.

“I never expected to come back to Prince Edward Island,” John says. “I came back because my mother, (visual artist) Hilda Woonough, was sick. She had three bouts of cancer, and her partner had died. I was the only one in the family flexible enough to get back here to stay with her.”

John says, “It was a wonderful chance to get instilled with her visual sense and values.” He adds, “She was a bit of a battler…

“When she passed away,” he continues, “I decided to stay here, to do stories about the Island. I don’t know what it is about this place, if there are chemicals that cause a kind of addiction that people can’t leave here… Every day that I lived in Toronto, I found my heart and mind getting more disconnected from each other.”

John later reflects, “The Bluefin project came out of a documentary on Hilda, called Timepiece. When I came back to help my mom out, it was a great chance to explore the way she thought about things.” The film uses Woolnough’s 2001 exhibition “Timepiece,” John says, “as a hub or portal to explore some of her creative ideas.”

John recalls, “I started shooting video, learning Final Cut Pro. I learned everything on my own here, I mailed away for DVDs and sat out in the country teaching myself stuff.”

Woolnough died before her son completed the film. “I couldn’t touch the film for years,” John admits. “It was a long grieving process, out there in the country by myself. When I could look at the images again, I started working on it and finally came up with something. It’s a film on your mom, right? You’re going to work on it till you get it right!”

By the time he completed Timepiece, John had also spent years and thousands of dollars going all over the world pitching a movie about his cousin Mark Tilden, a roboticist with unusual ideas. John had raised $650,000 for the documentary when the broadcast deal crumbled.

Reeling from that dead-end, John says, “Then I showed my mom’s movie at the Island Media Arts Festival, and the head of English programming from the NFB saw it. She asked ‘What are you doing next?’ I had absolutely nothing, but one thing I had learned is you always tell these people you’ve got something. And I had always wanted to go Bluefin tuna fishing at North Lake...”

John says, “I’m from a family of big fly fishers, and fishing saved me from a bad youth – it was a tough town, growing up here. So I thought at least I’d be able to spend some time on the water with some fish. The producer said, ‘Why don’t you send me a one-sheet?’ You always say, yeah, I’m ready, and then tell them exactly when it’s coming. I said I’d give to them by Tuesday. So I went into writer-bum mode, stopped shaving, and sent it to her by Tuesday.”

After several back and forths showing progressively more interest, and John becoming increasingly invested in the plan for a film about the Bluefin, they had given a green light but were still deliberating funding a month before he was supposed to start shooting, and, finally, “The money decision was made four days before the first shoot.”

At the end of the work, John hopes a big break for him will also be a big break for the Bluefin. “More than anything I’m hoping it’s about time some attention was paid to Bluefin,” he says. “We haven’t really paid attention because we can’t see them, because they’re not mammals or land animals.” He has filmed “a thousand-pound fish backlit at dawn. No one’s ever shot them like that.”

Boots on the ground

Profile: Louise Lalonde

by Jane Ledwell

Louise Lalonde (photo: Buzz)Louise Lalonde says a teacher friend recently observed about her students: “If you speak, they listen”—she shrugs slightly—“but if it’s on a screen, it’s like it has more value.”

That’s important intel for a filmmaker like Louise. But, she says with conviction, “You don’t put anything on a screen without a script.” Later, she comments, “The best part is always the writing. I’ve always loved writing,” and that’s the enthusiasm that led her to start the annual Screenwriters Bootcamp, a free PEI summer screenwriting training program. For the tenth year this year, six high-powered film industry mentors who will work with 25 participants who successfully compete for their places in five workshops. “One thing we can always do here is write,” she says. “L.M. Montgomery proved that! All you need is a pen and some paper and the will.”

At Bootcamp, “There are no workshop fees, and one reason I did that was to remove those barriers,” Louise says. “If artists are broke or are not flush, it doesn’t change the fact that they need mentoring,” she says. “Some people might ask, at this point, can’t you sit at home and train yourself? But that’s not the case, certainly with screenwriting. You have to develop these skills: how to captivate the audience, how to build tension, how character can be perceived—the dialogue has to be realistic…”

Louise laughingly calls filmmaking her “third career.” She had worked in an office, and on Parliament Hill—then after visiting PEI for what was meant to be a vacation took a job at Holland College in a bilingual secretarial program. When the program ended, she stayed. Louise wasn’t looking for a career in film. “I’ve always been a hobby photographer,” she says, “but it always seemed so unattainable to work in film.”

A producer friend was working in Halifax in 1998 and asked for help, and, Louise says, “I just got the bug. It was all so magical… I went to film school in 2001.” That was a wonderful opportunity, but she admits, “I didn’t know at the time how hard it is to break into the industry, and how long it takes. It’s a bit of a young person’s game.”

She has written produced, and directed three completed dramatic short films. She also has lots of writing in English and French that hasn’t been produced.

A fabled cook, Louise modestly says she “has always been involved with food” and is working on an educational documentary on food during wartime. “I didn’t realize what I was starting—that it is really about war and all its atrocities,” she says. “It’s a challenge to detach myself from it.”

She’s all the more grateful, then, for the distraction of another documentary project, “reliving the 1970s” by creating “a time capsule” of her brothers’ world-famous French-Canadian folk-rock band, Garolou. “Because I’m so close to the subject, I have to go back to draw out the questions, so those who weren’t there can know the inside story,” she says, relishing the challenge.

Louise typically works ten-hour days: “One minute writing press releases, the next writing a budget. It’s never boring, but it’s tough.” She smiles, “I spend a lot of time fundraising for other people to have opportunities.” The goal of the Screenwriters Bootcamp is always “seeing films made,” but she adds, “I want to support the individuals involved, like they’re my little ducks. I want to see them fly. The goal is to see people flourish, and to get our stories told.”

Her work has paid off personally in the form of a Wave Award, three years ago, from Women in Film and Television-Atlantic, for (as she describes it) “women who have done things in their careers.” But real rewards of filmmaking, as Louise sees them, are not just individual.

Louise is grateful for provincial support for the Screenwriters Bootcamp and hopes to see government invest in Island media arts more widely: “I certainly hope government sees the value of supporting the arts in general and filmmaking especially,” she says. “There is so much opportunity to grow an industry… There has been success—there can be a lot more.”

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