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Charlottetown Festival auditions

With a month to go in this season’s festival, Adam Brazier, artistic director of The Charlottetown [ ... ]

WCB recognizes students

The Workers Compensation Board (WCB) recognizes high school students from across PEI who participate [ ... ]

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.”

Community Acts

Profile: Barbara Rhodenizer

by Jane Ledwell

For community theatre stalwart Barbara Rhodenizer, an early stage experience came in Grade Three when her family was living in Ontario, dancing ballet in a perfect tutu and beribboned shoes—“with my ribbons trailing along behind me,” she laughs. She still remembers that she carried on through the performance, ribbons notwithstanding, and was buoyed by praise she received for of continuing through mishap and adversity.

On stage, in theatre, she says, “You never know what’s going to happen, even if you know what’s supposed to happen,” and while she claims not to love improv or freefall, she adores the collective problem-solving and ingenuity of making community theatre. “A production in community theatre begins with a passion to see something done,” she says. “People have no idea of the effort and the will—a play is a testament of will to see these little dreams realized.”

Every role, on the stage or in the wings, is important to realizing the dream. “I’ve had a chance to be involved in most areas of theatre, from front of house to making costumes, to rounding up props, to stage managing—though I don’t have the temperament for that,” she smiles. “As an actor, that experience gives you a better-defined appreciation of what’s going on to make you look the best you can be.”

Barbara says, “For me, theatre is a complement to another life.” She recalls, “Of course, I had stars in my eyes at one time… In my early twenties, I headed to Toronto to see if I could carve a niche for myself in the theatre world. I learned a lot about myself, but I wasn’t prepared properly… I didn’t have a thick enough skin. And I realized I needed a little more stability in my life, a more regular income. So I came home to make a career, marry, have a family…” Even with other commitments, she has become a familiar name on the program of many plays. “Given the size of the Island, it’s amazing how much is done. It’s culturally so vibrant.”

Having participated in both professional and community theatre, and hybrids such as Christmas pantomimes at Confederation Centre, she notes the differences. In a professional theatre, she says, “Things are timed out beautifully, beautifully planned and executed.” There are more specialized tasks, rather than “everyone doing a little of everything.”

“In community theatre,” she says, “everyone has to pitch in. If a scene needs a kitchen table and chairs, you might bring in your kitchen table and chairs.” In a professional production, tasks and timing are so specialized that stakes are higher. “If you are a dresser and twenty people have forty-five seconds for a costume change, you’d better have your act together or someone is going out without pants!”

The mistakes and miscues, though, are part of the fun and challenge. “All kinds of things happen that you hope the audience never clues in to know how unexpected that was…” she says. “If you stay with the character, it will always resolve itself, if you know who you are, if you know what you’re doing, and you know where you’re going.”

And, as an actor, “It’s different every time you step on the stage, a different energy among yourself and the other actors, a different energy from the audience.” But, Barbara says, “The interchange of energy—that’s what makes you do what you do.”

Another theatre role that Barbara loves: “I love that being in the audience, I love that I’m part of it. They’ve reached out and touched me. Sometimes in happy and silly places. Sometimes not so much.”

Barbara doesn’t regret choosing community theatre over professional theatre. “There’s part of me that’s a responsible person who had to manage a household and hold down a job. I needed that to balance out my life,” she says thoughtfully. “But it has brought a lot of joy and satisfaction to my life to be part of theatre, and I hope there will be parts to play in the future.”

The centre of things

Profile: Fraser McCallum

by Jane Ledwell

Fraser McCallum (photo: Buzz)“There’s a real opportunity to be in the centre of things in PEI,” says Fraser McCallum from a perch in the Confederation Centre of the Arts, where he is communications manager. He may not intend the double-meaning of “centre/Centre,” but the musician, actor, and sometimes-stand-up and emcee talks a lot about making a career in the place where he says the “Venn diagram” of communications and music and performance “merges.”

“You have to be open-minded, take different kinds of work, and roll with that… be ready to dive in,” he says seriously. “You can create something tomorrow if you want to.”

