by Jane Ledwell
Rebecca Parent smooths her dress before sitting, a ritual she’s getting accustomed to. She is 15 days into “150 Days of Dresses,” which Rebecca and her creative co-conspirator Laurie Campbell have undertaken to promote What to Wear to the Birth of a Nation. They are co-creating, co-writing, co-producing, co-directing, and co-starring in this sesquicentennial two-woman show for the Watermark Theatre, to bring to life the stories of women on the outskirts (pardon the pun) of the Charlottetown Conference.
“We realized that February 1 to June 30 is 150 days,”—and it is of course 150 years since the Charlottetown Conference. “We wanted to be in cahoots with the women we’re talking about. So we’re wearing dresses or skirts—no pants—for 150 days. Those days that we have to wear pants, to shovel snow or do other tasks, we’re accepting donations from people across Canada who send in a photo and ‘have a dress day’ for us.”
The actors’ undertakings these days require more than one purpose: their creative time is full. Wearing dresses doubles as research and marketing. “We have to delve into the lives of women in Charlottetown at the time of the Charlottetown Conference, who were greatly affecting the men who were attending the conference—or not. We want to get into the headspace of the women.”
Their experience of dresses “obviously is not the same as for 1864 women. The idea is that I’m restricted in what I can wear, and I have to prepare accordingly,” Rebecca says primly. Wearing the research is meaningful because “it’s not easy to find social commentary by women in 1864,” Rebecca says.
The work of an writer, actor, and director overlap in identifying telling details: “When you’re acting…a lot has to do with story and character, and knowing where you are moving and why you are moving there. As writers, knowing the logistics of acting allows ourselves to help ourselves,” Rebecca says. “Knowing your own strengths, and those of your partner, you can create something you know is going to be strong. You can create work for yourself—and make it a success by playing to your strengths.”
Rebecca developed her strengths through formal training and professional acting, including lead roles in Anne and Gilbert and, transformatively, in the “technically demanding” role of Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion at the Watermark. “As a child, I was always a dramatic sort,” Rebecca admits. “I got into singing and I loved that. But while I love to sing, my heart is in the straight theatre. When I’m singing I’m too hung up on the fact I’m ‘Rebecca.’ When I’m acting, it’s like an extension of myself, without even thinking about it.”
This busy 2014 year, “I’m doing the gamut of the professional arts things,” Rebecca says with delight. In her first time directing, she is working on a production of The Hobbit with a cast of four-dozen youth and adults in the Star of the Sea Dramatic Society at the Watermark Theatre in North Rustico. “I’m loving working in a community I’ve been working in for four years as an actor in a different capacity,” she says. “Directing community theatre you must be a jack-of-all-trades,” and Rebecca is involving community in all aspects of the play, down to a paper drive for material for sets. In March, she will be the technical support for her boyfriend’s one-person play, Pourquoi pas? on an Atlantic tour.
“When it rains it pours,” Rebecca laughs. “So 2014 is great, but 2013 was a hard go.” Before receiving the Sesquicentennial Arts Commission for What to Wear from the PEI Council of the Arts, Rebecca confesses, “I was one car-sale away from moving to Toronto.”
Still, Rebecca says, “I want to work in Toronto, just to be in the city and see what other opportunities are there. But I’ve never been one to think I have to follow my track [and not be diverted]. I’ve kind of never said no. Whatever is thrown at me, I’ll say yes. There no rush for me to get there. I’m happy to be here in PEI, working in the Maritimes.” If it never rains but it pours, Rebecca is ready to get her skirts wet and her dress muddy.