Theatre B.C. North Shore Zone Festival of Plays, May 8-13 at Presentation House Theatre, 333 Chesterfield Ave., North Vancouver. Windsor Secondary Theatre Company production: Unity (1918) opens the festival on May 8 at 8 p.m. Each evening will feature a different play by member clubs of the zone, which includes groups from Deep Cove to Pemberton, as well as Bowen Island. Reservations and festival schedule: 604-990-3474 or phtheatre.org
The deadliest outbreak of an infectious virus in recorded history and a forgotten chapter in Canada’s past comes to life during Windsor Secondary Theatre Company’s production of Unity (1918).
Longtime Windsor drama teacher Marjorie Dunn chose Kevin Kerr’s play, a Governor General Literary Award winner, as the school’s entry into the 43rd annual Theatre B.C. North Shore Zone Festival of Plays, for a few good reasons.
As it coincides with Canada’s 150th birthday, festival organizers decided to have plays written by Canadian authors only. Unity (1918) also lends itself to an ensemble cast that allows more budding thespians to participate. Windsor's theatre program has more than 100 students participating.
Unity (1918) reads as a simple play, says Dunn, but it’s an enormous undertaking.
“We’ve done our best to do it justice in the short amount of time we’ve had to work on it,” adds Dunn, who is directing the play, which she describes as both beautiful and funny.
One would imagine a simpler time in smalltown Saskatchewan at the turn of the 20th century, when Unity (1918) is set, but in the play it’s pure pandemic and pandemonium.
In the fall after the First World War a fear of the Spanish flu fills the town of Unity. Drastic measures are taken in attempts to prevent the plague from entering.
Although it is uncertain exactly how many people died from the Spanish flu, estimates range from 20- to 50-million people worldwide, with the victims being mainly young adults 20 to 40 years old. More Canadians died from the flu in four weeks than in four years of fighting during the war.
Unity is quarantined, trains are forbidden to stop, no one can enter, and the borders are sealed. Mail from overseas, feared to be carrying the deadly virus, is gathered then burned.
But when the disease descends upon the town, despite their precautions, the citizens turn to each other for support and against each other as they attempt to find a scapegoat for the crisis.
Amidst the chaos and fears of imminent doomsday, a group of young women aren’t about to extinguish their desire for romance. The no kissing or touching order during the plague presents a challenge.
Asked if Unity (1918) is a drama or love story, Dunn says it’s both.
“It’s about what it means to be an ordinary human being in extraordinary times and circumstances,” she explains.
While coffins are piling up in this prairie town, there is comic relief in the play, on the part of two telephone operators, Doris and Rose.
There are also four love stories woven into the script, including this exchange from Beatrice Wilde, who has just turned 21, and a young soldier named Hart.
Hart: “It’s dark down here. Heaven’s much brighter and your eyes get used to it. Angels are a clumsy lot if they end up back here. Lots of accidents. Broken things. People pushed by mistake into the other world.”
Bea: “And are you an angel?”
Hart: “Are you?”
It could be argued that the similar age of the actors and characters in the play allows for some authenticity. But how do you teach high school students to overcome any nervousness with intimate scenes?
“These students are exceptional in their trust and acceptance of one another,” says Dunn. “I learn from them. They teach me.”
Windsor Theatre Company stages a number of productions each year. Each student plays a variety of roles as actor, director and technician. Many graduating students go on to futures in theatre and film.
"One of my favourite things about Windsor’s theatre company is the bond between every person involved. It’s truly something that’s really special to be involved in, as it’s like a second family," says Grade 12 student Julia Murphy, who plays Bea.
Fellow student Ana Mohammadzadeh agrees. "Theatre company has been a key element of my high school experience, allowing me to meet new people, explore my theatre interests and serve as a creative outlet for me," she says. "It has helped me grow as an actor, student, and as a person."
High school productions have been entered into North Shore Zone Festival of Plays since 2005, says festival chair Mike Jarvis.
Presentation House Theatre will play host to a theatrical playoff of sorts in which local acting companies put on their best show during the week-long competition that culminates in the crowning of a North Shore community theatre champion.
“It is a tremendous learning experience for them just being involved, often members from the North Shore clubs will help where needed in their production,” he adds.
Murphy certainly sees the value of being surrounded by by veteran actors.
"I’m incredibly excited to be performing in the North Vancouver Zone Festival," she say. "It’s an opportunity unlike any I’ve had before. One of the best parts of being involved with the festival is the opportunity to meet and learn from veteran actors and actresses in our community. As someone who’s rarely done more than high school theatre, I’m very excited to be able to meet people who have been doing this for quite a while and have a level of wisdom within theatre that is very unique."
The festival is open to any North shore theatrical group and this year includes Deep Cove Stage, North Vancouver Players, SMP Players, Between Shifts from Squamish and the Windsor Theatre Company.
“The participating clubs have been rehearsing their play from four to six months and most will do a run in their theatre in the month preceding the festival, honing their skills and refining their part so they can come to festival showing their best. Therefore the calibre should be as good as it gets in community theatre,” says Jarvis.