Hybrid careers are not news for artists in PEI. “I didn’t know if would stay in Charlottetown,” which he describes as “unlikely” in its mix of arts, culture, and heritage. “I was very excited when I realized I could make a living in Charlottetown, if I was willing to shake the trees and be patient,” he says. “Living here is a constant existential question,” Fraser says, but seven years after returning, he says “it’s becoming more and more doable.”

Fraser reflects, “I’ve just finished the busiest three to four months of my life, as publicist for Evangeline, with a new album to tour with Racoon Bandit, and a role in A Christmas Carol at the Watermark.” He admits, “I do my best work when I have a few irons in the fire… It’s like I have three things on the mantel – and they come to all look like one thing: not hobbies, but a career.

"I’m planning the next cycle and enjoying reflecting on all those pieces,” he says.

Winter is a time of introspection – but not a lot of time – says Fraser. “People often imagine this place (Confederation Centre) is sleepy in January, but it’s really alive every day, every week...

"Summer is really incredible here. It’s all hands on deck,” he says, but “what a fountain of ideas and inspiration. You grow up here and think you have Confederation Centre all figured out,” he gestures to the concourse around him. Fraser’s student summer job was as a roving Victorian Confederation Player, a program that became a Centre program the same year Fraser joined the communications staff. He says it’s amazing “getting inside, seeing what it takes to mount that kind of program.”

He is grateful for a workplace that supports creative endeavours. His band, Racoon Bandit, he says, “is one of the most important things in my life in the past five years.” Their recent album Close Your Eyes “has exceeded our expectations,” he says, launching a successful tour and ending up on a lot of “Best of 2015” lists. The band will showcase at East Coast Music and Music PEI events in 2016 and is already in the studio preparing new songs.

“Our group is always trying to please ourselves and meet our own expectations,” says Fraser. “We’re making gains in web series, TV, and film, and we still love to get a stellar review, but you have to take the small wins in such a swirling industry. The goal is not so much ‘making it big’ as making it sustainable, seeing growth with it, so the songs are getting better, the sound is getting better, the relationships in the band are getting better.”

Fraser says, “Our best stuff has always been the most collaborative,” and collaboration on creative work is what excites him most. “What I think results best at work, too, is when three of us develop something together.”

He muses, “I did stand-up, which is a solo mission—creation, performance, and aftermath are all done alone,” other than the audience. “I commend stand-ups and singer-songwriters who do that. To develop a voice is a lifelong pursuit.”

But Fraser sees collaboration as a necessary avenue to learning and growth. “It’s tricky to learn and to improve outside formal settings,” he says, but working with others “excites me more than saying, ‘Here’s my take on something.’” At the same time he admits, “I’ve probably got a solo album in me somewhere down the road.”

His favourite new collaboration is acting in community theatre, including a leading role in Our Town last year, a role he described as “more like myself—an earnest young chap,” less “big and bombastic” than the personae stand-up comedy expects.

“I learned an incredible amount,” Fraser says. The difference between community theatre and professional theatre he says is “training and intensity, and the technical side and scale,” but, he says, “Even the most last-minute community theatre production is still trying to show truth, to show audiences something they relate to.” He says, “There’s amazing depth of talent and resources in community theatre in PEI. I think this proves how intrinsic theatre and performance are to PEI.”

On the verge of turning thirty, Fraser says, “I thought I would get to this age and find that’s just how things are, you’re as good a writer as you will ever be–but what I find is I’m refining. What I’ve learned is to refine, refine, refine. I feel like I’ll be transitioning forever.”

Refining, for Fraser, means defining the centre of his unlikely, intersecting circles. “The marriage of all those things is what keeps me here,” he says, adding, “It’s what makes this a singular place.” And by “this” he means not only Confederation Centre, but Charlottetown, and PEI—centres within centres.

Writing Outside

Profile: J.J. Steinfeld

by Jane Ledwell

J.J. Steinfeld (photo: Buzz)With the new year 2016 looming, the accomplished Island writer J.J. Steinfeld muses, “If someone gave me a million dollars not to write for a year, I couldn’t in good conscience take it.” In 35 years on PEI, J. J. has published two novels, eleven short story collections, and three poetry collections. More than 40 of his one-act plays and full-length plays have seen the stage. His deftly literary catalogue is touched by his self-described “askew sense of humour and sense of the absurd” and is written under the long shadow of the Holocaust.

“This is a wonderful place to write but a hard place to be a writer,” J.J. admits with his quick, dark humour. One story in his newest collection of short stories, Madhouses in Heaven, Castles in Hell, he calls the “ultimate deconstruction of Anne of Green Gables… When you live here and try to make a life as a writer, L.M. Montgomery hovers, almost as a dark ghost,” He says. “I’ve now spent more of my writing life on PEI than either L.M. Montgomery or Milton Acorn and am still begrudgingly called an ‘Island writer’ because I was not born here.”

He says, “When I moved to PEI, in Charlottetown there were two hospitals, one Catholic and one Protestant.” As an arrivant urban Jew, he gazed wonderingly at new neighbours “who would know what hospital to go to.” He is the admiring and loving partner of dyed-in-the-wool Islander and artist Brenda Whiteway, whose work consistently explores local and rural themes, traditions, and materials. Fascination at belonging and existential certainties sits next door to J.J.’s existential angst. He asks, “What better place to write these existential thoughts than in a place that doesn’t think them?”

J.J. admits, “I’ve felt always like a little outsider, which is good for a creative person, I think. I’m attached to the idea of a literary outsider.”

To J.J. Steinfeld, writing is the desperate existential work of the imagination. An ill-prepared morning-show host who had skimmed his collection Forms of Captivity and Escape once asked, “Why write about someone who hanged himself?” and J.J. responded, “So I don’t have to do it.”

In an irony he appreciates, the writer’s imagination becomes subject to an outside imaginary that is unknowable. “Once you’re done writing, the story is reanimated by the reader – when you read it, it becomes your story. The writer needs readers or viewers or listeners.”

Most of J.J.’s readership is elsewhere, but living on such a small Island, there’s a lot of elsewhere. More than 300 of his stories and 700 of his poems have been published across Canada and in 18 countries, and a collection of essays on his writing is in the works from Guernica Press.

“All my writing is storytelling—even my poems,” he says. “I write stories and eventually put something together—something eclectic, to the consternation of publishers, who like a theme or an arc. This new book (Madhouses in Heaven, Castles in Hell) covers the arc from the absurd to the existential.”

He says, “It’s really scary now… More and more early stuff is being anthologized, and I read it and wonder, can I write that well anymore?” Shrugging, he says, “I’ve become what I always believed I was, as a construct—the angst-ridden, absurdist writer.”

In a conversation that digresses often to quotations and reflections on Isaac Bashevis Singer, Beckett, Camus, Kafka, Leonard Cohen, and Milton Acorn, J.J. says, “I get scared if I’m really working on something that if I read, sometimes my subconscious will absorb it. But it’s so important to read. You’re everything that came before you… even if there are different lineages.

“When I was young I hated to be compared to anyone. An early review asked, ‘Are we producing another Kafka on PEI?’, and I hated that.” Now I love it.”

He says, “All I have to offer to younger writers is experience. There’s no correct path.” Later, J.J. adds, “Everything I write is a footprint.” With diminishing local outlets for publishing, he feels some uncertainty of the prints he leaves on Island soil. He senses the Island is uncertain back. Out of uncertainty comes a distinctive and lasting mark. 

Animal natures

Profile: Orysia Dawydiak

by Jane Ledwell

Orysia Dawydiak (photo: Buzz)“I read pretty widely, but I don’t ever read enough.” Author Orysia Dawydiak expresses the common experience of book-lovers everywhere. She has more time for reading -- and for writing -- these past few years, since retiring from work at the Atlantic Veterinary College to a self-directed farm life surrounded by sheep and dogs. And what applies to Orysia’s reading applies just as well to her writing: “I read to learn about people around the world, to take myself out of the small world I live in in North America and the West,” Orysia says. “I love to put myself in other people’s and critters’ shoes.”

In her books for young people, Kira’s Secret and the recent sequel Kira’s Quest, Orysia explores human psychology but also an undersea world of real and imagined sea life. “When I was a very young child, when I first learned to read, I first started to write to entertain myself,” Orysia says. She started the Kira trilogy inspired by her niece and reconnected with her own inner child, “the girl still in there who loves fantasy and science fiction, underlaid or overlaid – I’m not sure which – with what I know of the world as an adult and my fascination with the attitude we have as humans towards the natural environment and to sea life.”

Orysia says, “My background is in zoology, and I love understanding animals and how they cope in the world, how we’re different and how we’re the same… I also hope kids enjoy reading it without feeling they are being ‘educated.’”

Orysia’s first published book, House of Bears, was written for adults and explores in fictional form her family’s Ukrainian heritage and a story of “immigrant parents struggling for survival.” She says, “House of Bears was a project I was compelled to do since I was a young adult… I was trying to understand my mother, so I dug into her life experiences and psychology, for myself to make sense of my family history, and especially of war.”

She recalls, “I learned about war trauma at my grandmother’s knee. When I was just three or four, she described experiences from World War II that I never should have heard. I have pictures in my brain I will never be able to erase. She had shrapnel in her leg from English bombs falling on the German farm where she was working as slave labour… Trauma goes on through the generations.”

Other projects Orysia is working on include a final book in the Kira trilogy, set five years later than the first two books. She also has completed a book for young readers about a Dutch girl and her dog on a PEI dairy farm. Rika’s Shepherd has “no vampires and no zombies, but there’s trauma,” she says. “No fantasy – except ghosts, and that’s not fantasy. That’s part of who we are,” she smiles. “A lot is from my experience with dogs and life and death.”

She is also writing a memoir, but not of her own life – instead, it is the life of a beloved dog, Akkush, who “started life in Turkey and ended his life with us.” Orysia found herself “taking down notes for him since he couldn’t write it down.” Writing Akkush’s memoir helps Orysia to remember events in her own life, she says. And accessing memories is something she does not take for granted since her father’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s.

“Animals may not have the complexity that sometimes I think burdens us,” she says. “Living with them and near them taught me more empathy than I had before. I understood things about myself – sometimes things I didn’t like… But we made it up and moved on. Animals are very forgiving.”

Orysia has also pursued visual art, but, she says, “There is only so much time, and writing is what gives me the most joy. It is what really feeds my soul – and it doesn’t matter what I write, but it’s double the fun when I write something people really enjoy.

“I need to feel inspired to write something,” Orysia says, adding, “I don’t want it to feel like homework.” She is encouraged by her writing group, the “WWW” – initials which, she says, “can mean a lot of things.” She has met with these fellow women writers for over ten years now. “We all know that we’re there for each other, for just the reaffirmation that what we’re all doing is worthwhile, that it’s okay to take the time away from the nitty-gritties of life… They’re like sisters. I never had sisters, but I chose them.”

Orysia says, “I’m easily distracted by the voice that says, or my mother who says, ‘Why do you bother doing that?’ … But I’ll fight it right to the end. There’s always something that slows us down, that takes us away from what nourishes and feeds us,” Orysia says.

Over Christmas, her reading and writing will overlap as she enjoys the new anthology of Christmas stories, Snow Softly Falling, which includes a story from her and many other stories she has yet to read. “I think it’s going to be a fantastic book for the season,” she says. “It will be sitting by my bed.”

Events Calendar

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Some Upcoming Events

Trailside Café 2018

Select dates
Trailside Café  Tomato/Tomato | September 21 Hang onto your hats because th [ ... ]

The Song and the Sorrow

Mille Clarke’s film of Catherine MacLellan and her father Gene at Charlottetown Film Festival Oct [ ... ]

Jimmy Rankin shows

November 22 at Trailside Café
November 23 at Harbourfront Theatre Jimmy Rankin's new Moving East (o [ ... ]

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Drawing the line

Profile: Sandy Carruthers by Jane Ledwell Retired for a year now after twenty-five years teaching  [ ... ]

Filmworks Summerside

Film series is back for 7th season Filmworks Summerside opens for their 7th season on September 12  [ ... ]

An Island wish

On August 23, 4 year old Cooper Coughlin will arrive on Prince Edward Island soil for a once in a li [ ... ]